Travel Book of the Week: O Alquimista (The Alchemist)

Everyone, when they are young, knows what their Personal Legend is.

Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist
Spanish-language copy I bought in Valencia, Spain.

Author: Paulo Coelho

Published: 1988

Geographic Area: Spain and Northern Africa

Original Language: Portuguese

I decided to include a fiction book this week, because I believe that good travel books are meant to inspire you as much as educate you. And few works of fiction are as inspiring as The Alchemist.

Say what you want about much of the work done by Paulo Coelho (pronounced “quell you”), The Alchemist has been a bestseller for 30+ years for good reason. It is about discovering your “Personal Legend,” essentially your reason for being in this world, the kind of adventure you want your life to be. It’s as much fantasy as self-help, and I think it will inspire you to make your dreams come true, whether they are of traveling the world, of seeing more of your own country, or of starting a business.

The story follows Santiago, a young shepherd from Andalusia, who dreams of finding treasure in the Pyramids of Egypt. He receives a vision encouraging him to pursue his desires, so he sells his sheep and boards a boat bound for Tangier. Thus begins an epic quest that takes him across the sands of the Sahara, along the way encountering thieves, other travelers, warring bands of nomads, ancient mystics, and love in a desert oasis.

The adventure is epic, but the enduring beauty of The Alchemist is how simply it’s written. It’s essentially a modern fable, and makes for a pretty quick read. To be fair, it can be unrealistically upbeat in places, as embodied in the line, “When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.” Luckily, the fable is tempered with reality checks, such as Santiago being robbed in a bazaar, and having to spend a significant amount of time working in a glass shop to earn money for onward travel. What’s important is that he perseveres and always keeps his goal in sight.

Coelho was born in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in 1947. For better or for worse, had a pretty interesting life, marked by happiness and success as much as tragedy and sadness. His parents threw him into an insane asylum when he was a teenager, mistaking his introversion and nonconformity for mental illness. He escaped from the institution three times before finally being released years later. He spent many years literally vagabonding around the world, exploring Europe and North Africa, places that would later feature in many of his books. He walked the Camino de Santiago in northern Spain, recounted years later in The Pilgrimage. Upon his return to Brazil, he began working as a songwriter for popular rock musicians of the time. In 1974, he was arrested and tortured by the ruling military junta, accused of spreading propaganda through his songs. You can read his account of that horrible experience here.

One of his earlier works, The Alchemist originally sold so modestly that the publishing house gave him the rights back after just one year. However, in keeping with the spirit of his character Santiago, he kept at it, even literally going door to door to promote his novel. His hard work eventually paid off, and would launch him to international fame. Ever since, he has enjoyed a very successful writing career, having achieved his own Personal Legend.

If you would like to purchase the book from Amazon, just click on the image below. In full disclosure, should you choose to get the book using this link, I will receive a small percentage.

Buy The Alchemist from Amazon
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