Wednesday, November 21, 2007

The Alchemist

I bought this book for several reasons. Incessant hyping by several friends; the "over 20 million copies sold" on its back cover is good marketing; the price tag of a relatively reasonable 195 bucks; and the two pages (the prologue - the Narcissus story) I read before putting it in my cart - a beautifully ironic look at love. (Reasons listed in no order other than alphabetic - please disregard any thes, and ands, if you choose to verify the ordering). Anyway, to get right to the point, having read it, I don't see what the hype is all about. Granted, it's a nice "feel good" read, much like a mushy chick flick (I try to be a little offensive now and then) can be a nice "feel good" watch sometimes. But really, 20 million copies? Maybe the people who bought it after the first few millions have been conned by Reason #2, but what of the guy who bought the 6748th copy? Why did he buy it? Look, if you guys are expecting answers to these questions, you might as well stop reading now. I have no answers. I just like to ask rhetorical questions.

Since one of my chief complaints against it is that my decidedly warped outlook could find in it no relevance to our existence in the "real" world, I have to be prepared for the inevitable retort. Why does it have to have any relevance, reality wise? Well, it doesn't have to, ordinarily. But when something is hyped as a book that is like "watching the sun rise while the rest of the world sleeps", a little dose of reality wouldn't be amiss. The universe conspires to realise our dreams, as long as we just work towards fulfilling them? Please. Werner Herzog films are probably more realistic in their depiction of the universe's attitude toward human dreams and aspirations. It looks on amusedly for a while, then laughs nastily like a villain in a bad film, rips up our petty little dreams into microscopic shreds, dances on them a while, and throws the remains in our faces.

Okay, maybe I'm just being nasty. But I really don't think the universe is anything more than neutral in matters of human dreams. To paraphrase (or, mutilate beyond comprehension) "Casablanca", is it logical that the problems (or "dreams", if you prefer) of the little specs of dust that are us homo sapiens, amounts to anything more than a hill of beans, in the overall scheme of things? Reading a newspaper, surfing a few news channels, or even walking a city street, usually sets at rest any misconceptions I have about the value of human life from the perspective of the universe. Even if I am wrong on that, let me ask you one question. If the universe were to work overtime, arranging intricate coincidences - including a bloody war - just so that this one guy can find his little box of jewels, isn't it irrevocably altering the lives of scores of other unfortunates, both directly and subtly? Oh, I know, I know. The lives of other people are affected only in a good way, right? Even that war was only to balance out life, or whatever the hell that was, and all those cut up into tiny little pieces, just became part of the Soul of the World, right? Rather than shout out, "Wake up and smell the coffee!" I'll just move on with quiet dignity...

There's this one other thing that I need to get off my chest. I can only be told so many times that every blasted little thing you see holds the answer to life, the universe and everything. Observe twigs falling to the ground, and it tells you the past and the present, and even a little of the future. Observe a little grain of sand, and it speaks of the marvels of creation. Observe the wind blowing through the tree tops, and it tells you why Kimi Räikkönen's car had electronic troubles in the Spanish Grand Prix. Maybe if I stared at my keyboard long enough, my assignment will take care of itself. A beautiful thought. Feel-goodism just cannot get better. But when every other page consists of our hero staring at something, and finding the language of the world, or whatever, it gets a little annoying.

I am probably starting to come across like one of those guys who rant at "Body Double", jeering at the ludicrous plot, when the only thing that should matter is what a sublime piece of film making it is. Most of my favourite films and books are about as watertight plot-wise, as the Titanic was after its rendezvous with the iceberg. There's no way a guy who has Raymond Chandler amongst his favourites can really argue that plausibility is everything. My beef is not against the book as a good way to pass an evening. It's a nice, breezy read, all right; and that you should listen to your heart, and follow your dreams, I can't really quarrel with. It's its exalted status amongst the people I spoke to, as a kind of life-altering experience, that I take issue with.

To give a comparison, if someone wanted to write a book with the message that, oh let's say, the straight drive should always be played with the leading elbow straight and high - an admirable goal - the way to send that message across would be to give usable tips on how to go about it, the troubles you would face, how to overcome them, etc; and to avoid the temptation of putting in balderdash like the whole universe conspiring to keep your elbow high, if only you would listen to your abdominal guard. Let not the fact that it's a cricket manual hamper your artist's spirit - throw in parables, use metaphors to your hearts content, have a love affair as a side plot featuring this pretty girl whom our hero, the Tendulkar wannabe, meets at an elbow-raising session, but for heaven's sake, don't spoil it all by also putting in some wishy-washy fairy tale, that is about as useful as a sword in a western. That's all I'm trying to say. Is that really so hard to understand? (The last two sentences are best read as a sort of Basil Fawlty whinge.)

Now, far be it for me to suggest there's no scope for a little magic in the world. My views on that are best summed up by paraphrasing Celine quoting Einstein in "Before Sunset" - if you don't believe that there's a little magic in this world, you're better off dead. It's just that if a book tries to capture this spirit of magic, it's better off ensconcing it in a healthy dose of reality - especially if it's meant to be one of those "I once read a book, and it changed my life" types.

And my perception of reality does not include a beautiful, ordered world, with a "destiny" that is there for your taking. A cruel world with enough of a smattering of beauty to keep the peddlers of hope off the streets, is more like it. And, above all, a world of coincidences. Indifferent coincidences. Like in a Buñuel film. A life without destiny, buffeted about by random events. Maybe some of them have a touch of magic to them. Maybe some of those are "meant" to be hints, or nudges, by a "higher power" with a macabre sense of humour, towards a better life. But certainly not of the sort that leads a Spanish shepherd across the desert in a journey that leads to a treasure, with the kind of split-second timing you see in slapstick. Sure, as the first half of the book suggests (before it wanders off into la la land), there are things you can do to better your odds. But better your odds is all. As famously said, a butterfly flapping its wings in Japan could cause a storm in New York. And maybe that storm in New York could make all the difference between you fulfilling your dreams, or... erm, you not fulfilling them (you know what I mean).

So, now that "The Alchemist" wouldn't be my recommendation for the artistic equivalent of the dreadful chore of waking up at an unearthly hour to watch the sunrise, what would my choice be? Well, I can't seem to remember having read that many books that fit the title. My memory for books is dreadful, and besides, a book takes far longer to read than it takes to watch a movie. Ever heard of a sunrise that lasts a week? I thought not...

Let me put forward for your consideration two movies for no reason other than that I've watched them recently (well, fairly recently, anyway). "Bridge to Terabithia" and "Fanny and Alexander" (especially the TV version). They're very different from "The Alchemist" (and from each other) in tone and message, but they're both powerful testaments to our greatest gift - the imagination. Sunrise watching, I don't remember ever doing, but if I did, I would imagine it would make me feel like these two films did. And I don't mean sleepy.

A girl captures sunlight in a purse, filtered a lovely blue by frosted glass, and allowed to escape later, only to seek out and illuminate a set of keys to the dungeons of the Dark Master... well, okay, the set of keys to Dad's toolshed. A sublime essay brings to life visions of an underwater adventure; the words morph into images in the eyes of a listener - and I do mean that literally. Two misfits escape the loneliness, the bullying, the neglect, the wants of their reality with nothing more than friendship and imagination. The world they build for themselves cannot quite save them from the torments of the world around them, but it is always there for them to escape to for a little while. A little kid escapes the tyranny of a very authoritarian religious household by flights of fancy into dark and disturbing worlds. See him and his little sister make a literal escape into a glorious puppeteer's shop more magical, more fantastic, filled with more treasures, than anything you've ever imagined. A shop that lets you converse with God, houses breathing, glowing mummies, brings you face-to-face with the puppeteer's mysterious brother, who can see into the depths of your soul, and bring the furies hidden away there - safely buried away from the world - to life. And if it's not just images that can sate you, how about this little passage from one of them?

Well, blast. I can't find the passage online, and the DVD is on loan. (See what I mean? My dream was to post it, and the universe conspires against me.) It goes something like this. A man wanders in the wilderness, toward a destination that he and his companions have long since forgotten. There was this bit about a thick cloud covering a mountain - a cloud made of the unfulfilled dreams, frustrations, hopes and fears of countless generations of people. This cloud forms a river that flows down the mountain through eternity. Its waters could quench the thirst of all those people whose wanderings have parched their throats. But the thing is, they're so caught up in their quest for their nameless goal, and their suffering, that they fail to notice this river, and the forests on its banks that could shelter them from the harsh sun - even when their journeys lead them to walk beside its waters... It's a rather long scene, and, while this is the gist, as I remember it, it was put far more beautifully in the film. I will try to post it when I get my DVD back.

1 comment:

blankthinker said...

:) What can I say... In spite of actually liking that poor little book myself, your...scathing- (...to use a mild word) -review was great fun reading :D You are one hard-to-please Mr. Formidable, eh?