The Alchemist moves
By Nakissa Sedaghat
August 22, 2001
People think I am a bookworm but I am really very narrow-minded when
it comes to literature, which is a great fault. I tend to stick with the
few "classical" authors I know, most of them the proverbial "Dead
White Males" of centuries ago.
So when a friend gave me The
Alchemist, by Paulo Coehlo, I did not know what to make of it at first.
The title sounded like some New Age Oprah Winfrey Book-of-the-Month and
I faulted the author for simply being alive. That's the greatest sin for
an author, as far as I'm concerned. So at first I did not know how this
book could fit on my shelf.
Thank god I gave it a chance. I read the two first pages and literally
dropped the book from my hands. I don't know how to explain the feeling.
Instead of me reading the book, I felt as if the book was reading me! I
will share the prologue here with you:
The alchemist picked up a book that someone
in the caravan had brought. Leafing through the pages, he found a story
The alchemist knew the legend of Narcissus, a youth who knelt daily
beside a lake to contemplate his own beauty. He was so fascinated by himself
that, one morning, he fell into the lake and drowned. At the spot where
he fell, a flower was born, which was called the Narcissus.
But this was not how the author of the book ended the story.
He said that when Narcissus died, the goddesses of the forest appeared
and found the lake, which had been fresh water, transformed into a lake
of salty tears.
"Why do you weep?" the goddesses asked.
"I weep for Narcissus," the lake replied.
"Ah, it is no surprise that you weep for Narcissus," they
said, "for though we always pursued him in the forest, you alone could
contemplate his beauty close at hand."
"But... was Narcissus beautiful?" the lake asked.
"Who better than you to know that?" the goddesses said in
wonder. After all, it was by your banks that he knelt each day to contemplate
The lake was silent for some time. Finally, it said:
"I weep for Narcissus, but I never noticed that Narcissus was beautiful.
I weep because, each time he knelt beside my banks, I could see, in the
depths of his eyes, my own beauty reflected."
Alchemist really moved me. It is kind of like Saint-Exupery's Little
Prince, a tale written so simply it could be read by anyone at any age.
Yet each person will find his/her own meaning in the story.
When I did some research on Paulo Coehlo, the Brazilian author of The
Alchemist, I found out that he has based his writings on Rumi. In a
strange way, I guess this is part of why I felt so connected to this story.
Coehlo actually visited Iran last year. He was given a very warm welcome
by Iranians, who are avid readers of his works.
His books have been translated into 51 languages and he is a bestseller
worldwide: Even more shame on me, the supposed "bookworm", for
having discovered him so late! When Coehlo gave a talk in Shiraz last May
to a crowd of 1,500 young devotees, he urged the Iranian younger generation
to "guard the rich culture of their country and preserve the old and
cherished customs and traditions of the past."
I recommend The
Alchemist for everyone out there who has not read it yet. It is also
available in a Farsi translation. A friend just brought me a copy from Iran
which I will give to my grandfather. My mother read the book with me and
she was equally moved. Ever since my good friend Vida gave me this book,
I have discovered many other Alchemist devotees among my circle of friends.
I am sure it could also be a good gift for a young teen or even a child.
Meanwhile, I am making more room on my dusty shelves for living writers.