Although it was first published in 1988 and has become one of the best-selling novels of all time, I only recently learned of The Alchemist, written by Brazilian author Paulo Coelho. This 174-page allegorical story of an Andalusian shepherd, who follows a dream in search of a treasure, can be read in just a few hours.
The protagonist of the novel, Santiago, is described as a “shepherd boy,” although his exact age is never revealed. Nor is the time setting of the story, so it is up to the reader to imagine these details. Santiago is seemingly well-educated, having gone to school to study toward the priesthood as per his parents’ urging. However, he longs to travel and determines that the best career path for him to pursue is that of a shepherd, which affords him the opportunity to roam the countryside.
Early in the story, Santiago consults with a gypsy mystic regarding a recurring dream he has had which he believes may be prophetic. He is somewhat skeptical of her interpretation: he must travel to Egypt in search of a lost treasure. Shortly thereafter, Santiago encounters another interesting character, who introduces himself as Melchizedek, the King of Salem. Following their conversations, Santiago begins a spiritual journey to follow what he believes to be his destiny.
I would classify this allegorical, adventurous and inspirational story in the realm of young adult fiction, because at the core level its message is easy to comprehend. Each of us has a personal legend to live out, something that grows in us from a very early age, yet very few of us will actually seek to live out our destinies. Despite hurdles that we may encounter along the way, if we are meant to achieve this legend, the universe will work in our favor to help us achieve it. However, we must learn how to detect omens that the universe places in our way.
At a deeper level, there is much spiritual symbolism throughout the book to keep the adult reader and perpetual philosopher happy. For starters, Melchizedek, High Priest and King of Salem, blesses Abram in Genesis 14 and requests a tithe from Abram in return, similar to how in The Alchemist Melchizedek requests from Santiago one-tenth of his flock of sheep. God and universal direction are also recurring themes throughout the story, so this likely would not be a good book for atheists. There are also similarities between Santiago’s story and that of Joseph in the Book of Genesis, and I am sure there are a host of other religious parallels that I missed on my first reading.
Reading The Alchemist was timely for me as well, as I am currently pondering a major career decision (more on this next week). I am now also curious to check out more of Coelho’s books, especially his memoir The Pilgrimage, about his journey along the Camino de Santiago in northern Spain.