Reading Response: The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

I love to read, particularly poetry and nonfiction. I haven’t been really into fiction since finishing my first graduate degree, though I do still read it on occasion. I try to keep a diverse reading list, and try new things. In 2011, I set myself the intention of reading one yoga-specific book a month between February and December (January was reserved for finishing books I started in 2011). In addition, I’m immersed in Hafiz’s poetry this year. And finally, I’m also interested in exploring recommendations from other writers and yoga teachers.

I also had intended to write blog posts about my yoga and yoga-adjacent reading, but as you can see, I’m a bit behind on that!

Well, this week I’m finally diving into reading responses, starting with The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho.

Credit: HarperCollins Publishers

Credit: HarperCollins Publishers

I’ve been familiar with The Alchemist for at least 10 years; it was a mainstay at the independent bookstore where I used to work. But I never got around to reading it until Danni Pomplun announced he was making it part of the Yogi Misfit Sessions book club. While I unfortunately won’t be able to make the live discussion, I decided to read it anyway, as I’ve been curious about it for a long time. Danni is not the only yoga teacher I’ve known who loves this book.

After reading it, I can definitely understand the appeal. I can understand why the book was a huge success in 1988 (when it was first published), and again after each subsequent translation (it first appeared in English in 1994). The Alchemist is a novel concerning the wanderings of a young man named Santiago, and his quest for self-realization. The journey starts in Spain, in Andalusia, and ends all the way in Egypt. Along the way, Santiago makes mistakes and experiences serious loss, but also learns to read omens, and stays committed to his Personal Legend (the book’s term for one’s dharma).

While I understand the appeal of this novel, I have to say that it didn’t resonate with me. There are a few reasons:

  1. My extensive studies in literature mean that this particular narrative isn’t new to me;

  2. I’ve come of age in an era of self-help and inspirational books, and thus the allegory here feels stale;

  3. As a feminist, I’m bothered by the portrayal of women in this book

I’ll break things down point by point.

First, I will say that this is a beautifully written and beautifully translated book. In terms of the craft of writing and the craft of translation, it’s excellent. While I respect the craft, though, the story felt stale to me. But I have a B.A. in English Literature, an M.A. in English Literature, and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing. I have spent 13 years of my life immersed in the study of literature and writing. And that means reading a lot of novels. Even though my M.F.A. was in poetry, I still had to undertake extensive coursework on prose narratives. I have read a lot of stories about young men on personal quests for realization. The Alchemist is the perfect embodiment of Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey. Honestly, I have to admire Coelho for what a spot-on job he did of hitting all the points of this trope. As someone who has read a lot of novels in her life, though, I’ve seen the Hero’s Journey dozens of times. Too many times. I’ve read of enough Hero’s Journeys to easily recognize the trope, and not find it particularly engaging. That’s no fault of the book. I’ve just seen this type of story too often to really respond to The Alchemist. Especially because, through my formal education studying canonical literature, so much of my reading focused on men. I honestly don’t need another story about a man on quest in my life.

As for point 2, The Alchemist is fundamentally concerned with realizing one’s Personal Legend, which in yoga would be dharma, or life’s purpose. Self-help books have existed for a long time. In fact, I’ve heard many teachers talk about how Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras constitute the first self-help book. Still, the self-help genre has primarily been nonfiction, and I can see how a novel directly invoking self-help rhetoric and encouraging people to find their purpose was probably quite inspiring and interesting at the time. But now I live in a world where there seems to be more self-help writing than ever, and quite honestly, the yoga world is definitely quick to espouse and promote much of it. So none of the underlying philosophy of The Alchemist seems like something new. I really have heard it all before… probably because so many teachers I’ve worked with have read this book! I’ve gotten the message of it so many times that the original text unfortunately falls flat. Honestly, I think if I read this 20 years ago ,I’d have loved it. I’ve just learned enough in the last 20 years that The Alchemist isn’t teaching me anything new.

Which brings me, finally, to the treatment of women. In The Alchemist, women do not go on adventures. They’re poor fortune tellers. They’re shopkeeper’s daughters. Or they’re women of the desert who stay home waiting for their beloved men to return from the adventures they absolutely must go on in order to realize their Personal Legends. The most developed woman in the novel, Fatima, repeatedly espouses that because she is a Woman of the Desert, she is happy to stay behind while Santiago goes off to discover himself.

I’m a desert woman, and I’m proud of that. I want my husband to wander as free as the wind that shapes the dunes. And, if I have to, I will accept the fact that he has become a part of the clouds, and the animals, and the water of the desert. (102)

I’m not opposed to Santiago, or any other man, wandering free. What I’m quite frankly pissed about is a novel in which men get to do this while women stay behind, and while women are all portrayed as being proud to stay behind. As I mentioned above, I didn’t really need another novel about a young man trying to find himself. I definitely did not need a novel in which women proclaim that it is their mission in life to stay behind and wait. This part of the book honestly made me angry, and even though I finished this last week, I am still angry!

I can see why this book is beloved. Most of the reasons I don’t like it have to do with things independent of the book itself. That being said, I’ll be looking forward to the Yogi Misfits discussion, and I really hope that someone brings up the gender issue.