In which Netty meets an alchemist and, nine years later, finally gets around to reading The Alchemist …

March 10, 2013

ImageIn early 2004 my ex and I went to the States for the SXSW music festival. We flew into California and had about a fortnight before we were due to fly out to Austin, so we decided to do a meandering drive up Pacific Highway 1 and give ourselves a couple of days to return to LA via the interstates.

On the return leg we stopped for the night in a small town called Redding, chosen because it was getting late and we had to stop somewhere. After dinner we went to a bar where we got talking to a couple of guys and a chick. While the chick spent most of the time trying to crack on to my ex, I talked in particular and at length to one of the guys, James. James was a pot-smoking painter who paid the bills by waiting tables; he claimed to be illiterate but said he could do his job because he had memorised the menu. While my ex got drunk and tried to fend off the aforementioned chick, James raced back to his to get some samples of his work. Long story short – my ex woke up the next day with a hangover and I woke up with several small, abstract squares of James’ oil on canvas for which I paid $US60 (“You’re getting a bargain,” he told me). When I got home I had three of them framed; they hang on my loungeroom wall to this day.

What has all this got to do with Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist, you might be wondering (if indeed you’ve gotten this far, having thought you may have stumbled into the wrong blog). Well, James also mentioned that his favourite book of all time was … you guessed it. He said he would have people – mostly girls, I’m surmising – read it to him. It’s a mere 163 pages long, so I guess that is conceivable as well as achievable.

So I picked up a copy of the book – on April 6 that year, from a bookstore that no longer exists, according to the receipt I found tucked away inside its pages when I went to revisit it almost a decade later. That it sat on my bookshelf for so long may have something to do with reading another Coelho book – The Zahir – the following year, and finding it such a stultifyingly, ego-laden pile of drivel that I was loath to seek out his earlier and most famous work.

Coelho has an interesting enough back story. Born in Brazil in 1947, he harboured ambitions of becoming a writer from a very young age; his parents responded by having him committed to a mental institution when he was 16. He dropped out of law school in the late 1960s and hit the drug-laden American/European hippie trail. After returning to his birthplace he pursued a career as a lyricist, but never abandoned his dream of writing books. After several initial endeavours, he finally hit paydirt with The Alchemist, published in Portuguese in 1988 and as an English-language version in 1993. It has since sold 65 million copies and been translated into 71 languages.  

Of course, just because something is popular doesn’t mean it’s any good. And based on my previous – and admittedly, sole – experience of Coehlo’s work, I approached The Alchemist with a great deal of trepidation indeed. My copy is the 10th anniversary edition with a forward by the author and multitudes of platitudes from critics and famous fans (hello, Madonna!) alike. It’s been compared to De Saint Exupery’s The Little Prince and Gibran’s The Prophet (the former of which I read at about 10 and the latter at about 20) – and certainly if you like those books, along with Carlos Castanada, M. Scott Peck, the Illuminati and Dr Phil, then this is probably right up your alley, too.

If I was being kind, I would say that The Alchemist is a parable, a fable, a rich meditation on the importance of staying true to one’s lifelong spiritual quest. If I was being mean, I would say that it is a predictable mish-mash of quasi-mystical mumbo-jumbo and Oprah-style self-help maxims. In truth it’s probably somewhere in between, this tale of the young Andalusian shepherd Santiago and his life-changing journey from his native Spain to northern Africa. Along the way he encounters a gypsy who foretells his fortune and treasure; the unlikely “King of Salem”, Melchizadek, who teaches him about his Personal Legend (capitals are the author’s), encourages him to follow it and bestows upon him two stones for his journey; and finally the Alchemist of the novel’s title, his physical and spiritual guide who takes him from an oasis in the desert to the Pyramids of Egypt. Oh, and in between there’s weighty concepts such as the Soul of the World, the Universal Language and the Master Work – not to mention the Emerald Tablet, the Philosopher’s Stone (so that’s where J.K. Rowling got it from!) and the Elixir of Life – to navigate and negotiate …

Look, if you’re into this sort of thing, then you’ll probably adore The Alchemist – and good luck to you. It’s no more or less real than religion in all its myriad forms. And who’s to say what’s right or what’s wrong. At the end of the day, it’s whatever floats your boat. For me, I didn’t love it, I didn’t hate it; it made me roll my eyes a lot, very occasionally it made me take pause – and then, right at the very end, it made me laugh out loud. Which ultimately, I suppose, made it worth the couple of hours that it took to read.

As for James, well, who knows? I’d like to think he made a real fist of his art – he was certainly talented enough to have done so – and is not still bunkered down in Redding, waiting tables, reciting a menu learned by rote, getting wasted and drifting off to the sound of a female voice wading through the pages of The Alchemist.


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