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“The Alchemist” by Brazilian author Paulo Coelho is an international phenomenon. It was first published more than 25 years ago. Since then, more than 100 million copies have been sold and it’s been translated into 80 languages. It has remained on the New York Times best-seller list for more than 370 weeks. It’s a fable about a Spanish shepherd whose parents want him to be a priest. But instead he takes a journey searching for buried treasure in Egypt. For this month’s Readers’ Review, a look at why “The Alchemist” resonates with so many people.
- Evan Berry Professor of philosophy and religion, American University; author, "Devoted to Nature: The Religious Roots of American Environmentalism"
- Diane Cerniglia English department chair, Bishop O'Connell High School, Arlington, Virginia
- Marcela Valdes Journalist and book critic, Latin American and Latino literature; author, "Introduction to "Roberto Bolano: The Last Interview and Other Conversations"
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Many people love "The Alchemist" by Paulo Coelho. Bill Clinton and Julia Roberts are reportedly fans of the book's message about finding your destiny and pursuing your dreams. But some critics say the book is simply a fairy tale. Joining me in the studio to talk about "The Alchemist" for this month's Reader's Review, Evan Berry of American University, Diane Cerniglia at Bishop O'Connell High School.
MS. DIANE REHMAnd joining us by phone from Annapolis, Maryland, journalist and book critic, Marcela Valdes. I do hope that many of you have read this book will join us with your questions and comments, 800-433-8850. Send us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow us on Facebook or send us a tweet. And welcome to all of you.
MR. EVAN BERRYThank you for having me.
MS. DIANE CERNIGLIAThank you. It's a pleasure to be here.
MS. MARCELA VALDESThank you.
REHMDiane Cerniglia, let me start with you. I know this book is so incredibly popular. You teach it. You know it. How do you personally feel about it and what do you get from your students?
CERNIGLIAI like the book a lot and I think my impressions of the book have been colored over the years by my students' responses. They love it. I have had students tell me that this book changed their lives, that they found a new path for themselves because of the ideas in this book. And when a teacher hears a comment like that, she sits up an listens. And so I have delved deeper into the book myself just because of my students' responses.
REHMSo all sophomores in your school are required to read this book.
CERNIGLIAYes. That's correct.
REHMWhy is that?
CERNIGLIAWell, we started teaching the book many years ago, about 15 years ago when another teacher in the department recommended it. She had read it and loved it and thought that it would resonate with students. And since our sophomore curriculum is a world lit curriculum, it fits very well into our course of studies and also because it's more of a contemporary work. It's a nice change for students because we read Homer. We read Virgil. We read Dante. So to read a contemporary author is a good change.
REHMAnd, of course, you are chair of the English department at Bishop O'Connell High School. That's a Roman Catholic School...
REHM...Arlington, Virginia. And to you, Evan Berry. As a professor of philosophy and religion here at American University, tell us your thoughts about the book.
BERRYWhatever concerns I may have about the book, I have to admit that I couldn't put it down on my most recent reading. So it's a gripping, exciting story. I can really understand its appeal for youth. The story itself draws on a number of sort of mythological archetypes and interesting stories woven throughout Mediterranean history. I also wonder whether it does have a just so moral for those people who read the book in pursuit of their dreams.
REHMExplain that a little more.
BERRYWell, I wonder whether the ultimate upshot of the story is that you get what it is that you pursue in life and so people who are rewarded by their life's journeys get those rewards because they pursued them and people whose lives don't necessarily end with a treasure or a personal legend might not have gotten those rewards 'cause they didn't do what they were supposed to.
REHMOr is it -- could it also be that reward is not necessarily what you expect in the beginning? I mean, that was kind of how I took to it. Marcela Valdes, how did you see it?
VALDESWell, it looks like I might be the odd critic out here, but I first read this book probably when I was about in my late teens, early 20s when a well-meaning relative passed it to me. And I finished reading it and I was just about ready to throw it against a wall.
VALDESI think that it's probably more of an issue of temperament. Having reread it recently just for the show, I have to say I had a kind of much softer take on it. But I think that part of it might be a matter of temperament. I mean, you're either someone who likes language like personal journal-ie or, you know, the law of favorability or, you know, all this other sort of mystical self help language or you're someone who finds that sort of terminology a little grating. And I'm in that camp.
REHMI think we should at least begin to outline the plot if you see a plot here, Diane. Talk about this young Spanish shepherd boy.
CERNIGLIAWell, we have the young boy, Santiago, who is, as you said, a Spanish shepherd boy who sets out to find his treasure. And he has a dream and a woman, a Gypsy woman, interprets that dream and he believes that in order to find his treasure, he has to travel to the Pyramids in Egypt. And along the way, he meets various people who either help him or present an obstacle in his path until he finally reaches where he is supposed to go.
CERNIGLIAAnd there determines that his true treasure is back home where he left it in the first place. And to speak to the idea of this being a self help book, I've never seen it that way. I don't think my students see it that way. I think, ultimately, what Coelho is trying to tell us is that what matters is not a physical treasure, even though there is a physical treasure that Santiago finds, but it's a metaphor for love and relationships and that's where the true treasure is because he ends up, in the end, going back home to Fatima, the girl with whom he is in love with, and that becomes his treasure.
CERNIGLIASo it's this whole idea of people and relationships are what matter, not treasures in the material sense.
REHMInteresting that as the book begins, we learn that Santiago's parents want him to become a priest, Evan.
BERRYYes. He pursues his career as a shepherd sort of as a choice that allows him to take journeys. He's already predisposed to travel and to adventure from the beginning so I don't he's particularly well suited for the priesthood.
REHMThe freedom of being a shepherd is something that really appeals to him, but the only way he can continue his journey is to sell his sheep.
BERRYHe may actually even be too adventurous to be a shepherd. He ends up wanting to sell his flock so that he can extend his journey far beyond pasture, travel across deserts.
REHMSo Marcela, as he begins to travel and meets up first with the fortune teller, she doesn't read palms. She says she's not really a fortune teller and she won't take any money from him. How did you feel about that encounter?
VALDESYou know, that's one of the moments when actually I sort of liked the book in the sense that I think that the boy, as Coelho -- he has the name Santiago, but throughout the book he's just called the boy in this sort of archetypical way. He's kind of skeptical about the fortune teller and I think that skepticism I found relatively appealing. He then goes on to meet what he thinks are truer -- what he believe in in the book definitely are sort of truer sources of guidance for his future.
REHMWisdom, yes. He meets someone who calls himself the King of Salem. Tell us about him.
BERRYSo the King of Salem is actually a historical figure from the Hebrew Bible and there are references in "The Alchemist" to him having had these stones that women and (word?) from his breastplate that he shares with Santiago. So this is clearly a reference to existing myth and the power of characters to come alive across history.
REHMAnd how do your young people react to the Kind of Salem, Diane?
CERNIGLIAThey find him interesting. They particularly find it interesting when they discover that he is indeed the alchemist later and then that leads them into the whole metaphor of alchemy and what it means and the whole idea of the original alchemist who attempted to turn metal into gold, becomes again a metaphor for one's spiritual transformation and this is what Santiago eventually undergoes.
CERNIGLIAAnd a lot of young people are searching for those kinds of answers and a lot of them find it within this novel.
REHMAnd for you, Marcela, that just doesn't happen.
VALDESNo. It doesn't happen. I should clarify that I still feel that the book is sort of a force for good in the world. I mean, I may not like its literary style. It may not be a book that has moved or affected me, but it is a book that sort of encourages the values of courage and persistence and work and love. It's different to say that I don't like it than to say that I think it's sort of a -- it's not a book that's hurting the world and it clearly has helped a lot of people, as has just been mentioned, spur a kind of spiritual transformation.
REHMMarcela Valdes, she's a journalist specializing in Latin American and Latino literature and culture. And when we come back, we'll talk more, read portions of the book and wait for your calls.
REHMAnd our book for this month's reader review, Paulo Coehlo's "The Alchemist." And don't forget you can be part of our conversation about "The Alchemist" on Twitter and Facebook by using the #drreads. We'll be using some of your comments on the air. Here in the studio, Evan Berry, professor of philosophy and religion at American University. He is the author of the book "Devoted to Nature." Diane Cerniglia is chair of the English Department at Bishop O'Connell High School, that's a Roman Catholic school in Arlington, Virginia. "The Alchemist" there is required reading for all sophomore students at the high school. And on the line with us from Annapolis, Maryland, is Marcela Valdes, a journalist specializing in Latin American and Latino literature and culture. She's a former board member at the National Book Critics Circle. She's the author of "Introduction to Roberto Bolano: The Last Interview and Other Conversations."
REHMWell, we've been talking about Santiago, the main character of Paulo Coehlo's book. He is a young sheepherder. His parents want him to be a priest, but he has decided he needs to somehow have the freedom to be a sheepherder to travel. But in his travels, he learns many, many other things. Diane Cerniglia, talk about what the sheep mean to Santiago. There's a beautiful passage in this book.
CERNIGLIAMay I read that passage?
CERNIGLIABut the sheep had taught him something even more important, that there was a language in the world that everyone understood, a language the boy had used throughout the time that he was trying to improve things at the shop. It was the language of enthusiasm, of things accomplished with love and purpose and as part of a search for something believed in and desired. Tangier was no longer a strange city, and he felt that just as he had conquered this place, he could conquer the world.
REHMYou know, it's interesting to me how enthusiasm can make up for a lot in life.
CERNIGLIAIndeed it can. That is so true. My students love this particular passage. They point it out. We have some wonderful discussions about just exactly that, how enthusiasm, passion, purpose can overcome so many obstacles and of course love. We preach a lot about love, we talk a lot about love. It's a very simplistic thing to say, but really if people just went about their business with love, then we would be perhaps in a much better place in life. And my students recognize that, all of our students do.
REHMMarcela, do you think that that message of love is one of the reasons the book has sold so many millions of copies?
VALDESYes, I'm -- I would be surprised if that were not the case. I believe that that -- the book's sort of very optimistic message about the power of love and how if you try to pursue your dream the world conspires to help you, I think those things can be very appealing to people.
REHMYou also, I gather, find a part of that message that if you follow your destiny, the universe will help you. I gather you find that somewhat troubling.
VALDESI think that there are a lot of things in this world that the universe puts there that are not there to help us with our dreams or our goals. I think a lot of people are confronting sort of -- I'm a realist, I think, in my heart, and this book is not really about realism. And so its message is not one that really resonates with me. He has a passage early on the book that says, on Page 24 in the edition that I'm looking at, says, you know, whoever you are or whatever it is that you do when you really want something, it's because that desire originated in the soul of the universe, it's your mission on Earth.
VALDESWell, if you don't believe in the soul of the universe, and you don't believe that, you know, the universe is conspiring to make every single individual happy, then you read something like that, and the reaction is -- my reaction is more likely to be, come on.
REHMWhat's your reaction, Evan?
BERRYYou may see me nodding. I think this is a lovely book when one is approaching their life in aspirational terms. I understand its appeal for young readers. I understand its appeal for people who are on some sort of a personal journey or thinking in terms of their spirituality. But this is cold comfort to people who might not experience -- who have experienced real hardships in their lives.
BERRYThis is a story about people who realize their dreams because of their internal power, and that's a message that I can't square with the suffering we see in the world. I wonder how someone like Coelho would address the real and terrible suffering that exists in the world.
REHMWell, and of course he is Brazilian. He is someone, one assumes, believes in what he's written. Wouldn't you think?
BERRYI would think so.
REHMDo you think that, Diane?
CERNIGLIAI do, yes.
REHMRead for us, Evan.
BERRYSure, this is a passage when the shepherd boy has just joined with a caravan and is about to travel across the desert towards the pyramids. There were almost 200 people gathered there and 400 animals, camels, horses, mules and fowl. In the crowd there were women and children and a number of men with swords at their belts and rifles slung on their shoulders. The Englishmen had several suitcases filled with books. There was a babble of noise, and the leader had to repeat himself several times for everyone to understand what he was saying.
BERRYThere are a lot of people here, and each has his own God, but the only God I serve is Allah, and I -- and in his name I swear that I will do everything possible once again to win over -- out over the desert. But I want each and every one of you to swear by the God that you believe in that you will follow my orders no matter what. In the desert, disobedience means death. There was a murmur from the crowd. Each was swearing quietly to his or her own God. The boy swore to Jesus Christ, and the Englishman said nothing, and the murmur lasted longer than a simple vow would've. People were also praying to heaven for protection.
REHMHow do you interpret that?
BERRYI like this passage a lot because I think it tells us a lot about how Coelho is thinking about the relationship between different religious traditions. Each person swears to their own God, but ultimately those oaths are equivalent. The different belief systems they might be rooted in are interchangeable to his mind, I think.
REHMAnd what does the desert represent, Diane?
CERNIGLIAThe desert, or the wilderness, is a metaphor, I think, for self-discovery, for a search for identity, for a kind of probing. And that desert wilderness motif is something that we see in a lot of literature, from King Lear on the heath during the storm scenes to even Heathcliff from "Wuthering Heights" wandering the moors, yearning for his love, Catherine. So many writers use that desert wilderness metaphor, and Coelho is no different in that.
REHMThere's also, on Page 33, Diane, if you would read this, where the King of Salem tells Santiago a story about the secret to finding happiness. It begins in the middle of Page 33, but before I go.
CERNIGLIABut before I go, I want to tell you a little story. A certain shopkeeper sent his son to learn about the secret of happiness from the wisest man in the world. The lad wandered through the desert for 40 days and finally came upon a beautiful castle, high atop a mountain. It was there that the wise man lived. Rather than finding a saintly man, though, our hero, on entering the main room of the castle, saw a hive of activity. Tradesmen came and went, people were conversing in the corners, a small orchestra was playing soft music, and there was a table covered with platters of the most delicious food in that part of the world. The wise man conversed with everyone, and the boy had to wait for two hours before it was his turn to be given the man's attention.
CERNIGLIAThe wise man listened attentively to the boy's explanation of why he had come but told him that he didn't have time just then to explain the secret of happiness. He suggested that the boy look around the palace and return in two hours. Meanwhile, I want to ask you to do something, said the wise man, handing the boy a teaspoon that held two drops of oil. As you wander around, carry this spoon with you without allowing the oil to spill.
CERNIGLIAAnd then it goes on. Actually, this is another one of my favorite passages because what happens from here is that the boy goes all through the palace, and he is so -- he is so focused on not allowing the oil to spill from the spoon that when he comes back, the wise man asks him, did you see all my beautiful things in here, did you observe the tapestries, and he said no, but my oil is still in the spoon. And the wise man says, you cannot trust a man if you don't know his house.
CERNIGLIASo the boy goes back out again, and this time he notices everything, but when he returns, there is no oil on the spoon. And so the wise man says, there is only one piece of advice I can give you. The secret of happiness is to see all the marvels of the world and never to forget the drops of oil on the spoon. The shepherd, and then the narrator, a shepherd may like to travel, but he should never forget about his sheep.
CERNIGLIAI love this passage. My students love this passage because students, high school students, teenagers, are dealing with so many stressors in their life, and sometimes they forget to step back and enjoy life. And the oil in the spoon is a good metaphor for that.
REHMWhat do you think of that, Evan?
BERRYI think one of the things that sets Santiago apart from other kinds of characters is his ability to be introspective, and this, this metaphor of the oil and the art gallery reminds us about how he balances nicely between attention to his own thoughts and feelings and interior life but then also not forgetting to appreciate the marvels of nature and the desert as he travels through it.
REHMMarcela, tell us about Fatima.
VALDESRight, so Fatima is a young woman who Santiago meets when he's traveling through the desert. She lives in kind of an oasis city. She's a dark-eyed beauty, and he -- they have a sort of moment of instant falling in love. And -- but she encourages him to continue to pursue his dream of finding his treasure in the pyramids and that she will wait for him because what desert women do is wait for their men, and she's proud to be waiting for him. And she's probably a big part of the reason why I ended up throwing the book against the wall when I was in my room.
REHMBecause? Say more about that.
VALDESBecause I was, you know, I was -- this is decades ago, right, and I was a young, ambitious, strong-willed woman, and I think that I was profoundly troubled by the fact that the major female character in this book is -- the only major female character, the only one who gets a name, is a woman who basically says I'm -- you go pursue your dreams, and I will stay here and wait for you, and whenever you feel like it, come back and see me again.
VALDESAnd at the end of the book, he's like now I'm going to see Fatima, I have my treasure. And I'm thinking, and Fatima, what's she been up to all this time? It's just -- I think that for me as a young woman, I found that dichotomy -- I know he's working in parables, but I found that dichotomy very agitating.
REHMAnd you're listening to the Diane Rehm Show. Marcela, I know this book is popular in Latin America, but you've had some literary critics who do not consider Coelho the best of Brazilian literature.
VALDESYes, I had some exchanges earlier this morning with Ben Moser, is a -- he's an American, but he's an expert in Brazilian literature, a biographer of a truly extraordinary Brazilian writer named Clarice LiSpector. And he told me that he is always running into people in Brazil who are, quote, terribly embarrassed by Paulo Coelho because they find it very embarrassing that this is what people tend to associate with Brazilian literature.
VALDESBrazil has extraordinary writers of extraordinary literary quality, and most people who are experts on Brazilian literature would not put Paul Coelho among them. I personally sort of cringe when I hear that Coelho is put alongside Dante and Homer in a world literature class. I mean, I can see the point, and I can see the purpose, and I can see how it can help people, but my goodness, that's not the book from Brazil that I would choose to put there.
CERNIGLIAWell, I'm certainly not suggesting that Coelho is on the same level as Dante or Homer or Virgil, but again, the archetype of the journey is something that we see throughout all of those works, and it's a discussion point for students, and it shows them that, oh my goodness, even going back to Gilgamesh, the oldest extant piece of literature that we have, we saw the idea of the journey.
CERNIGLIAAnd so for that reason I think that it's useful for students and also the fact that he's contemporary writer, and he's living. And students can send him an email. They can talk to him. They certainly can't do that with Homer or Virgil or Dante.
REHMAnd do they?
CERNIGLIAYes, some of them do, yes. I can't say that they ever got a response, but at least they go through the action of doing it and know that they can.
REHMHow old of a man is he?
REHMHow old a man is he?
CERNIGLIAIs Coelho? That's a good question. I really don't know.
REHMDo you know, Marcela?
VALDESI'm sorry, I don't know off the top of my head.
BERRYI think he's probably in his late 50s or early 60s.
REHMIn his late 50s. What do you make of all this, Evan?
BERRYI think this is very much the same debate I have inside my head when I read the story. Fatima's character was really troubling to me, as well, the idea of a woman who waits as the only female character. I wonder, actually, how that makes the book come across to young female readers in your classes, Diane, if that's something that is problematic or that they notice.
CERNIGLIAThey definitely notice, and it becomes a good discussion point because we certainly, throughout literature, find a lot of sort of marginalized female characters, and it's a good discussion. And we have it. And some are more troubled by it than others. Others just simply attribute it to, well, that's the way it was at that time, which is again sort of a facile answer, but we hear that sometimes.
CERNIGLIABut any time that you have a character who seems to be not as prominent as he or she should be, it makes for good talk.
REHMDiane Cerniglia, chair of the English Department at Bishop O'Connell High School. We'll take a short break. When we come back, time to open the phones and hear from you.
REHMAnd welcome back. Time to open the phones as we talk about Paul Coehlo's book "The Alchemist." Let's go first to Monica in San Antonio, Texas. Hi, you're on the air.
MONICAHello, how are you this morning?
REHMI'm good, thank you.
MONICAYou've chosen one of my favorite books, and it's not my favorite book for any literary merit but rather it changed my life that when it was given to me by a very well-meaning friend, it kind of made a point that said no matter what I was looking for was already here. And I was starting to study Buddhism, which kind of talks about reawakening and remembering, and I think that this journey that Santiago would see as aptly named for Santiago de Compostela, which is a pilgrimage, who goes on this pilgrimage, finds that everything he ever needed was there.
MONICAI don't think much about it being a universe that places these things for you to find. I think the universe is there. And you will find what you will find according to what you live.
REHMIndeed, and I think that's a good way to put it, Evan.
BERRYYeah, the book is clearly a spirituality of seeking, an idea that one's life is structured around a personal journey, as opposed to trying to cultivate a permanent and dwelling-based location in a place. So if you're looking for something, this is a book that can help you. If you already have that, maybe Coelho is not for you.
REHMAnd to Sara in Ann Arbor, Michigan, you're on the air.
SARAThank you, Diane. I feel like the universe conspired to let me make this call right now because I have a wonderful little snapshot of a story that relates to the book. At the age of 42, after a divorce and leaving my job as a seminary dean, I took a journey myself, went to the South of France and drove around, and I ended up Marseilles.
SARAAnd one day I went to a little bar, I guess, at the port, sat there by myself drinking wine and noticed this lovely looking young man. I mean, I'm 42, he's in his 20s, and I just looked him, and I thought, wow, what a nice looking young man. Well, later in the evening I went back to the same place, and there he was, and he struck up a conversation with me. He said, I remember seeing you at the bar earlier. And he was carrying "The Alchemist," which for him seemed to be almost like a Bible.
SARAAnd I'm a philosophy professor also, and we got into this conversation that just sort of continued on into the night and in the next day. And to put it bluntly, for that few hours I felt completely in love with this young man and had a hard time even going to sleep, thinking about what if I could take him back to America with me. And it was just the most wonderful night.
SARAAnd he talked about how he was the son of a shopkeeper. His father had a store that sold bridal dresses for Muslim brides. But he didn't -- he didn't speak to me as if he was Muslim. He talked about it a lot, and so it was interesting me, that. I had a very debauched trip, and on my plane ride home, I had purchased a copy of "The Alchemist," which I had never read before, in French because I thought my French had gotten good enough that I could read it in that language, and I was absolutely transfixed, read it all the way home on the plane.
SARAWhen I got back, I made a prayer, you know, for what I wanted to come to me, and when I got back to America, I met my husband almost two days later.
REHMSounds like a dream that really was in her the whole time.
CERNIGLIARight, right, and, you know, I think it's worth mentioning that another discussion point that we often have in class with our students is what if you don't, you can't accomplish your dream. What if the universe does not conspire to help you? What do you do if you fail? And students are very aware of that, of failure and how to deal with failure. And I think the book, there's an underlying message there in the book that it's okay to fail, that you're still loved, you still have people to love and that eventually that will see you through.
REHMLet's go to E.J. here in Washington, D.C. You're on the air.
E.J.Yeah, hi, thank you for taking my call.
E.J.I was just (unintelligible) back, when I read "The Alchemist" about a decade ago, it harkened back -- to me it harkened back to "Candide" by Voltaire. So I was just wondering if your guests could comment about that, if they see any comparisons or...
BERRYSure. I think one of the instant things that I noticed about that comparison is that there's an important relationship between master and pupil. Many of the lessons that Santiago learns throughout the course of the story come from himself, from inside, but much of that learning takes place facilitated by a close teacher-student relationship that he probably couldn't have done that without, and this is really important in "Candide," as well. "Candide" is also another story where, at the end, a journey is realized by coming home and taking up gardening, planting.
REHMWhat about that, Marcela?
VALDESI must confess I have not read "Candide," so I feel like I shouldn't comment on that.
REHMAll right, here's an email from Pepper, who says, my husband Kent said that "The Alchemist" changed his life. He loved it so much that when he passed away this year, I gave copies of the book to all the speakers at his celebration of life ceremony. Kent was an extremely positive person. I felt this book was something positive I could pass along in his memory. I think your guest got it right when she said the book is about love and relationships. And it really is.
CERNIGLIAIt really is, and I don't think there's a more positive message you can give to students than that, that the universe is based, or should be based, on love. And relationships are important. Another writer we read is John Dunne, and Dunne, of course, is responsible for that famous line, no man is an island unto himself. Students understand that. They get that relationships are important, that making human connections is an important part of life.
CERNIGLIAAnd I think again, you know, you can argue back and forth about some of the issues in the book of new age kinds of things and storms and soul of the universe and all of that, but really in the final analysis, it's all just part of the central idea that again, not to belabor the point, but love is what really matters.
REHMHere is a tweet from Alice. How does the book compare to "Bless Me, Ultima," a book by Rudolfo Anaya, or works by Gabriel Garcia Marquez or Isabel Allende? What do you think, Marcela?
VALDESI would say that, you know, somebody else, when talking about this book, also was asking me about the connection between Paulo Coelho and magical realism. And I think that one of the things that people tend to not understand about magical realism in the United States is that the original magical realists, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Marco Vargas Sosa, Carlos Fuentes, these people were all pretty political. And the things that we read sometimes that seem just kind of wild and fabulous to us are often sort of political messages that are sort of disguised.
VALDESAnd for example in "100 Years of Solitude," there's a town Macondo, that sort of gets blown away by the wind, it disappears right after a certain uprising. And, well, Macondo is based on a real town that was a company town that Garcia Marquez was familiar with because one of his grandfathers lived in it that was basically shut down and disappeared after there was a massacre of workers that happened there.
VALDESSo I think it -- I don't -- I would not put Coelho in the category of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and these other magical realists. I think he's much closer to a kind of Kahlil Gibran, the author of "The Prophet," than he is to that Latin American tradition.
REHMThat's an interesting comparison, Evan.
BERRYI've seen others make that, as well. I think it is important to underscore Marcela's point, that there's something different about Coelho from other Latin American writers in his disengagement from political questions. These are personal stories, which are of course important but distinguish him from his colleagues. I've read a little bit about his biography, Coehlo's, and I think his way of grappling with the dictatorial regime in Brazil in the 1960s and '70s was to turn towards the arts and towards music.
BERRYHe was previously a producer and a songwriter, and I think sort of the artistic, creative, personalistic dimensions of these stories are a different way of grappling with political authoritarianism.
REHMIt's very interesting, Diane. Do you and your students go into Coehlo's background?
CERNIGLIATo a certain degree yes. I think it's important, before we read any work of literature, to talk about the life of the writer. In some cases the life of the writer has a very significant impact on his work. In some cases it doesn't. And I always caution students to be sure to keep the two separate, to not assume always that a character in the novel is the author or someone the author knew. But on the other hand, certainly -- I mean, nothing occurs in a vacuum. So it's important for students to know something of the background of the author and what experiences he had that may make their way into the work, either on a conscience level or on a subconscious level.
REHMLet's go to Newfane, Vermont. Heidi, you're on the air.
HEIDIHi, I just wanted to speak to the interpretation of the character of Fatima in the book, and I'd like to entertain the notion that Fatima, to me, represents someone who has already found her inner peace. She doesn't have that urge, that need to search, that suffering that Santiago clearly has, and she sees that in him. And she realizes that if he doesn't follow that, he will never find that peace.
HEIDIAnd I just was reading something, or listening to Pema Chodron talk about compassion and the visualization of compassion being the mother with no arms watching her child fall into the river. And I just wanted to say that.
CERNIGLIAThat's a good point, a very good point, and it's another way of looking at that particular character, and it's a good counterpoint to any discussion about her as a lesser character.
REHMThat somehow she had already found herself and therefore was able to let go of Santiago so that he could find his own soul. How do you regard that, Marcela?
VALDESThat's just not the way I read that character, but certainly the character is open to many interpretations. I mean, this is the wonderful thing about reading novels and reading literature and using them as discussions in a class for high school or here on the radio is that so much of what we bring to literature is just interpretation, and so it makes for great discussions.
REHMOf course, of course.
VALDESThat's not the interpretation that I share of that character, but that doesn't mean that another interpretation is wrong, or that, you know, or that I'm right. It's just different.
REHMExactly, and that's what I love about having these discussions of books on our readers' review each month. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." I want to be sure to get in this caller, Kristen from Washington, D.C. You're on the air.
KRISTENHi Diane, you are fabulous. Thank you for having me.
KRISTENI'm so thrilled to be on here. I feel very connected to this book, and I happen to have had a very powerful experience. I was traveling abroad, and I had this book in my backpack, it had been my family bookshelf for years, and while I was on a bus in this foreign country, everything that I had was stolen, my passport, every identity. And I didn't speak the language. And the only thing I had in my hand when that happened was this book.
KRISTENAnd I went out to the street, and I stood there and did not know what to do. Like, people were passing me by while I was crying. And this very kind woman, this Canadian woman, came up to me, and she helped me, and I stayed at her house, and, you know, my mom was able to Western Union me all the stuff that I needed because this woman helped me.
KRISTENAnd it was such a strong experience to me because prior to that, this happened when I was about 25, prior to that I had so much anger over the death of a parent, and, you know, then at age, like 26, you know, I had this experience, 25, and it, like, burst this bubble of anger that I had and helped me realize life is so much more than being angry, being, you know, just stuck. And I opened up with this big journey of life, and, you know, it's like 10 years later, and I'm so much happier and at peace.
KRISTENYou know, I've been interested in yoga for a long time, and I'm pursuing dreams that I never would've thought would've happened. You know, it just so happened that I happened to read that book when it happened, and it was very powerful. Thank you.
REHMThank you. What a powerful statement, Evan.
BERRYSomething really similar happens to Santiago early in the story, as well. When he first travels to Tangier, he ends up thinking there's someone he can trust, and they steal all of his money and his stuff, and he finds himself in a foreign land without his satchel.
REHMWithout anything, yeah.
BERRYWith anything, and it's the help of strangers that will allow him to find his way to get back on his journey.
REHMYou know, isn't that so often the case, that what you do not anticipate or even the worst that you can anticipate can somehow change your life in very, very powerful ways. Well, clearly we've had some very wide and interesting views on this book. It's titled "The Alchemist." I have in front of me the 25th anniversary edition. It is in paperback with really a very interesting cover, and the author, Paulo Coelho.
REHMOur next readers' review selection is "The Haunting of Hill House," a very different selection by Shirley Jackson. You can join us on Wednesday, October 14 for a discussion of the novel. It is actually considered one of the best literary ghost stories of the 20th century. So I hope you'll join us for that. Evan Berry of American University, Diane Cerniglia, she's a Bishop O'Connell High School in Arlington, Virginia, and Marcela Valdes, a journalist specializing in Latin American literature, thank you all so much.
VALDESThank you, Diane.
BERRYGlad to be here.
VALDESIt's been a pleasure.
CERNIGLIAThank you, it's been a pleasure.
REHMAnd thanks, all, for listening. I'm Diane Rehm.
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