Monday, 1 August 2016

The Alchemist

I first knew about this book from Amy Cheung's (张小娴) novel 《情人无泪》.

It mentioned a powerful quote in Chinese and I quote it here:


When you want something, all the universe conspires  to help you achieve it.

I have read The Secret so this statement is a strong reminder of the law of attraction.

Instead of using the book's directly translated title 《炼金术士》,  Cheung calls it by the other name《牧羊少年奇幻之旅》. It made the book sound magical. 

However, it took me a long time before I decided to pick this book up to read because it sounded like a thick book, which anyone would suspect since it was read by a prolific writer.  I haven't had time for thick Chinese books so all the more, the idea of reading a thick English book put me off.

But being on no-pay leave gives me a lot of time to do what I have always wanted, such as doing parent-volunteer work and reading. So I was at a public library last Saturday when I re-read one of Cheung's novels and came across this quote again. The male and female protagonists boasted to each other about how young they were when they read The Alchemist, 11 being the younger of the ages. I thought it should not be too challenging a read if an eleven-year-old Hong Konger could read it, even if she is a fictional, gifted character.

The book proved to be quite a rather spiritual read. It has an innocuous beginning about a shepherd boy Santiago who had a recurrent dream in which he was transported to the Egyptian Pyramids and decided to travel there after an old gypsy interpreted his dream and told him that he would find a treasure there that would make him a rich man. 

The book delves into the supernatural at different points, which I am not sure whether they should be classified under 'occult' or simply 'fantasy'. Since I don't believe in man being able to communicate with the desert, wind and sun, or being able to turn himself into a destructive wind for an army, and I do not wish to take everything too seriously, I would classify it under 'fantasy'.

It has some elements of witchcraft or sorcery I thought, with the reference to the Philosopher's Stone in which a small sliver of the stone can transform lead into gold and the shepherd boy having the ability to see into the future, albeit for once. Again, I take it as 'fantasy' but I must admit the frequency of the supernatural talks is somewhat disturbing. Perhaps it disrupts the equilibrium in-built in me since I learnt about the dangers of occult activities as young as 14. 

All these supernatural talks about Soul of the World, following your heart aside, I think there are some arresting segments that capture the very element of human nature:

The crystal merchant who did not want to realise his dream of pilgrimage to Mecca even though he became rich enough to "Because it's the thought of Mecca that keeps me alive. ... I'm afraid that if my dream is realized, I'll have no reason to go on living."

"I just want to dream about Mecca. I'd already imagined a thousand times crossing the desert, arriving at the Plaza of the Sacred Stone ... But I'm afraid that it would all be a disappointment, so I prefer just to dream about it."

He also turned down the shepherd boy's proposal of expanding his crystal business at first because "you are forcing me to look at wealth and at horizons I have never known. Now that I have seen them, and now that I see how immense my possibilities are, I'm going to feel worse than I did before you arrived. Because I know the things I should be able to accomplish, and I don't want to so."

The crystal merchant is a representation of most of the people in the world. We are afraid to take the first step to realise our dream because we are afraid that we would be disappointed. We are also afraid to step out of our comfort zone and attempt challenging circumstances. I see myself in what he says and identify with him in so many ways.

I also like the many worthy quotes in the book:

There is only one thing that makes a dream impossible to achieve: the fear of failure.

Life is the moment we're living right now.

No matter how many detours and adjustments it made, the caravan moved toward the same compass point. Once obstacles were overcome, it returned to its course, sighting on a star that indicated the location of the oasis.

I think what's intriguing about the book is that the writer himself went through the uncanny process of following his Personal Legend and persisted in having this book published by another publisher when the original decided to cut losses by cancelling their contract after seeing pathetic sales of not more than three books within a year. The book was subsequently read and raved by famous celebrities, Madonna and Will Smith, and everybody was suddenly talking about it. It became a huge success unforeseen by Coelho himself.

It is not a difficult read and I finished it within half a day interrupted by different activities. 

Wow, I just realised I typed a thesis about the book when it's meant to be a short review! Perhaps it's the magical power of the book at work:

When you want something, all the universe conspires  to help you achieve it.

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