Monday, November 26, 2012

The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

The Alchemist
by Paulo Coelho, translated by Alan R.Clarke
read by Jeremy Irons
HarperAudio, 2000
4 discs (unabridged)

I am not sure I'm going to endear myself to people when I discuss this book. There are a lot of people who are very fond of it. I am not sure I am a fan. This book is pushy.

We read this for my adventurous genre book club. It was picked by the staff member who was covering my leave -- the second book she picked that I probably would not have (the first was horror by Stephen King, which despite my admiration for the man I just could. not. do.) And I'm really glad she was doing the picking, because I am not sure I ever would have gotten around to reading this if she hadn't, and it was a good choice, I think. Incidentally, the Stephen King was a great pick, too -- the group really enjoyed it, and we had an awesome discussion despite my wimpiness. I expect my group will have fun with this one too, but for different reasons.

On the surface, this is the story of Santiago (who is only given a name once, and thereafter referred to as "the boy"), a shepherd in Andalusia who has a recurring dream about treasure near the Pyramids. He drops everything and heads off to search for it, discovering that this search for treasure is his Personal Legend, meeting some interesting characters along the way, and learning rather a lot about life, the universe, and everything in the process.

And on the surface, I should love this. I love fantasies, I love fairytales, I'm a fan of a good quest story. But overall the effect is pretty meh. It's not the fault of the audiobook; good old Jeremy Irons does his best. It's not the fault of the simplicity of the tale, which I rather liked. It's not even the fault of the religious overtones (er, "overtones" is maybe an understatement). It's the fault of the author, who wouldn't get subtlety if it jumped up and bit him (subtly or otherwise). It's the fault of the Personal Legend and the fact that we are beaten about the head with the Message that if we are working towards our Personal Legend, all the universe will conspire to help us. And fine, agree with the Message or not, but please cease beating me with it. I get it.

What I want out of a book like this is a good story, even if it is bare-bones-simple as this one, and it doesn't have to be realistic. So I got that, and for that reason I managed to listen to the audiobook the whole way through without chucking it out the car window. The characters, even if they are just sketched in, are likable and/or interesting enough. They're a bit fairy-tale, in that they're mostly ciphers with a specific purpose in the story, but that has never stopped me. My imagination is well up to the task of filling in, in this particular kind of situation, and I actually quite liked Santiago, or who I imagined Santiago to be.

I am not against allegorical fiction. If there is a message, I am okay with that, if it is done properly. Properly means it doesn't take centre stage so often as to throw me out of the story and contemplation of what other things I might find inside. Properly means that the message is incorporated into the story in such a way that it feels comfortable and natural, an outgrowth of the story as opposed to ... whatever we got here. Here, the Message was brought up so often that it felt like neon signs were flashing: "Get it? Get it? There is a design! You only have to live your best life, follow your dreams, and good things will happen! See? See? Even if it's not easy, follow your dreams and good things will happen! YES? Get it? PERSONAL LEGEND! MAKTUB! ALSO LOVE! Do you see it?"

Which... yeesh. I don't like my fiction yelling at me. I don't find it inspiring at all.

I'm glad I listened to the audiobook, although maybe in the end that was a mistake too, because I do find that anything that recurs noticeably in a written text is magnified in an audiobook. But it was an easy listen, where I might have gotten frustrated with the read. Maybe I am too jaded at this time in my life, but I did a lot of eye-rolling and muttering, and while I was never fully irritated I did start to get there at points. Maybe that's a comment on me, and maybe I should be sad about that. On the other hand, I've read books with the same themes and the same message that didn't inspire the words "Oh, come on, really with this again?" repeatedly.

I wanted to like this book. There are things about it that are quite endearing, and I can see why it's managed to remain so popular. But it wasn't the right book for me.


Ana S. said...

" It's the fault of the author, who wouldn't get subtlety if it jumped up and bit him (subtly or otherwise)."

Ha, yes. This is the main reason why I can't get along with his books. They beat you unconscious with The Message, and just for good measure they punch you in the face with it one last time when you come to :P I agree, allegory can work if it feels organic to the story, but sadly that's never the case with Coelho.

Unknown said...

It's interesting to me, though, how many people really love this book, and I'll be curious to see what my book club thinks of it next week as none of them could remember having read it in the past. It must really speak to some people in a way that doesn't make them feel preached at or hounded. I am just not used to that in my reading choices. I had always kind of wanted to read and like Coelho, so I'm rather sorry to find it so mediocre.

Jill said...

It's interesting that your thoughts on this one are the very reason I never did pick this one up in the first place! I've heard good things about it, too, but for some reason I had the impression that it was too message-y - and I see I was right! I'm glad I gave it a pass. There's too much authentic fantasy out there that I'd rather try to get to. Sorry it didn't work for you.

Unknown said...

Oh, precisely, Darla. This reads like fantasy for people who don't want to admit to reading fantasy, frankly. It's not even the sort of thing that might encourage people to try more fantasy. I am not wild about these sorts of reads, especially when there's so much else out there to enjoy.