BTRIPP (btripp) wrote,

Talking to the wind ...

As I mentioned in a review a while back, I picked up a couple of Paulo Coelho's books as part of an offer … and I'd, frankly, never heard of him or his books prior to that. I have since found that bazillions of people have read The Alchemist and there is a large population of people who think this is metaphysical gold.

I can see now why Brendon Burchard is such a big fan, as his book certainly is patterned on a similar idea … contrived set pieces that are crafted to impart a particular bit of “wisdom” without, well, directly communicating it.

I must admit, I have never been the sort who gets much out of this type of thing … just as I'd rather read Ouspensky's In Search of the Miraculous than Gurdjieff's Beezelbub's Tales, these “teaching stories” almost always (well, perhaps with the exception of Shah's various Nasrudin collections) leave me wondering why I and the author bothered to have that particular dance … and I've come to understand that I just don't process symbolic stuff the way it's evidently intended to be taken.

Now, I try very hard to not go digging through other people's reviews before I write mine, but there were so many 1-star reviews on Amazon (not in relation to 5-star reviews, of which there are 8x as many) that I had to peek. I'm not as cynical about this as many of those commentators were, and I don't mind characters being “the this” or “the that”, but this is more Johnathan Livingston Seagull than Flatland.

Of course, not being much of a fiction consumer, I'm faced with the quandary of just how much one should give away of the plot, characters, etc. … there are folks over on the boards who are rabid in their hatred of “spoilers”, to the extent that I wonder how fiction gets reviewed at all. The broad strokes, however, is that there is a shepherd in Spain, a former seminary student (so he's literate and reasonably educated) who has a series of encounters with various people who impart to him certain information or happenings … all of which lead him further on in his search for a treasure that he saw in a dream. He ends up selling his flock, crossing to North Africa, getting sidetracked there for a while, going on a journey with a caravan (his vision was to take him to the Pyramids in Egypt), and meeting the titular (although not particularly central) character.

I found very little to bookmark in this, but there was one section that stood out … probably because it is as close to a direct philosophic statement as is in the book:
      He still had some doubts about the decision he had made. But he was able to understand one thing: making a decision was only the beginning of things. When someone makes a decision, he is really diving into a strong current that will carry him to places he had never dreamed of when he first made the decision.
Throughout the story, the concept of “The Soul of the World” keeps coming up, along with one's "Personal Legend" … but everything is vague, hazy, and round-about, and pieced out in dribs and drabs in the various scenes. Another element that bothered me was that there were all sorts of “loose ends” that were never dealt with … but, again, I'm hesitant to spell out details that others might consider “ruining the story for them” … certainly the penultimate twist to the story needs to go unsaid.

The Alchemist was a pleasant enough read, and it flowed well enough that it didn't become bogged down at any point … it's really not “my kind of thing” in general, but it also wasn't embarrassing or aggravating in its metaphysics, even if the ultimate “meaning” was vague. As these sorts of books go, this was a decent experience, and as “cardboard cutout” as most of the characters are, the writing was at least somewhat more expressive than (to pick a particularly egregious example) the “Celestine” books. Of course, if you're a fan of “teaching stories” or metaphorical fiction, or things along those lines, you're likely to find this charming, or possibly even inspiring (somebody came by as I was writing tonight and was all effusive on how much they'd liked the book … as the late Johnny Carson put it: “It takes all types to fill the freeway!”, I guess).

As one might expect, given its cult-like following, this is unlikely to go out of print any time soon, and it's available in various editions. The one I have is being offered by the on-line guys at 40% off and used copies of previous editions/translations (oh, yeah – the original is in Portuguese, as Coelho is from Brazil) can be obtained for a couple of bucks. You won't be missing much not reading it, but there are a lot of folks out there who think it's great.

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Tags: book review

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