The Alchemist, by Paulo Coelho (HarperCollins, 2012 but first published in 1988)
Now that May is here, it’s finally starting to look like summer in Edinburgh. The sun is shining, there’s pink and white cherry blossom everywhere, and the temperature is climbing to a balmy twelve Celsius. For me though, this is always exam weather (remember those far off days?): a time of cramming, biting fingernails to the quick and wishing beyond hope for freedom to enjoy the beauty all around… instead of silent halls and furious scribbling against the clock.
My worst subject was always French, and never more so than when we were introduced to that confounded character ‘The Little Prince’ by Saint-Exupery. It was bad enough trying to translate French at the best of times – but when the plot involves a spaceboy from a volcano-pocked asteroid who meets an airman and a fox in the middle of the Sahara… well, suffice to say it all got rather lost in translation with me I’m afraid. Sadly, The Little Prince and I never became great friends, and I never got to the bottom of his story; however I understood one thing about it: it was an allegory, a story that was simple enough in its way but hinted at the deeper truths of life, love and the universe.
Reading the Alchemist, I was immediately reminded of it: it too is a short and simple story, about an Andalusian shepherd boy who sets out on a life changing journey to Egypt. He believes he will find treasure at the Pyramids, but his journey becomes a spiritual one across the Sahara as he encounters first a fortune teller, then a chrystal merchant, an Englishman, a beautiful girl… and finally the Alchemist. It’s a beautiful story about ‘the essential wisdom of listening to our heart and, above all, following our dreams’ – and for all my cynicism I think the book did that very well. In some ways, though, the book is an anti-climax after the powerful note by the author Paulo Coelho at the front of this new edition, where in 3 pages he sums up the philosophy of his life which underpins this story. He poses the question: what is a personal calling? The answer: it is God’s blessing, it is the path that God chose for you here on Earth.
“Whenever we do something that fills us with enthusiasm, we are following our legend. However we don’t all have the courage to confront our own dream. Why?”
There are four reasons he says: firstly, we are told from childhood that everything we want to do is impossible. Soon, faced with the reality of the world, we learn to bury our dreams, though they are still there. If we can overcome that barrier however, the next one, he explains, is love. We fear to hurt those around us by abandoning everything in pursuit of our dreams. But love is not a barrier, he says, because those who love us will understand and encourage us to succeed. The third barrier is fear: fear of the defeats we will face if we go after what it is we really want to achieve in life; but, he writes, the secret of life is to fall over seven times and get up eight times.
And the final barrier? Well, if you abandon everything in pursuit of your dream and conquer your fear of defeat, the final challenge is the fear and guilt of actually achieving what it was that you set out to achieve in the first place. Do I deserve this, when so many others have tried and failed? But push on through this, he says, and your dreams will become reality.
It’s one of the most powerful and inspirational things I’ve ever read, and not something I expected to find at all when I picked it up in a 3 for 2 deal in Blackwells. How does Paulo Coelho know all this though, I hear you ask? Well, for a man whose first print run of the Alchemist was 900 copies, after which the Brazilian publisher decided it wasn’t worth the candle,… he must take a certain satisfaction from the fact that it has now sold over 65 million copies worldwide. A number of film producers have offered the Earth for the film rights from him, but he refuses every time; and really cool people like Madonna, Julia Roberts and Will Smith say it’s one of their favourite books ever.
This novel is a fable about following your dream: so forget self-help books and pick up a copy, …but probably best to hang on to the day job meantime!