Monday, January 21, 2013

Book Review: The Alchemist

The Alchemist, by Paul Coelho, gets a lot of great reviews.  Let me warn you now: this will not be one of them.

Upon reflection, I've realized that a lot of the people who suggested this book to me personally also, by happenstance, tend to be people who describe themselves as "spiritual but not religious".  And that explains a lot.  Because I like these people, I really do, we can talk about all kinds of things.  But I tend to think of the difference between "spiritual" and "religious" in those cases as being "I want to acknowledge the numinous/ethereal/sacred without having to deal with the messiness of mixing in relationships with other humans with it" and "I may or may not find the numinous/ethereal/sacred in my relationships with other people, but I certainly value having the reality check they provide when exploring that aspect of the universe."  This book has a lot of issues that may have been fixed had the author had a community to hold him accountable.

People who avoid the reality checks provided by relationships with other people that involve acknowledging the sacred, are not people from whom I should be accepting reading suggestions for allegorical fables that lift characters and plot elements from the Bible and A 1001 Nights, while advocating a mix of Gnosticism and Manichaeism that would make Martin Luther tear out his hair and St. Augustine want to set things on fire.  Not that that would take much.

Gnostics believe you can be saved by having "secret knowledge" (from the Greek gnosis, to know), it's the sort of thing secret societies tend to go for.  In this case, the main character is given the knowledge of how to focus properly on what he wants fairly early on in the book, and uses that knowledge to advance himself.  Manichaeists believe that in the universal battle between good and evil, what is numinous/ethereal/sacred is good, and what is material is bad.  That is, thought/prayer/austerity is good, and anything having to do with taking care of your body or enjoying the world is bad.  The main character ends up with quite the ego after a bit, and a certain disdain for people who don't have the secret knowledge, and therefore still have to worry about material things like putting food on the table, and this leads to a certain amount of Manichaeism as the book goes on.

The general gist of the book, as far as I can make out, is that good things will happen to you and you will advance as long as you know what your goal is and focus exclusively on it.  And by "happen to you", I mean fall into your lap for no apparent reason.  The main character wandered around a lot in the desert with a variety of people, including some clearly lifted from the Bible, and a bunch of stuff happened to him, just like that.  I realize that the book was originally written in Portuguese, and I certainly hope that there were some translation issues- I read Doctor Zhivago once, a not-great English translation, and whole speeches fell very flat in ways that resemble parts of this book.
Also, there's the treatment of Muslims and the entire continent of Africa as being helplessly exotic and less than real. Along with the bonus sexism of men having dreams of travel & adventure, but women only dream of falling in love & waiting for their man.  (That bit was especially thoroughly spelled out.  I would have thrown the book across the room if I hadn't been reading it on my Kindle.  A problem I did not see coming with ebooks.)  This was written in 1988.  And it's still touted as insightful and wise?  I had hoped we'd gotten a little better at this by now.  Shelve this with The Secret, please, and keep it far away from me.

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