Meaning and being did not lie somewhere behind things; they lay within them, within everything
— Hermann Hesse, Siddhartha
I just finished The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho, a Brazilian writer most known for said book after it became an international hit. After receiving a modest level of acclaim in his home country of Brazil, it was translated into English and picked up by an American publisher. Its popularity grew significantly after receiving endorsements by several notable figures, including the President at the time (Clinton). I decided to read it because one of my favourite musicians said in an interview that it was his favourite book. The musician is Anderson .Paak, and he makes some pretty great music if you've never heard of him before, imaginary reader of my blog.
So The Alchemist. I didn't like it. I think this would be the first book I'd have written a negative review for. But as it turns out I've decided not to do that, instead I'm going to write a comparative analysis between The Alchemist and another book I've read in the past 12 months, Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse. I decided to do this firstly because they are both fairly short books, and secondly because I found them to be quite similar in theme and plot, yet I enjoyed Siddhartha much more; I am going to try to figure out why.
Both The Alchemist and Siddhartha follow the life of a boy who leaves home at a young age to follow some sort of dream, seeking personal fulfillment. In the Alchemist, the dream is literally a prophetic dream about treasure. While in Siddhartha, the protagonist is seeking enlightenment and spiritual self-discovery. In essence though, both stories are about destiny and the journey of man. I say man specifically, even though the lessons and themes within both these books do not exclusively relate to males, however I think the prototypical story of someone on a individual quest to find meaning and personal success seems to resonate deeply with young males like myself. I don't know if perhaps this is due to cultural stereotypes shaped by the numerous instances of this parable in books, movies, and other media. Or maybe it is simply that our self-indulgent illusions of grandeur and purpose are natural and intrinsic aspects of the male psyche. It's probably a bit of both. Regardless of the reader's gender, I think mostly everyone believes, at some level, that they are awesome and meant to accomplish great things. So stories that revolve around this idea invite us to project ourselves onto the protagonist, in the hope that we may learn something we could apply to our lives. The success that follows very much depends on how much truth the lessons actually contain.
Where the two novels differ most greatly is in the message each author was trying to convey to the reader. I think Coelho and Hesse had differing viewpoints on the plight of man, and where one should look to find their purpose and happiness. Hesse's Siddhartha, which takes place in the ancient city of Kapilavastu (located somewhere in Northeastern India), is influenced thematically by Eastern religions like Buddhism and Hinduism, while Coelho's Alchemist aligns more so with modern Western ideologies, especially capitalism. Both novels are trying to answer the same question though - how does one find meaning in their life in a world with infinite possibilities?
The Alchemist begins with the introduction of a young boy named Santiago, who some time ago decided to move away from his parent's home and become a shepherd so that he may roam the countryside and see new places. His decision was met with little resistance from his father, whom had initially wanted him to become a priest. The boy recalls,
“The people who come here have a lot of money to spend, so they can afford to travel,” his father said. “Amongst us, the only ones who travel are the shepherds.”
“Well, then I’ll be a shepherd!”
His father said no more. The next day, he gave his son a pouch that held three ancient Spanish gold coins.
“I found these one day in the fields. I wanted them to be a part of your inheritance. But use them to buy your flock. [..] And he gave the boy his blessing.
— Paulo Coehlo, The Alchemist
Now contrast that with the beginning of Siddhartha, where the main character, Siddhartha, also wanted to leave home at a young age to pursue a dream. Siddhartha wants to become a member of the Samanas, a nomadic group of ascetics who attempt to achieve nirvana through the rejection of physical dependencies and temptations. They seek to separate the mind from it's imperfect and material body. They eat once a day by means of alms given to them from whichever town they are closest to. Although no less noble and with about the same prospects for becoming wealthy as being a shepherd might, Siddhartha's decision was met with much more resistance from his father,
Said Siddhartha, “With your permission, my father. I have come to tell you that it is my wish to leave your house tomorrow and join the ascetics. I must become a Samana. May my father not be opposed to my wish.” [...] the father said, “It is not fitting for a Brahmin to utter sharp, angry words. But my heart is filled with displeasure. I do not wish to hear this request from your lips a second time.”
— Hermann Hesse
His father initially forbade him completely from pursuing this goal, so Siddhartha went to great lengths to persuade him otherwise. Siddhartha proved his dedication to his decision through a self-sacrificial act of physical and mental endurance,
And in the last hour of night before day began, [Siddhartha's father] got up once more, went into the room, and saw the youth standing there; he looked tall to him and like a stranger.
“Siddhartha,” he said, “why do you wait here?”
“You know why.”
“Will you remain standing here, waiting, until day comes, noon comes, evening comes?”
“I will remain standing here, waiting.”
“You will grow tired, Siddhartha.”
“I will grow tired.”
“You will fall asleep, Siddhartha.”
“I will not fall asleep.”
“You will die, Siddhartha.”
“I will die.”
“And you would rather die than obey your father?”
“Siddhartha has always obeyed his father.”
“So you will give up your plan?”
“Siddhartha will do as his father instructs him.”
The first light of day fell into the room. The Brahmin saw that Siddhartha’s knees were trembling quietly. In Siddhartha’s face he saw no trembling; his eyes gazed into the distance straight before him. The father realized then that Siddhartha was no longer with him in the place of his birth. His son had already left him behind.
The father touched Siddhartha’s shoulder.
— Hermann Hesse
Siddhartha was so committed to his choice that he stood silently, without moving for an entire night in order to receive his father's permission.
Right away, I think these two beginnings mark a clear contrast between how each author chose to present life and reality. Siddhartha's actions towards his goals are a struggle. He must fight and overcome great challenges before he has even left his home. Hesse is reminding us of the struggle and suffering that pervades all existence. Life is uncomfortable, and action is intrinsically harder than non-action.
Paulo Coelho, on the other hand, presents the world as a limitless selection of opportunities. Your destiny is within your control as long as you make the right decisions to progress towards it. In the Alchemist, Santiago meets an old man who claims himself to be a king. The king provides Santiago with essential information that will direct the remainder of the boy's journey and lead him to Africa in search of treasure. He introduces the concept of a Personal Legend™ - something everyone has in life but most people never achieve. The king claims it is your "mission on earth", and you will never be truly satisfied unless you fulfill your Personal Legend™. Before parting ways, the king provides the boy with some additional wisdom,
To realize one’s Personal Legend is a person’s only real obligation. All things are one.
“And, when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.”
— Paulo Coehlo
An optimistic perspective indeed - comforting to know that the entire universe will help you along on the way as you work towards your goals. This concept will become the major motif throughout the rest of the novel. Around every corner, Santiago is greeted with a helping hand that allows him to progress closer and closer towards his goal. His only real obstacle throughout the novel is his own self-doubt and trepidation. That's not to say he had no part in his success; when Santiago arrives in Africa he is robbed of all his money, so he then decides to work in a crystal shop at the top of a hill to make his money back. Santiago has many great ideas to increase sales, and despite initial hesitation from the old crystal shop owner, his ideas are all put into practice. Within a year of working there, the shop is selling more than ever and Santiago has made enough money to continue his journey. So although his success is due to his effort and ingenuity in this case, he still does not have to feel failure. In fact, Santiago does not experience any sort of set-back or failure throughout the whole story. This level of fortune and favour makes for an exciting story, but I feel like it is unrealistic and emotionally manipulative towards the reader.
Siddhartha, on the other hand, experiences much failure and misfortune as he progresses towards his goal. Granted, this novel encompasses a much larger time span, almost the entirety of Siddhartha's life, but I still think it's a valid contrast. For many years, Siddhartha abandons his life as an ascetic and becomes obsessed with materialism and carnal pleasures. He becomes a successful merchant who loves making money and gambling, and he also develops a romantic and sexual relationship with a woman. None of these things are inherently bad, but in the context of Siddhartha's desire for spiritual enlightenment, his actions were bringing him farther and farther away from this goal. Siddhartha realizes this one day - he had become a slave to his desires. He had nearly forgotten who he was due to the distractions of his consumption and physical comforts. He posits,
He noticed only that the bright and certain inner voice that once had awoken within him and accompanied him unceasingly in his days of glory had fallen silent.
The world had captured him: voluptuousness, lust, lethargy, and in the end even greed, the vice he’d always thought the most foolish and had despised and scorned above all others. Property, ownership, and riches had captured him in the end. No longer were they just games to him, trifles; they had become chains and burdens. A curious and slippery path had led Siddhartha to his latest and vilest form of dependency: dice playing. [...] That fear—that terrible and oppressive fear he felt while rolling the dice, while worrying over his own high stakes—he loved it. Again and again he sought to renew it, to increase it, to goad it to a higher level of intensity, for only in the grasp of this fear did he still feel something like happiness, something like intoxication, something like exalted life in the midst of his jaded, dull, insipid existence.
— Hermann Hesse
So he decides to leave everything behind and journey back where he came from, trying to undo what he had become. He comes across a river he had crossed many years ago and is greeted by the same ferryman who had carried him across the river then. Siddhartha, realizing this ferryman was wiser than he looked, decides to stay with him. Siddhartha learns much from the ferryman, and much from the river as well. The river teaches him of the oneness and infinitude of all things, and how life is also like this,
The river is in all places at once, at its source and where it flows into the sea, at the waterfall, at the ferry, at the rapids, in the ocean, in the mountains, everywhere at once, so for the river there is only the present moment and not the shadow of a future [..] And once I learned this I considered my life, and it too was a river, and the boy Siddhartha was separated from the man Siddhartha and the graybeard Siddhartha only by shadows, not by real things. Siddhartha’s previous lives were also not the past, and his death and his return to Brahman not the future. Nothing was, nothing will be; everything is, everything has being and presence.”
— Hermann Hesse
Siddhartha understands that overcoming the suffering and hostility of the world is achieved through overcoming time. He learns of the essential balance in all things; for every thing that is true, the exact opposite is also true. He achieves enlightenment after seeing that all that exists is perfect and balanced; the distance between "world and eternity, between suffering and bliss, between evil and good" is only an illusion. Siddhartha finally realizes that his whole life was essential to achieving this understanding, including his time as a boy, as a Samana, and even as a gambling merchant,
The sinner who I am and who you are is a sinner, but one day he will again be Brahman, he will one day reach Nirvana, will be a Buddha—and now behold: This one day is an illusion, it is only an allegory! The sinner is not on his way to the state of Buddhahood, he is not caught up in a process of developing, although our thought cannot imagine things in any other way. No, in this sinner the future Buddha already exists—now, today—all his future is already there. In him, in yourself, in everyone you must worship the future Buddha, the potential Buddha, the hidden Buddha. The world, friend Govinda, is not imperfect, nor is it in the middle of a long path to perfection. No, it is perfect in every moment; every sin already carries forgiveness within it, all little children already carry their aged forms within them, all infants death, all dying men eternal life.
— Hermann Hesse
Sure, I totally understand that this all sounds like Buddhist mumbo-jumbo. But taking the lessons out of the context of the story will strip away some of their meaning. Hesse even comments on this apparent inability to transmit wisdom perfectly, a little later on:
Words are not good for the secret meaning; everything always becomes a little bit different the moment one speaks it aloud, a bit falsified, a bit foolish
— Hermann Hesse
If I could put it in my own foolish words, I think the main take-away is the importance of acceptance. Acceptance of every aspect of your life as essential to your existence. There are no inherently wrong actions or decisions in the grand scheme of things. Regret of the past can be poisonous, and obsession with the future can also be poisonous. The present is all you can affect. That's what I learned by reading Siddhartha.
I'd say The Alchemist has a more easily digestible ending. Santiago eventually does reach the pyramids, where his prophesied treasure was to be found. Instead of finding it however, he instead learns that the treasure is actually buried underneath a sycamore tree in an old abandoned church back in the hills of Andalusia. This miraculously turns out to be the exact same church that Santiago slept in as a shepherd, and also where he first dreamt of treasure. This ironic twist of fate leaves the reader amazed and delighted as they realize that Santiago was literally sleeping under his treasure the whole time, and that he never had to travel to Africa and go through all he did for it. But of course, the lesson here is that finding the buried treasure was not Santiago's actual destiny, it was the journey itself that defined Santiago's Personal Legend™. Santiago realizes this as well and is quite well-humoured about the whole thing actually. Of course he does go back and get the treasure though, and he also makes the decision to then go to Egypt and be with the woman he fell in love with during his journey. Happy ending.
Now, I'm not saying there's anything wrong with a happy ending. The Alchemist was an entertaining story and I can see why people would like it. My main gripe with it was the underlying message it conveys. It is meant to be an allegorical story about achieving one's dreams, but I feel like it falls flat on delivering any useful advice. Like I said previously, Santiago experiences little to no actual turmoil or conflict on his way to his treasure, and I felt like the novel was trying to sell this as reality. It is also sprinkled with tons of repetitive phrases and vague concepts like Personal Legend™, good and bad Omens, Language of the World, Soul of the World, and others that makes it feel like more of a self-help guide than an actual story. All in all though, I personally liked Siddhartha much more and would recommend that first for sure.
Maybe it's because I think most people would be better off reading and learning from stories like Siddhartha rather than stories like The Alchemist. I think it would be hard to find a real tangible lesson, one that could apply to seven billion people, in a story about a boy serendipitously finding buried treasure by receiving help from a multitude of strangers, including literally the Sun and God himself. Statistically, not everyone is going to achieve their dreams, no matter what they read. That's why I think instead it may be more beneficial if we thought about the lessons that Hesse is trying to convey in Siddhartha: Materialism can be a drug. Our infatuation with personal success is a biased and narrow-minded perspective. We exist as part of a infinite interconnected system of forces, and understanding your place and context gives you the power to accept it, and I think acceptance is the best tool we have at finding happiness.
Imagery: 5 / 7
Entertainment: 4 / 7
Writing: 6.5 / 7
If this book was a sandwich it would be a: single grain of rice
Imagery: 3 / 7
Entertainment: 3 / 7
Writing: 4 / 7
If this book was a sandwich it would be a: Subway 6-inch meatball sub