I usually do not do book reviews because I am not intelligent enough and not well-read enough to comment in public about some dozens of years of a writer’s life empathising how hard it could be to write a book but having read ‘The Alchemist’ by Paulo Coelho, I could not stop myself from commenting on its overhyped publicity.
The book being recommended to me by so many people, I found it hard to not read and that is why when I spent 300 rupees of my father’s hard earned money, 160 pages of strain on my eyes and a time period of nearly over two days, I’m disappointed on an epic scale. The book not just failed to live up to the expectations, the book makes one question why should there be so many expectations from this book? Living in an era when the commercial avenues of English literature in India are mostly dominated by overhyped bankers becoming writers and later, dance show judges, the taste of the average ‘voracious’ Indian reader was delightfully known; but this book first published in 1988, translated into over 60 languages and selling more than 65 million copies makes one question the taste of the average ‘voracious’ international reader just like the election of Trump challenged the sanity of the American voters.
You might belittle me by saying that I am exaggerating but as the reality stands, ‘The Alchemist’ is nothing but the exaggeration of a clichéd, self-assuring, narcissistic and delusional idea and though these adjectives might self-explain its popularity, bear with me as I simplify the overly simplistic book’s plot. “The basic premise is that a young boy from Andalusia, Spain isn’t fulfilling his destiny by being a humble shepherd of sheep. He is having recurrent dreams of finding treasure at the Pyramids in Egypt which he conveniently ignores till, thankfully, a king wearing a gold breastplate intervenes and tells him to believe in it. Suddenly, in an optimistic haze, the boy decides to sell his sheep and travel to Tangier, where he is robbed but because the universe had conspired so, he earns his money back because he has the talent for selling crystal! With this money, he starts his travels again and then falls instantly in love with a “woman of the desert” in an oasis in the middle of the desert where he meets the famous alchemist who refuses to teach him how to change lead into gold, but keeps on insisting that the boy listen to his heart! He keeps on listening and at last, he finds it!” Basically, Harper Collins (Yes, THE Harper Collins is the present publisher) is selling the book on the premise of a philosophy that they believe that Coelho has craft fully veiled through his words while in reality, the philosophy is ogling at you in a very ugly fashion.
It is clear that this book is no work of literary genius and certainly should not be classified as an adventure(?) novel as it is now. It is at best, at best, a poorly written motivational book. This book works for the same reason that horoscopes work and the reason behind it is a theory of psychology known as the Barnum Effect. In layman terms, the theory states that if you make something vague and profound enough, everyone will see themselves reflected in it. If you want to test it for yourself just read a horoscope that doesn’t belong to your star sign and see if it still applies to your life and I promise you that it will. An article from Psychology Today explains why the Barnum Effect is so seductive:
“The second reason people fall for the Barnum effect applies more to predictions about the future, the ones we find in fortune cookies and horoscopes. These provide a comforting, if not always reassuring, sense of control over the unknown. In our constant struggle to see into the unknown, these vapid pronouncements give us a handle with which we can open the door. No matter that it’s not going to be a very clear view, nor that if we were keeping records, we’d realize that these prognostications were completely off-base. (emphasis added)”
This is the reason why the standalone quotes, no matter how sexist or irrational, from the book have a cult following but when placed in context to the plot and how the plot is expressed, the quotes too lose their pretentious tone of Sufism and all of their reverence. Barnum Effect is the reason why one would find Madonna and Will Smith endorsing the book on the back cover and not a literary figure because the celebrities feel that ‘The Alchemist’ justifies their fame and that they were destined to be wealthy and famous and hence, they are inclined to like it. Everyone else might like this pretentious ‘novel’ because it reassures them that in the end, young school children are not slaughtered in the name of the Messiah and old Alzheimer affected parents are not disbanded by their well-earning children. The book reassures the fantasy of the ones who like it that every misfortune that happens to them, though arising out of their own real incompetencies, poor decision-making, the lack of the ability to accept criticism and also the lack of the ability to self-evolve, is but a minor bump in their road to their ultimate destinies in which they will only sit on the throne and no less. It’s an ideology I could not fathom in a book that’s considered by the majority as a life-changing book and hence, though respecting their beliefs and not curtailing their right to attempt to popularise the same in any media available to them, this review that I’ve written is what I believe and hence exercising my right to attempt to popularise the same, here I share the same. A little read reader vows to never pick up another Coelho book in the near future.
1. For further reading one could have a look at this article from which a few cues are taken and and thus, due credit is given https://literaryvittles.wordpress.com/2014/09/17/is-this-a-joke-paulo-coelhos-the-alchemist/
2. For further reading on the Barnum Effect, here’s the link:
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© A. D. Konwar | nailapost.wordpress.com | 2016