Recently the Nobel Peace Prize winner, Malala, was interviewed by the New York Times and asked to name her favourite author. Her answer? Paulo Coelho. When asked the name of the last truly great book she had read, Malala said, ‘The Alchemist’. She went on to explain that she liked The Alchemist because ‘it is hopeful and inspiring. It tells the story of a boy who embarks on a journey to find a treasure, but as he goes along, he learns from every part of his journey and every person he meets. In the end, he finds his treasure in a very interesting place. His story tells you that you should believe in yourself and continue your journey.’
Paulo Coelho receives a lot of flak, despite, or perhaps because of, the popular success of his books. It’s fashionable to despise both the author and his writing, and an astonishing number of those who do, have not actually read any of his work. Perhaps it is because despite its beauty, Coelho’s writing is not always perceived as ‘literary’, in the sense that many of his stories are told in an allegorical manner. More likely it is because his work is defined as New Age, a term that has been used and misused so often it has become a cliché. Over time the spirit of scientific rationalism has permeated all of society and in the process has defined what is orthodox and what is heretical. Now it has become fashionable to sneer at what is immeasurable or illogical, to dismiss it as New Age, light weight, wacky. . . and in so doing we disregard its potential to provide us with another kind of knowledge. As Coelho wrote in The Alchemist, ‘When you possess great treasures within you, and try to tell others of them, seldom are you believed.’
Despite the persistent sneering, The Alchemist is loved by many. It has been translated into
61 languages and sold over 35 million copies in the twenty six years since it was first published. These sales were not the product of a massive publicity campaign but rather built slowly through word of mouth until the book took on a force of its own. This is a book that changes lives. A book that inspired one reader, Monica R Antunes, to devote her life to promoting Coelho’s writing, and many years later she is still his sole agent.
We are told from childhood onward that everything we want to do is impossible. We grow up with this idea, and as the years accumulate, so too do the layers of prejudice, fear and guilt. There comes a time when our personal calling is so deeply buried in our soul as to be invisible. But it’s still there. The Alchemist
The Alchemist is a story that can be read again and again, a compulsory story I believe, for all of us, and in particular for young adults facing the shift from childhood to adulthood and beginning to seek their path in life. It is an antidote to the increasingly factory-like nature of educational institutions which are processing our colourful and innocent children into black and white graduates who have lost much of their curiousity and enthusiasm for life’s potential. The Alchemist challenges us to take back control of our lives and to seek our own treasure, for as Coelho writes, ‘where your treasure is, there also will be your heart.’
I don’t pretend to understand everything within The Alchemist, for I sense that it is a book of many layers and each of us has access only to those layers that are visible within the limitations of our perceptions. Like all teaching stories, The Alchemist is designed to have an impact on its audience – perhaps we are moved by its beauty or moved to angry resistance by its message. However, like all impacts, it is not always clear at the time what the repercussions will be. Perhaps it will enable us in some way to decondition ourselves, to see life more clearly, to change our relationship to our destiny in some way or to clear the negative patterns within us that hold us in their prison. Perhaps there is an ‘ah ha’ moment, a shift in our perception or an uncomfortable new awareness. Or perhaps its allegorical beauty simply inspires joy within us. Whatever the case, over the years I have seen my own children read this book and instinctively respond with delight to its message. I too have read it on more than one occasion and each time it has helped me find the courage to keep seeking my own treasure.
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