Thoughts: Der Alchimist, by Paulo Coelho, translated by Cordula Swoboda Herzog

I don’t usually reread books in German that I’ve already read in English – it feels like cheating – but this was for German class, and I hadn’t read it in well over a decade, and I remember liking it, to be honest, so sorry, arbitrary personal rule.

Say what you want about Paulo Coelho’s brand of self-help spiritualism, but The Alchemist is probably always going to be my favourite of his. It’s short, it doesn’t say more than it needs to, and I first read it in the still-raw aftermath of my parents’ divorce, when my dad was borrowing books from his much more spiritual brother and I was devouring them as fast as he got them. Shoutout to the Barefoot Doctor and The Five People You Meet In Heaven! Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance was one that my dad had around and I never got around to reading till very recently, and I can only imagine how that would have gone. One of James Lovelock’s Gaia books sat by the door for a long time and I never read it. I’m pretty sure I read The Tao of Pooh though. Basically, it was a weird, formative time of my life, reading-wise.

I also read about five Coelhos, all of his books that had been translated into English at that time, after the huge success of The Alchemist. You can absolutely get burnt out on Paulo Coelho, and I learned my lesson.

I still find The Alchemist charming though. I like the mythic, timeless style, and the Andalusia-to-Tangiers-to-the-Sahara aesthetic. I’d forgotten a lot, but the things I remembered had really stuck with me – “Everything that happens once can never happen again. But everything that happens twice will surely happen a third time.” I almost filled up when we got to that line in German. It was like seeing an old friend again, and I’ve been feeling pretty isolated and down lately with Covid-delays affecting every single aspect of moving in to the new flat, and the constant thick cloud and snow for weeks, not to mention The Other Stuff. Don’t judge me.

I found some other books of his – Veronika Decides to Die specifically – a little… I don’t know. It’s hard to say whether they aren’t intended to be one-size-fits-all advice and his choice of metaphor is sometimes just dodgy, or whether he actually is a bit naive/insulting about the circumstances that can lead to people being unhappy? The Alchemist doesn’t really hit any of those notes, which is nice.

It’s about ~following your dreams~ I suppose. It’s about being brave enough to do the things you want to do, and not being too afraid that you’ll reach your goal and your life will lose meaning. And it’s kind of about accepting what comes your way while you’re on that journey. It’s spiritual, but also weirdly practical. It still isn’t one-size-fits-all – sometimes the universe is not on your side, and you have no control over that – but it fits plenty. If you read it with that little grain of salt and self-awareness, I think it’s fine?

And it’s not actually so hard to read in German, so bonus!

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