@failspy and I are reading The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho. It’s been seven years and several lives since I last read it, so Javair’s invitation to revisit and discuss it appealed to me immediately. Today we sat for an hour with the book, our notes (his mental, mine written), and Wikipedia for our first “mini-philosophy” about our reading.
I asked Javair to start, because I was curious to hear what he noticed in his reading. He first directed me to page 72:
“The boy knew what he was about to describe, though: the mysterious chain that links one thing to another, the same chain that had caused him to become a shepherd, that had caused his recurring dream, that had brought him to a city near Africa, to find a king, and to be robbed in order to meet a crystal merchant, and…”
Javair pointed to the ellipses I had barely noticed when I read the same page, which we immediately agreed were an instance of the author using the form of the text to illustrate a concept being discussed in the story. The ellipses end the sentence without closing it, as Santiago’s journey (as well as all life, according to his understanding of living beings as birthing from and dying to rejoin the “Soul of the World”) is filled with little endings that aren’t finite closings.
Did the author intentionally form the text to mirror its content? Javair found a second such instance in King Melchizedek’s disappointment that he had forgotten to repeat his name enough to ensure “the boy” would remember it. The story’s protagonist, Santiago, is named only on the first page. Thereafter he is referred to as “the boy,” allowing the reader to forget his name. We quickly looked up Melchizedek, then discussed why the author might have deliberately under-emphasized characters’ names. We decided that the main character matures through the story (after some discussion about whether he’s a man or “the boy” since he shaves like a man but has a child’s openness) as he chooses repeatedly to keep expanding his world and trying new things. In the process, he–and several other key characters–become known to us through what they do, rather than how others call them.
This strikes me as a major theme in the book. Javair characterized Santiago as “self-directed” (there’s definitely an Alchemist-ALC post coming in the near future); protagonists are usually dynamic, but Santiago seems especially so. Even when he isn’t choosing new paths, speaking with new people, or practicing new skills, he’s listening for his intuition, looking around for teachers, and reflecting on his choices. He has a growth mindset. His contentment and rest are active, because they are mindful. Of the protagonists I’ve walked inside through many different books, he’s one of the most soothing I’ve experienced, even in moments of suspense and struggle.
We flew through my notes, mapping the distance from Andalusia to Egypt, talking about the history of the Moors (and why Santiago would be prejudice against them before learning to respect and integrate with their culture), reading about the history of Urim and Thummim…even touching on colonization of Africa by Europeans // forced conversion of pagans by Christians // shared roots of the Peoples of the Book, and where all these things are visible in our lives today.
The highlight of the conversation for me was when Javair brought up the motif of the [transliterated] Arabic word maktub, which is approximately translated to “it is written.” It both compliments the idea in the book that each person has a “Personal Legend” laid out for them, yet simultaneously it could be interpreted fatalistically, thereby challenging the idea that people choose whether or not to follow their legend. It seems pretty clear that Coelho wrote with the former interpretation in mind, but the latter is one I’ve been hearing discussed since my years in Catholic School.
More interesting to us, though, was the existence of an untranslatable word–a “lexical gap” as Javair taught me it’s called. We philosophized a bit about what the existence of such words means (if we say “tree” in the same language, could one of us mistranslate the other’s implied image?), and then we found a nifty list of lexical gaps to tickle our brains with. It kindof made me want to reread Don Quixote 🙂
We ended talking about the ability to perceive signs from the “Soul of the World,” teachers in everyone/thing, and whether another person is following their heart or has missed their chance to live the Legend written for them. Or that they were written for. Or [lexical gap].
Can’t wait to discuss part 2 next week!