Universal Truths: A Book Review of Paulo Cohelo’s “The Alchemist”

“Life really is generous to those who pursue their destiny…” The Alchemist, p. 176

It’s one of the oldest stories ever told. A boy must embark on a journey full of danger and mystery. Along the way, he learns about the world and himself, and if he is very fortunate he gets a girl and a treasure to boot.

Paulo Coehlo’s The Alchemist is a classic hero’s quest in which the protagonist, an Anatolian shepherd in this case, checks all of the boxes on his epic adventure to find his destiny. The fact that Coehlo relies heavily on gender and ethnic stereotypes to tell the boy’s tale speaks to the over twenty years that have passed since Coehlo wrote “O Alquimista” in his native Portuguese. These narrow depictions of gender and ethnicity are some of the elements that make “The Alchemist” familiar and accessible to western audiences. Readers are able to connect key parts of the story to their existing understanding of the world, therefore gaining greater benefit from a new perspective on life as introduced in the book. In many ways, this is how fable functions. We, as readers, recognize the archetypes of the story and they become familiar. Our interest turns instead to the surprising developments of the narrative; those moments that may teach us an important lesson about life.

The lesson to be found here, despite the stale package, is a valuable one. It was interesting to read this text, a classic in new age literature, after studying the Law of Attraction, reincarnation, Tarot, astrology, and other esoteric arts. All of these attempts to explain the human experience point to the same message and say the same thing in different ways. Coehlo does an excellent job of weaving these truths into the familiar narrative framework of the hero’s quest, creating an instant and enduring classic in the process. Some of the universal truths I recognized in this fable include:

  • The concept that our eternal soul enters our human body with a purpose in mind. A common belief is that the soul chooses this purpose or that it is assigned by a higher power based on what was learned in past lives and what lessons and experiences need to be worked on in the next life. This is how the soul evolves and gets closer to divine knowledge, or to God.

“The closer one gets to realizing his destiny, the more that destiny becomes his true meaning for being.” p. 75

  • The soul’s purpose is our greatest desire, and when we are engaged in a quest to fulfill that purpose we are most aligned with our higher selves and are therefore experiencing a meaningful life. When we are acting in alignment with our desire, the universe conspires to help us.

“When a person really desires something, all the universe conspires to help that person realize his dream.” p. 120

  • How do we know that we are moving in the direction of our soul’s purpose? We will see signs, signals, or omens. This may be a feeling that things are “right” or seeing angel numbers like 11:11 throughout our daily lives. We might meet a key person at just the right time, or miss an opportunity that seemed perfect but would actually have spelled disaster in the long run.

“There is no such thing as coincidence.” p. 75

  • We can speak to our higher selves, or our soul, to gain information about our destiny. This is done through meditation and an elevated state of mindfulness, and by being in the present moment where we are able to understanding the Language of the World and the Soul of the World.

“But the boy was already used to the Language of the World, and he could feel the vibrations of peace throughout the tent.” p. 112

“…people, looking at what was occurring around them, could find a means of penetration into the Soul of the World.” p. 106

  • There is no need to be afraid of discomfort or death because they are part of your soul’s journey and the goals of your higher self in terms of evolution. There is no way to fail because you are learning valuable lessons on your soul’s journey, and this is just one lifetime of many where you will learn from experience. Being able to enjoy life is being able to enjoy the experience of being alive right now, in this moment.

“Life will be a party for you, a grand festival, because life is the moment we’re living right now.” p. 89

“The Alchemist” is a fable, and as such its greatest value lies in looking beyond the means by which the story is told toward the universal truths that Coehlo clearly depicts. Although he limits these truths to the experience of men, it is to be understood that they apply to all humans across time. As a women, I am used to digging through patriarchal frameworks to see what kernel of truth might apply to my life as a woman. There is much to be found here if you are able to see past an allegorical narrative where women are only made complete by the hope that their man will return from across the desert, or complex socioeconomic relationships are represented by “tribal wars.” For while these portrayals are limiting in their depiction of women and cultural diversity, they are overall positive representations and serve a purpose in the tale. These tried and true characters breathe life into Coehlo’s interpretation of the universal laws of human existence.

Time’s Siren

photo by author: Luther Burbank House, Santa Rosa, CA

Time only moves
in one direction
ringing into the future
like a siren,
like a cowbell.

Trapped in a house of nostalgia,
the past reaches like a vine
climbing and clinging
to doors and windows.

Human-size ferns
gather along the garden wall
with secrets folded away
among the tender green tendrils
grasses whisper, grow wild,
obscure the road to reality.

There is
something on the horizon,

A stone house
maybe a
flock of sheep
maybe a
sleeping dragon.

Seems like choppy waters from here
In a rough little boat.

Disaster may shortly arrive,
but that shouldn’t stop us
from planning things away.

Failed memories haunt my diagrams
and blueprints, I
design a fortress
to keep success at bay.

Someone lent a hand, but
it wasn’t me.
When things unraveled
as they do
a bill came, overdue.
A price I paid,
without asking
who, or why.

Tricks of the Trade

A great deal was invested
billowing out and away toward the clouds
with finesse. A skill
honed over dark afternoons
of timeless practice.

There was a place for everything, yet
It never quite fit, it
remained disjointed
and out of sorts.
Even so,
I knew the way it should go.

I left
I walked away
I walked up the hill
on tiny thin path
toward the horizon.

I looked back, I saw
you standing there
disappointed and alone.

Many things have spilled, been lost,
flowed away down cliffs, rocks
a jagged precipice.
We could have worked together
getting things done
one by one.

Regret is stiff in the mouth
like stale bread
rough sustenance you take
to turn your back on a team
that never wanted you.

Going it alone
is a fresh start, anyway
not without a bitter taste, true,
but new fruit will be sweeter.

The spirit does not look back, it turns
toward the light
of the future.

On The Level

You care for strays.
Those creatures
who have chosen
to live apart from others–
who belong to no-one.

You see the world
embellished equally
we stand eye to eye–
we share our brother’s cup.

You fill every empty hand, your
giving knows no bounds it

Absorbing both the tragedy
of darkness
and the bright celebration
of hope, seen
through stable windows.
You light the glowing lamp
of charity.

As you bend
to cradle
your hidden army of love
I am left standing
alone, inverted–
my heart pours into the air.

O brother, where art thou
who can tend to another
without end?

Where is the mercy
that will save us
that will shake foundations
that will leave us level
with each other
once more?