Re-reading ‘The Alchemist’: A book of omens
The first encounter
My first encounter with Paulo Coelho's The Alchemist (1993) came by chance in 2000 at the University of Cambridge. Ricardo, a Jamaican friend, suggested I read a book to pull myself out of the depression I was in. I listened to my friend that day.
I went to Waterstones at Sydney Sussex Street. An orange cover caught my eyes. I liked the title, The Alchemist. I had never heard the name of the author till then. I started reading. When my senses came back, I realised I wanted to read the rest of the novel.
A central premise of the book is: "What happens once may never happen again, but everything that happens twice will happen a third time". There are three hidden omens in the book. The catch is that only if a second omen happens, will it lead to a third. The first omen had worked already. A chance encounter with Ricardo had led me to The Alchemist. The second was in the making.
Before I knew it, I developed a personal relationship with the book. I was glued from beginning till end. I read slowly. Sometimes I read the same section twice. I could not focus on anything else till I finished. The experience was psychedelic: an expansion of the mind (imagination). In the end, the second omen worked. I was out of depression. Ricardo was right: "a good book (or film) can pull you out of depression".
Getting out of depression was the fun part. The agonising part was that there must be a third omen secretly buried, waiting to rise from the ashes like a Phoenix from ancient Egypt where Santiago's treasure lay. A third omen did happen because the second one had said it would.
A few days later, news came on the radio that Paulo Coelho would be in London that day. He was signing his latest book, The Devil and Miss Prym (2000) at Charing Cross Road in London. Aah! The third omen. I called a taxi and was off to catch the next train to London.
I will cherish my meeting with Paulo that day. In the end, he hummed into my ears, "my friend, you're the Alchemist. I'm Santiago".
It was true, then. If something happens twice it will happen a third time.
The second encounter
A few weeks ago, I was staring at my news feed on Facebook. Atikur Rahman of The Reading Cafe bookstore had posted about a book. The sight of an orange cover once again caught my attention. It was a hardcover of The Alchemist. Atik's bookstore is a 10 minutes' walk from my home. I called Atik. He said the book was available. I got hold of a copy within minutes.
Alice in Wonderland, The Art of War, and The Prince are three books I revisit when I get time. The Alchemist was never in this league. I told myself, let's read the book again. Could this be the first omen again 21 years later?
Reading The Alchemist the second time round was like going through deja vu. That feeling: I've been here before, and yet it seems new. At the same time, it seemed like I was never here before.
I soon realised how much of the story I had forgotten. I could recall only five characters. The old woman who interprets Santiago's dream; Santiago; Fatima; the Alchemist; and his falcon.
I had totally forgotten that the story starts with the Alchemist reading a book on Narcissus, where the story had been changed or adapted for the readers of the oasis. After getting to the two stones, Urim and Thummim, the first encounter with The Alchemist slowly started to come back. Still, I was cross with myself when Santiago met the Englishman. It was like I was meeting the Englishman for the first time.
As the reading went on, little did I realise, a second omen was in the making. I posted a photo on my Facebook profile that I had got the book from The Reading Cafe and will be reading for the first time in two decades.
Sarah, the Editor of Daily Star Books, threw a proposition. She asked me to write about my experience the second time round. I put it off. The Alchemist had made me superstitious the first time. I wondered if it would have the same effect this time.
Yes. The 200-year-old alchemist, or Paulo, himself, had a trick up their sleeve. I saw a Daily Star post on my news feed yesterday or the day before, which said that The Alchemist is going to be adapted as a film. Sarah was the second omen after seeing the Facebook post. Because the second omen happened, the third will happen now.
The universe did indeed conspire. The third omen is the film adaptation of the book, which I have to watch now.
Asrar Chowdhury is Professor of Economics at Jahangirnagar University and the author of Echoes, a fortnightly column on SHOUT, The Daily Star. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org