The book-length fable is a difficult form to master, for it must simultaneously exhibit a naive simplicity that speaks to children and be grounded in a universal wisdom that appeals to adults. The problem is that it is difficult to sustain naive simplicity over the long haul without becoming boring, and it is a real challenge to present universal wisdom in such a simple form without being ultimately obvious and thus somehow banal. Antoine de Saint Exupery’s classic fable LITTLE PRINCE manages that balancing act quite magically. THE ALCHEMIST by Paulo Coelho, one of Brazil’s best-selling authors, achieves the magic only unevenly.
The characters and the plot are classically familiar—a poor shepherd boy sets off to seek his fortune, meeting many wondrous characters along the way, only to discover—what else?— that the search for the treasure is the treasure itself and that one need search no farther than one’s own heart. Two basic themes dominate the story—the ability to recognize, and the willingness to follow, signs and omens and the courage to follow one’s dream.
In additional to old gypsy women, mysterious merchants, and noble kings, the characters the young Santiago meets along the way include an Englishman who has been searching for the one true language of the universe (which is, of course, the language of love), a beautiful maiden named Fatima, and, an alchemist who has discovered the true secret of the Philosopher’s Stone. Familiar magical injunctions from various romances and religious books are threaded through the fable—lose the self to find the self, listen to your heart, become one with the Soul of the World, follow your dream—but the advice so often overwhelms the story that one’s eyes tend to glaze over with the abstractness of it all.