Since it was first published in Brazil in 1988, The Alchemist has reportedly been translated into 63 different languages and is fast becoming a modern classic. It is a simplistically told tale: Paulo Coelho has said that ‘the most fundamental teachings of life’ are ‘to be found in the simplest of things.’ Yet it is a story that holds up a mirror to anyone who has ever had a dream. Anna Hassapi writes in her review, " The Alchemist is a novel that may appeal to everybody, because we can all identify with Santiago: all of us have dreams, and are dying for somebody to tell us that they may come true". I would suggest that it offers more: in its relatively few pages, The Alchemist restores faith in our innate ability to realize our greatest potential. Coelho’s wisdom, bolstered by the ancient concept of alchemy, voices a truth that resonates on the level of the soul.
One of the things that became clear to me in my latest reading of the book was just how many great authors, playwrights, philosophers and artists have incorporated the teachings and symbols of alchemy into their works. William Blake, Carl Jung and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe are just a few of the names connected with the ideas raised in the text. Coelho even refers to William Blake’s understanding of God as an all-present divinity in the interview included in the 2006 edition: "This is our perception of the world, but God is as William Blake said – in a grain of sand and in a flower. This energy is everywhere". Yet, as interesting as these avenues of intellectual investigation are, they are not the heart of Coelho’s message. What the author seeks to convey through this tale is the idea that these students of alchemy achieved their artistic and creative aspirations through living and experiencing the alchemic process of personal evolution. They are each examples of the spiritual initiate who has achieved his or her greatest dreams through sheer pursuit .
Santiago’s journey through the desert is highly symbolic of the path that must be taken by the spiritual initiate, and the challenges and fears that they must face along the way. Indeed, the boy’s wanderings "through the desert for forty days" mimic the biblical experience of Christ. But it is nature rather than religion that Coelho highlights as key to a true understanding of life and the role that each of us plays within it: "I love empty spaces," he confesses, "like the steppes, the sea and the deserts, where you get totally minimalist and every detail is enhanced. Deserts fascinate me...". It is these "empty spaces" that offer man a mirror to contemplate his true nature, as opposed to religions which "all point to the same thing" and often impose "too many rules" between "the light and us". And, just as Narcissus returns the lake’s reflection, which in turn transforms itself to salt water, man affords nature the opportunity to evolve through his own evolution. In this way, therefore, the "as above, so below" principle of Hermes Trismegistus - believed by many to be the first teacher of alchemy - is upheld.
It is ultimately through nature and his own experiences that Santiago comes to learn the "Language of the World" and eventually to recognize the treasure that was with him from the very beginning of his quest. It is not an original concept, but that doesn't make it any less resonant. The Alchemist is simplistic - some say too simplistic. A cynical reader might label it trite or irrelevant to our complex modern lives. Yet for millions it has been a remarkably powerful piece of writing: a parable, a guide to life, or just a joyful tale. Approach it with an open mind and a generous heart, and it will lift you, for a short while, into a different world.
Independent on Sunday: "One of the few to deserve the term Publishing Phenomenon"
The Times: "His books have had a life-enchanting effect on millions of people."
Daily Express: "Coelho's writing is beautifully poetic but his message is what counts! he gives me hope and puts a smile on my face."
Publishers Weekly: "The story has the comic charm, dramatic tension and psychological intensity of a fairy tale, but it's full of specific wisdom as well, about becoming self-empowered, overcoming depression, and believing in dreams."
Kirkus Reviews: "A message clings like ivy to every encounter; everyone, but everyone, has to put in their two cents' worth... The absence of characterization and overall blandness suggest authorship by a committee of self-improvement pundits"
San Francisco Chronicle: "A magical little volume"