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Sunday, June 13, 2010

The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

The Alchemist is another book with an odd trajectory in my life. I picked it up years ago, I think in college, in Spanish (I don't know why -- was I in a Spanish-speaking country at the time?). It languished in my bookshelves, and then it disappeared. I heard about it again a couple of years ago, and bought a new copy (English this time), then I heard it was all new-agey and self-helpy, so I regretted the purchase. Then I heard it was a fictional tale, so finally a few weeks ago I decided to read it, thinking I could ignore the new-agey aspects. Unfortunately, that wasn't actually possible; the book was littered with self-help anvils.

This book was clearly not meant for me. I'm generally leery of spiritual self-help; with the vast majority of books that I read, more than anything else I want to be entertained -- I want a good story. This book had the potential for that, because it is a bildungsroman, a time-honored style that can produce exciting adventures. The Alchemist tells the story of Santiago, a Spanish shepherd who travels to the Egyptian pyramids in search of treasure, and discovers the meaning of his life (his "personal legend") in the process. Coelho, however, makes the actual plot very thin, focusing heavily on the message he is trying to send -- the only path to true happiness and fulfillment is to follow one's personal legend, no matter what; "[t]o realize one's destiny is a person's only real obligation."

The problem is that I found this message to be not only heavy-handed but vague and simplistic. Coelho reiterates throughout the book the importance of fulfilling one's destiny, without thinking through this completely. I'm sure Coelho, faced with a man who claimed his personal legend was to kill as many people as possible, would argue that he was horribly misguided about his destiny, but the blanket admonitions to follow one's destiny no matter what appear to lead to the conclusion that anything is ok as long as it is in fulfillment of one's personal legend -- classic moral relativism. It may be my lawyerly background, but I want precise, detailed statements expressing finished thoughts when writing about something as significant as the meaning of life.

Nor is any real thought given to the real world consequences of following one's personal legend. Coelho spends a lot of time on the story of a baker who long ago rejected his destiny to travel the world in order to open a bakery. Much is made of the fact that the man is unhappy (though he does not know it), and will never be fulfilled, and that moreover he is ignorant of the fact that at any time he could just leave his store and follow his destiny. But this baker, presumably, has a family to support and employees and customers who count on him. Dropping everything to travel might satisfy his personal legend, but more likely than not it would leave many people in the lurch. The fact is, people in the real world have responsibilities and obligations that may prevent them from following a dream; I do not think it is a character flaw to defer or even drop a dream in order to fulfill those responsibilities. (Coelho recognizes that there is a cost to following a personal legend, but only as to oneself -- he does not discuss the cost to others.) Moreover, most people are not lucky and privileged enough to be able follow a dream in the first place, even if they had no responsibilities keeping them. Life is messy and complicated, and criticizing people for coping with that life rather than finding their destiny seems rather arrogant. (In a particularly galling statement, Coelho writes that "[m]ost people see the world as a threatening place, and, because they do, the world turns out, indeed, to be a threatening place." Well of course, wars and crimes and genocides and natural disasters only happen because of a lack of positive thinking!)

The most frustrating part of the book, however, was the portrayal of female characters. This is a flaw that is unfortunately common with many male writers, who either can't or won't write a decent female character but insist on inserting them as love objects. And I mean each word of that phrase -- the women are only there to be loved by the protagonists, and they function as little more than objects. Fatima is no exception. Santiago meets her in the desert, and immediately (I mean immediately) falls in love. What do we learn about her? She is young and female and beautiful (of course; funny how rarely protagonists fall in love with plain women). That's it. We learn absolutely nothing else about her, her personality, her background, her goals, her personal legend, nothing (neither does Santiago -- all he does is talk about himself, and all she does is listen). She is a complete cipher whose only purpose is to give Santiago something to come home to, meaning her only role is to wait -- something she explicitly states, as she explains that all she ever wanted to do was to wait for a man to come home to her (yes, really). This book is primarily about Santiago, so I don't necessarily expect her to become a protagonist in her own right, but that is not an excuse for Coelho to make her such an empty vessel. Why include her at all, then, if he will not bother to explain what makes her special, why Santiago wants to come home to her? We are told over and over he loves her, but why? "Because the entire universe conspired to help [him] find [her]." And she loves him because, well, Coelho says so. Fatima could easily have been fleshed out, given something to do (even if something irrelevant to the events of the book, taking place "off-stage"), but instead she literally does nothing but wait. This book takes place in the Middle Ages, in Spain and the Arabic world, so I would not expect her to pick up a scimitar and ride off into the sunrise with Santiago, helping him find the treasure with the ancient Egyptian knowledge she learned at the knee of her scholarly widowed father, but she could have been given something other than a name and dark eyes. No matter how circumscribed a woman's life may be, she still has a personality, hopes, dreams, opinions, thoughts. Why can't we see some hint of that?

The only other two women to appear in the book fair just as badly. The merchant's daughter (she doesn't get a name) is the first woman Santiago loved. But again, his only apparent interest in her is that she can listen to his stories; he even points out with pleasure her illiteracy, so he can impress her with his knowledge. The Gypsy woman (she doesn't get a name either) is corrupt and venal and stupid, convincing Santiago to give her ten percent of his treasure in exchange for interpreting his dream. Her interpretation? That his dream about finding a treasure in the pyramids of Egypt means he should go to the pyramids of Egypt and look for treasure. Neither of their personal legends is mentioned, and in fact those personal legends that are the purpose of the world and the central thesis of the book apparently only apply to men.

The Alchemist is a fable, and one does not expect strong characterizations in a fable. To a certain extent the people in them are archetypes, and they and the plot serve as vehicles to deliver the point of the story. However, there needs to be some characterization, particularly in a novela-length fable, if the reader is to become engaged. And there is, in Santiago and the Alchemist and King Melchizedek and the other male characters of the book. That makes Coelho's neglect of the female characters inexcusable.

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