In the fall, when the “Book Fair” arrives (though it increasingly feels more like a fair and less about books), as it does every year, our beloved Paulo Coelho prepares a new book for us. In his latest work, he’s tackled Mata Hari. However, his previous book, “Manuscript Found in Accra,” left me somewhere between neutral and slightly disappointed. As saying goes, “once bitten by a snake, one is scared even of a piece of string,” so I didn’t rush to buy it immediately (which isn’t very wise of me since I know I’ll eventually give in). That’s why it occurred to me to, after 15 years, re-read the legendary “The Alchemist.”
When I first read “The Alchemist” as a young boy, I thought it was a rather interesting book, with the whole “When you want something, the whole Universe conspires to help you achieve it.” However, even then, I felt there was something… unusual about this book. I couldn’t pinpoint what it was, but it was there. You might say something like, “Of course, this book sends powerful messages about finding happiness in life” or similar. I agree, but that’s not what I was referring to.
Fifteen years later, upon a second reading, I grasped what that “unusual” thing was. It gave me answers and enlightened me. I realized the essence of life and the universe. I dressed up like Mahatma Gandhi and set out barefoot to spread the message to the world. Of course, none of this happened; otherwise, I’d be writing this from the psychiatric hospital rather than from a rather intriguing café (more on that another time, I promise). 😁
The peculiarity I felt when I first read “The Alchemist” began to show signs of its nature. But first, let’s turn to the book itself.
The boy was named (all together now like a choir) Santiago. Our young hero always felt that the “answer” was in the pilgrimage. So, he became a shepherd and began to wander around Spain. On his journeys, he was accompanied by his sheep (which always reminds me of one old Serbian song), a bottle of wine, and, in the absence of Facebook, a regular book.
Now, I’ll be a bit more serious and approach the book with genuine intent.
A year later, Santiago returns to a town to sell his wool again (and get an even thicker book and replenish his wine stock). However, more importantly than the wool, in that town, there’s the beautiful daughter of a merchant (Santiago is, after all, a shepherd, not a monk sworn to celibacy). He met her a year ago, spoke a few words with her, and developed a slight crush, hoping she would remember him. Given the time period the story is set in, this can be attributed to his naive romantic nature. Otherwise, in the 21st century, he’d probably be considered a stalker. 🤣
However, Santiago’s life takes an unexpected turn when he visits an old woman to interpret a recurring dream about hidden treasure beneath the Egyptian pyramids. But this old woman wasn’t your typical Gypsy charlatan; she didn’t ask for money upfront but only once Santiago found the treasure he was dreaming about. The day becomes even stranger when Santiago later meets an old man who introduces himself as the king of Salem and offers, in exchange for a tenth of his flock, to teach him how to reach the concealed treasure. Naturally, Santiago thinks perhaps an entire Gypsy family is trying to swindle him… until he catches a glint on the old man’s chest, definitely not a cheap trinket bought at a flea market, convincing the boy that maybe a higher power is at play.
And that higher power might be the reason why he did board a ship for Africa…
Let me pause here and point out a detail that made me reflect (which I’ll share with you, assuming most of you have read the book). It’s about the boy’s frustration upon meeting the old man – the king of Salem. Although this is apparent in just two short paragraphs, it reveals a powerful message for people: how we become frustrated when our comfort zone and security are “threatened”. The old man, with the best intentions, offered the boy an opportunity to dare to change his life. How often do we get an opportunity that could transform our life, provided we muster the courage to take the step? The English language has a beautiful and potent phrase for it – “leap of faith”.
Santiago dared to take that leap.
What makes “The Alchemist” so special is its universal message that the Universe has something planned for each of us, and that what’s currently happening in our life isn’t the Universe’s final intent. We should always strive to find the good in everything. Santiago is a prime example of this! Shortly after arriving in Africa, he gets robbed. Alone, penniless in an unfamiliar world. Just when he decided to cry in the town square, he realized that the real challenge for him had just begun. Of course, he had a desire to reach the treasure and the pyramids. But what he truly wanted was to explore new worlds! So he decided to try something different since he was already in a new world. This led him to meet the Crystal Merchant and start working in his shop, saving up money to get back on his feet, perhaps buy more sheep, earn even more, and then return as a successful man to Spain.
Santiago endeavored to introduce small innovations into the store, which the Merchant would reluctantly accept, though they eventually increased his wealth significantly. Through their conversations, I realized the Crystal Merchant is a metaphor for many people around us (perhaps even some of us) who are so accustomed to their lifestyle that they don’t want changes or to pursue their dreams, fearing disappointment, or believing that achieving their goal might render their life meaningless. They choose to dream of their goal and think “what if,” rather than daring to achieve it. I found myself deeply reflecting on this.
In the meantime, our Santiago became wealthy and decided to head back to Spain with his bag of money, like a returning migrant worker… until a tiny detail reminded him of his Personal Legend, which was still patiently waiting for him near the pyramids. Santiago dared once more, venturing across the desert. Again, he was ready to risk his comfort and safety to pursue and discover his Personal Legend. What did this bring him? Perils, fears, dilemmas, close encounters with death. But do you know what he found? True, perfect love, embodied in a girl – the “woman of the desert” – who knows she has to let her warrior fulfill his mission so he can return to her, happy and fulfilled.
And guess who he met on this journey? The titular character of the book! The great Alchemist, who guided the boy towards the Pyramids, teaching him essential life lessons along the way, including the importance of truly listening to one’s heart. That deep sense of knowing something without the influence of thoughts or desires. For where our heart lies, there lies our treasure – such a beautiful thought.
The scene where the boy had to transform into the wind to save himself from certain death particularly resonated with me. It was an indicator of genuine faith. Faith in oneself and a higher power, believing they will both come to our aid at the right moment.
The conclusion (you can probably guess its nature) also hides an intriguing message about how we often search for treasures that are right under our noses.
So, what made me revisit this book? It’s hard to describe. I believe the answers will gradually reveal themselves throughout my life. But maybe I can try to summarize a bit.
We genuinely cannot foresee what Life has planned for us. We often think our destiny is a monotonous life filled with suffering and failure. Consequently, we shy away from challenges, trying to shield ourselves, living vacuous [empty] lives, hesitating in the face of challenges, seeking pseudo-security in mediocrity. Was this why we were given the chance to be born? Hey! Do we realize the odds of being alive in this world?
I completely forgot about a statistical fact that (again) shook me when I reread it.
To win the lottery, the odds are one in 15 million… you’d need quite some luck for that, right?
But, the odds of being born are one in 400 TRILLION! Talk about luck! You’re CHOSEN! “Chosen One”, “The One”, “The Legend”… are we aware of this?
I’m not sure what the Personal Legend might be. Perhaps it’s a mystical thing the Universe will either reveal or not, independent of our will. Or maybe the Personal Legend is something we can discover ourselves when we sincerely look within and genuinely ask: “What do I truly desire from this life, and how will I achieve it?”
Today, I don’t have a question for you. But you can ask yourself one.
Am I living my Personal Legend?
…and if the answer is no, then pose a follow-up question.
What do I truly desire from this life, and how will I achieve it?
(Originally reviewed: 21/10/2017)