The Alchemist (novel)
1st English edition cover
|Original title||O Alquimista|
|Genre(s)||Quest, Adventure, Drama, Fantasy|
|Publisher||HarperTorch (Eng. trans)|
|Media type||Print (hardback, paperback and iTunes)|
|Pages||163 pp (first English edition, hardcover)|
|ISBN||ISBN 0062502174 (first English edition, hardcover)|
|Preceded by||The Pilgrimage (1987)|
|Followed by||Brida (1990)|
The Alchemist is a novel by Paulo Coelho first published in 1988. Originally written in Portuguese, it has been translated into 67 languages as of 2009. An allegorical novel, The Alchemist follows a young Andalusian shepherd named Santiago in his journey to Egypt, after having a recurring dream of finding treasure there.
The book has gone on to becoming an international bestseller. According to AFP, it has sold more than 65 million copies in more than 150 countries, becoming one of the best-selling books in history. But according to the publisher HarperCollins, at the time of that paperback publication, all of Coelho’s many books had sold 65 million copies total; according to the author’s web site, twenty-one million copies of The Alchemist have been sold.
The Alchemist follows the journey of an Andalusian shepherd boy named Santiago. Santiago, believing a recurring dream to be prophetic, decides to travel to a gypsy in a nearby town to discover its meaning. She tells him that there is a treasure in the Pyramids in Egypt. As he leaves, the gypsy mentions one thing: If he does find the treasure, she wants 10 percent of it.
Early into his journey, he meets an old king, Melchizedek, who tells him to sell his sheep to travel to Egypt, and his Personal Legend: what he always wanted to accomplish in his life. And that “When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.” This is the core philosophy and motto of the book.
Along the way, he encounters love, danger, opportunity, disaster and learns a lot about himself and the ways of the world. During his travels, he meets a beautiful Arabian woman named Fatima who explains to him that if he follows his heart, he shall find what it is he seeks.
Santiago then encounters a lone alchemist who tells about personal legends. He says that people only want to find the treasure of their personal legends but not the personal legend itself. He feels unsure about himself as he listens to the alchemist’s teachings. The alchemist states “Those who don’t understand their personal legends will fail to comprehend its teachings.” It also states that treasure is more worthy than gold.
Santiago is the protagonist of The Alchemist. Born in a small town in Andalusia, Santiago attends the seminary as a boy but longs to travel the world. He finally gets the courage to ask his father’s permission to become a shepherd so that he can travel the fields of Andalusia. One day, he meets a mysterious man in the town of Tarifa, who sends him on a journey to the other side of Africa. Santiago is a curious boy whose open mind makes him particularly suited to finding his Personal Legend. He also values his freedom very highly, which is why he became a shepherd and why he is reticent to get involved in things which threaten his freedom. In the end, he realizes that playing it safe is often more threatening to his freedom than taking a risk.
Melchizedek is the king of Salem, a mysterious far-off land. Melchizedek appears to Santiago in the town square of Tarifa, where he tells Santiago about the Soul of the World and his Personal Legend for the first time. Melchizedek always appears to people who are trying to live their Personal Legend, even if they don’t know it. While he appears at first to be dressed in common Arab dress, at one point he pulls aside his cloak to reveal a gold breastplate encrusted with precious stones. He also gives Santiago the magical stones Urim and Thummim.
Santiago meets the Englishman on the caravan to Al-Fayoum. The Englishman is trying to become a great alchemist and is traveling to Al-Fayoum to study with a famous alchemist who is rumored to be over 200 years old and to have the ability to turn any metal into gold. Santiago learns much about alchemy from the Englishman, who lends Santiago his books while they travel across the Sahara.
A beautiful girl who lives at the Al-Fayoum oasis. Santiago falls in love with her at the well there. He and Fatima talk everyday for several weeks, and finally he asks her to marry him. Fatima, however, insists that he seek out his Personal Legend before they marry. This perplexes Santiago, but the Alchemist teaches him that true love never gets in the way of fulfilling one’s dreams. If it does, then it is not true love.
Very powerful alchemist who lives at the Al-Fayoum oasis in Egypt. Initially, Santiago hears about him through the Englishman, but eventually Santiago reveals himself to be the Alchemist’s true disciple. The Alchemist dresses in all black and uses a falcon to hunt for game. The Alchemist is also in possession of the Elixir of Life and the Philosopher’s Stone.
Gives Santiago a job in Tangiers after he has been robbed. Santiago takes the job at the crystal shop and learns much about the shopkeeper’s attitude toward life and the importance of dreaming. The shopkeeper, while generally afraid to take risks, is a very kind man and understands Santiago’s quest – sometimes more than Santiago himself. This is the case when the shopkeeper tells Santiago that he will not return to Spain, since it is not his fate.
Coelho wrote The Alchemist in only two weeks in 1987. This pace Coelho has explained was because the story was “already written in [his] soul”.
 Personal Legend
The Alchemist was first released by an obscure Brazilian publishing house. Albeit having sold “well”, the publisher to the book told Coelho that it was never going to sell, and that “he could make more money in the stock exchange”.
Needing to “heal” himself from this setback, Coelho set out to leave Rio de Janeiro with his wife and spent 40 days in the Mojave Desert. Returning from the excursion, Coelho decided he had to keep on struggling. For Coelho, he was “so convinced it was a great book that [he] started knocking on doors”.
According to The New York Times, The Alchemist has been translated into 67 distinct different languages. This gave Coelho the position as the world’s most translated living author, according to the 2009 Guinness World Records.
 File sharing
Paulo Coelho is a strong advocate of spreading his books through peer-to-peer file sharing networks. He put his own books on file-sharing networks like BitTorrent, and noted that The Alchemist received a boost in sales due to this. He stated that “I do think that when a reader has the possibility to read some chapters, he or she can always decide to buy the book later.” Currently, chapters from The Alchemist can be found on Google Books and Coelho’s agency Sant Jordi Associados. Entire copies of his books, including translations, can also be found on Pirate Coelho, a blog off Coelho’s main blog.
The Advertiser, an Australian newspaper, published one of the first reviews of The Alchemist in 1993, saying: “of books that I can recommend with the unshakable confidence of having read them and been entranced, impressed, entertained or moved, the universal gift is perhaps a limpid little fable called The Alchemist… In hauntingly spare prose, translated from the Brazilian original in Portuguese, it follows a young Andalusian shepherd into the desert on his quest for a dream and the fulfillment of his destiny.” Since then, the novel has received much praise, making it to the top spot on best-seller lists in 74 countries and winning prestigious awards in Germany and Italy. It has been called a “charming story”, “a brilliant, simple narrative” and “a wonderful tale, a metaphor of life”, from people in places as diverse as South Africa, Finland and Turkey. It has been praised by public figures like Will Smith and Jorge Garcia. Arash Hejazi, the Iranian publisher of Paulo Coelho, believes that The Alchemist is exceptional on several counts: he notes that the book has had a “longer than expected life-cycle… It was not supported by high marketing budgets in the first few years after its publication. It was not written in French or Spanish. It did not enjoy a film tie-in and was not recommended by positive reviews and the media, but it is still selling, only relying on the word of mouth as its main marketing tool.”
One of the chief complaints lodged against the book is that the story, praised for its fable-like simplicity, actually is a fable–-a retelling of “The Ruined Man who Became Rich Again through a Dream” (Tale 14 from the collection One Thousand and One Nights. Coelho, however, does not credit this source text anywhere in the book or in the preface, passing the story as an original work of fiction. Also the life story of Takkeci Ibrahim Aga who is believed to live in Istanbul during 1500s, has the same plot. So too does the English folk tale, the Pedlar of Swaffham. Despite its international acceptance by critics, this book didn’t enjoy the same reception in Brazil. It is believed that translators have improved the text, correcting the linguistic flaws of the original.
The novel was not an instant bestseller. Published by a small publishing house, The Alchemist, like its predecessor, The Pilgrimage, sold “slowly” in Brazil. Its commercial success took off in France when it became an “unexpected” bestseller early in the 1990s.
The Alchemist has sold 65 million copies worldwide. As of the week ending February 5, 2012, the novel reached its 212th week on The New York Times‘ bestseller list. Its paperback edition remains a fixture on bookstores.