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The Alchemist | Study Guide

Paulo Coelho

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Things You Didn't Know

Every book has a story—check out these 10 unusual facts about The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho.

The Alchemist | 10 Things You Didn't Know


Paulo Coelho's The Alchemist chronicles the journey of a young shepherd from Spain to Egypt in search of fabled treasure. The novel traces the epic trek of adventure and risk while stressing the importance of finding one's destiny, regardless of the circumstances of one's birth.

The Alchemist, published in 1988, is notable for being written by the one of the world's most translated authors. Originally written in Portuguese, the novel now has translations in some 80 languages worldwide. Due to its powerful messages of belief in oneself and resilience, this book has been met with critical praise and widespread popularity, making it a contemporary classic.

1. Coelho was tortured by the Brazilian government for a song he wrote.

Coelho began his writing career as a lyricist for several Brazilian pop stars. One of Coelho's most significant collaborators was Brazilian rock icon Raul Seixas, whose Coelho-penned song "Sociedade Alternativa" became a sudden hit:

Do what you want because it's the whole / of the law, of the law /. . . Long live the Alternative Society / Long live the Alternative Society / The number 666 is Aleister Crowley

But Brazil's government, then under military rule, considered Coelho's mystical and occult lyrics "subversive." In response, the regime captured Coelho and and tortured him with electric shock.

2. Coelho was committed to an asylum when he was 17.

Despite being committed to an asylum three times by his parents and being in jail another three times, Coelho rejected the role of victim. Instead, he viewed these experiences as material for writing. He believed that his parents and society rejected him for having his own dreams. He mused, "One day I will write about it." The result was a novel called Veronica Decides to Die (1998), which details the protagonist's journey inside a mental hospital after attempting suicide. The novel suggests that people make a difference in the world by first accepting their own differences.

3. Coelho hated the concept for the film adaptation of The Alchemist—so much so that he even offered to buy back the film rights.

Coelho sold the film rights for The Alchemist in 1994 to Warner Bros. for $250,000. The author, however, hated the studio's concept for the film, which was to be a high-powered action movie with large-scale battle scenes.

Coelho believes that "each reader creates his own film inside his head," and that film adaptations rarely match what the reader has envisioned. He offered $2 million to buy the film rights back from the studio, but the offer was not accepted.

4. Coelho named Santiago after a character in an Ernest Hemingway story.

Coelho's inspiration for Santiago's name came from another famous story written by literary giant Ernest Hemingway. He explains:

When I was young, I read the book, The Old Man and the Sea, and Hemingway starts the book with,
'The old man's name was Santiago.' ... And I said, I will write a book one day, and I'm going to use the same thing that he did: only in the first sentence I am going to mention the name ... and never again.

Coelho begins The Alchemist in the same vein as Hemingway with the line, "The boy's name was Santiago."

5. The Alchemist flopped after its initial publication—but Coelho didn't give up.

When Coelho's novel was published in 1988, sales were unimpressive. Coelho's original publisher even told the author that it wasn't going to sell, but Coelho was "so convinced it was a great book" that he continued searching for a publisher that believed in the novel. Coelho began knocking on the doors of publishing houses and found one who inexplicably wanted to publish it:

The first door that I knocked, the guy opened. A very important publishing house in Brazil. And I said, 'I have a book that was published and did not sell. But I trust this book is going to sell,' Coelho recalls. 'The guy said, 'OK, I'm going to publish it.'

Soon, The Alchemist became a worldwide best seller—a turnaround that Coelho, in an interview with Oprah Winfrey, attributed to "fate." In the interview Coelho said:

Three years later when the book was already a half a million copies in Brazil, I asked him, 'Why did you accept a book that was already published and it was a flop? And he said, 'I don't know.' You understand?'

6. Coelho says he wrote The Alchemist in two weeks.

According to Coelho, all of his books are written in a time frame of two weeks to a month. Coelho says he managed this short time frame despite a tendency to procrastinate because "the book was already written in [his] soul."

7. Coelho embraces piracy of his own books.

The author has stated that he does not mind the use of piracy software to share his book online, in part because it has actually helped sales of his book. When a pirated version of The Alchemist appeared on a Russian website in 1999, it sent sales there into the millions. Coelho even promoted a pirating website called The Pirate Bay, inviting readers to download all of his work for free. He explained his decision, saying:

Since the dawn of time, human beings have felt the need to share—from food to art. Sharing is part of the human condition. A person who does not share is not only selfish, but bitter and alone.

8. When The Alchemist didn't perform well in its first publication, Coelho and his wife spent 40 days in the Mojave Desert.

Coelho's time in the desert was a time for healing and re-commitment. Discouraged by the poor performance of The Alchemist, he needed a space for "self-exploration.". Ultimately, Coelho was moved by the experience, finding the Mojave to be a "magical place."

Coelho noted that this outing was rooted in his Christian faith—it mirrors the 40 days that Jesus fasted in the desert, as described in the Gospel of Mark.

9. Coelho is a record-holding autograph signer.

Thanks to The Alchemist's global popularity, Coelho holds a unique Guinness World Record: At the 2003 Frankfurt Book Fair, Coelho signed a record-winning total of 53 different translations of the novel.

10. Coelho looks for a white feather before writing a book.

When contemplating his novelThe Pilgrimage (1987), Coelho was unsure if he should even write the book. He prophetically said, "If today I see a white feather, that's a sign that I should write." The feather appeared, the book was written, and a writing tradition began.

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