On Paulo Coelho and The Alchemist

Paulo Coelho Essay
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Paulo Coelho. Image by Gustavo Rezende from Pixabay

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Brazilian writer Paulo Coelho has managed to achieve something that very few writers in history have managed to achieve. He managed to write a novel that has, over the years, gone on to become one of the best-selling and most influential novels of all time. The novel in question is none other than the international bestseller, The Alchemist.

The Alchemist took a relatively obscure and unknown Paulo Coelho up to literary superstardom. The novel became an international sensation and was widely read and praised by leaders, celebrities, and millions of other people across the world. And with its overwhelming success, it made Coelho an international sensation too.

In this essay, we will discuss the life of Paulo Coelho and his masterpiece, The Alchemist. Let us begin with who is Paulo Coelho.

Paulo Coelho is a Brazilian writer and lyricist, most famous for writing the international best-selling novel The Alchemist, and several other books dealing with the themes of faith and spirituality. He was born on 24th August 1947 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Coelho had a very difficult and turbulent childhood. His early education took place in a Jesuit school, and from a very young age, he harbored dreams of becoming a writer one day. After rejecting the rules of his upbringing as a Roman Catholic, his parents put him in a mental institution when he was 17 years old.

Coelho managed to escape from the institution on three separate occasions before finally being released at the age of 20. He would later clarify that his parents did not want to hurt or destroy him but they wanted to save him and did not know what else to do.

After being released from the mental institution, Paulo Coelho, in accordance with the wishes of his parents, abandoned his dream of becoming a writer and enrolled at a law school instead. However, he hated law school and soon realized that he was not at all interested in studying law.

A year later, Coelho, aged 23, dropped out of law school against the wishes of his parents and began living life as a hippie, traveling across Mexico, South America, North Africa, and Europe, and acquiring experiences that would greatly serve him in his future writing career. It was during this time that he began using drugs.

Returning to Brazil two years later in 1972, he began working as a songwriter, collaborating with and composing lyrics for musicians such as Rita Lee, Elis Regina, and the renowned Brazilian singer-songwriter Raul Seixas, often regarded as the Father of Brazilian Rock. Collaborating with Seixas brought Coelho in close touch with occultism and magic, mostly as a result of the content of some songs.

In 1974, Paulo Coelho, aged 27, was arrested and even jailed briefly and tortured by the ruling military government for allegedly engaging in subversive actions against the government. The government considered some of his lyrics leftist and dangerous in nature.

Upon his release, Coelho worked for Polygram and CBS Records until the year 1980. Again, he began traveling across Africa and Europe. In 1980, he also married Brazilian artist Christina Oiticica.

Coelho would spend the following five to six years dedicated to his career as a lyricist. By the mid-1980s, his songwriting career had turned lucrative and he was earning a good income from it. And although he had written a book called Hell Archives in 1982, which failed to have any impact commercially and critically, he did not focus on writing during this period.

However, in 1986, when Coelho was 39 years old, his life changed after he walked the over 500-mile road of the Santiago de Compostela (also known as Camino de Santiago or the Way of St. James in English), a network of pilgrims’ ways or pilgrimages leading to the Shrine of Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain. This route was used by pilgrims in the middle ages to go from France to Spain.

Paulo Coelho would later reveal that during this journey he had a spiritual awakening in which he realized that even though he had someone he loved and was making enough money, he was still not fulfilling his actual dream of becoming a writer. It was then that he decided to abandon his lucrative songwriting career and focus on writing.

His long journey walking the Santiago de Compostela would go on to inspire his 1987 novel The Pilgrimage.

The way in which Coelho began writing The Pilgrimage was interesting, to say the least. After much procrastination to write a new book, Paulo Coelho one day vowed to himself that if he saw a white feather on that day, he would consider it a sign from God that he had to start writing a new book. And as fate would have it, on that very day he saw a white feather in the window of a shop and began writing The Pilgrimage.

While The Pilgrimage was better received than his previous book, it still did not establish him as a writer to be noticed and brought little attention to him as a writer. However, his circumstances would soon change with his next novel, The Alchemist, which would shake up the literary world and catapult him into literary superstardom.

Paulo Coelho would later reveal that he wrote The Alchemist in only two weeks, for the story was already written in his soul.

Started and completed in 1987, The Alchemist was initially released in 1988 by a small obscure publishing house in Brazil, with an initial print run of just 900 copies. A year later, the publishing house decided not to reprint the novel as it failed to sell well. This decision left Coelho disappointed and hurt.

In order to take his mind off of this setback, Coelho and his wife spent forty days in the Mojave Desert in the Southwestern United States. Upon returning to Brazil, he resolved not to give up on his novel and decided to try and find another publisher for it, for he was convinced that it was a great book with a great story that would resonate with people.

Coelho was so desperate to find a new publisher for the novel that he began knocking on doors and requesting publishers to give him and his novel a chance. He eventually managed to find a bigger publishing house that was willing to take a chance on The Alchemist.

Upon its publication the second time around, The Alchemist proved to be successful in Brazil. Since the novel was written and published in Portuguese, it did not yet make the international impact that it would go on to make in a few years. But it did give Coelho a chance and confidence to keep writing.

After his novel Brida was published in 1990, the sales of The Alchemist increased.

However, it was in 1993 that the turning point for Coelho came, when HarperCollins decided to publish The Alchemist in English, with an initial print run of 50,000 copies. The tremendous and unexpected success of the English translation of the novel went on to make it an international bestseller and it made Paulo Coelho a literary sensation.

The Alchemist has often been described as a folktale/parable-type story, resembling the type of folktale in which a man goes in search of some treasure in a distant land only to return and find that the treasure had been hidden in his home all along. Early examples of such folktales include a poem by the great 13th-century Persian poet Rumi, and a similar tale can also be found in One Thousand and One Nights.

The novel follows the journey of an Andalusian shepherd boy named Santiago, who dreams of a treasure while sleeping in a ruined church. After consulting a gypsy fortune-teller regarding his dream, the gypsy woman interprets it as a prophecy, explaining to him that he will find a treasure near the pyramids of Egypt.

Santiago, tempted by this prophecy, sets out on a journey in search of this hidden wealth somewhere near the pyramids of Egypt. Along the way, he meets an old king named Melchizedek (who was the king of Salem and priest of El Elyon), who convinces Santiago to sell all his sheep and travel to Egypt in order to achieve and fulfill his personal legend.

Santiago follows Melchizedek’s advice and makes his way to Africa. Upon his arrival there, a man promises to take him to the pyramids but robs him of all his money instead. Left with no money to continue with his journey, Santiago begins working for a crystal merchant, polishing his crystals to earn enough money to continue on his journey to the pyramids.

A year later, after having collected enough money, Santiago once again sets out for the pyramids. He meets an Englishman on the way who is looking for an alchemist, and the two start traveling together.

Upon reaching an oasis in the desert, Santiago meets an Arabian girl named Fatima and falls in love with her. He asks her to marry him, but she agrees to marry him only after he completes his journey. Hurt and frustrated at first, he later realizes that true love would not stop one from achieving one’s destiny, nor must one sacrifice one’s destiny to it, as doing so would rob it of truth.

After deciding to resume his journey, Santiago meets a wise alchemist who teaches him to realize his true self and be one with the soul of the world. The wise alchemist accompanies him on his journey, and while traveling through a territory of warring tribes, Santiago demonstrates his oneness with the soul of the world by turning into a dust storm before he is allowed to continue.

Upon reaching the pyramids, Santiago begins to dig for the buried treasure. A band of thieves arrives at the scene and after robbing him they ask him what he is looking for. Santiago tells them about his dream of a buried treasure somewhere there, and the thieves scoff in return as the leader of the band remarks that he once had a dream about a treasure buried under a tree at a ruined church. It is only then that Santiago realizes the treasure he had been so desperately seeking had all along been at the place where he had his original dream.

The story, meaning, and intended purpose of the novel have led many critics to describe it more as a self-help book rather than literature. The core and essential philosophy of the novel is that when one really wants something to happen with all his heart, the whole universe will conspire to make the wish come true. This philosophy makes finding one’s destiny the primary theme of the novel.

Since its publication, The Alchemist has gone on to sell over 65 million copies across the world and has been translated into 67 languages, thereby earning Paulo Coelho the Guinness World Record for the most translated book by a living writer. The novel has also won international awards such as France’s Grand Prix Litteraire Elle in 1995, Germany’s Corine International Award for fiction in 2002, and UK’s Nielson Gold Book Award in 2004.

The tremendous success of The Alchemist made Paulo Coelho one of the most famous and widely-read living writers, inspiring other influential personalities such as Madonna, Bill Clinton, Will Smith, Pharrell Williams, Oprah Winfrey, and several others.

Over the years, The Alchemist has gone on to inspire millions of people across the world to follow their dreams and achieve their Personal Legend, making them realize that only then they would be truly happy and satisfied in life as they would be fulfilling their destiny.

The novel would also inspire several adaptations through various art forms and mediums such as comic book adaptations, graphic novels, musical and theatrical adaptations, and films that have been inspired by its theme and core philosophy.

Since the publication of The Alchemist, Paulo Coelho has managed to publish at least one book every two years, most of which would go on to enjoy great commercial success, thereby making Coelho one of the most commercially successful and influential living writers.

His novels have sold over 320 million copies in more than 170 countries, and have been translated into over 83 languages.

Whether one agrees with Coelho’s philosophy or not, it is quite admirable to see how he followed his dream of becoming a writer and achieved his Personal Legend just as he espouses in The Alchemist, which was written much before he actually fulfilled his own destiny. This fact must serve as an inspiration and example to all of us to go out there and chase our own Personal Legend.