The guiding metaphor and plot device for Coelho’s The Alchemist is the journey or quest. Shepherd boy Santiago is told he has to voyage to the Egyptian pyramids in pursuit of his Personal Legend and to discover a treasure that awaits him there. But at the same time, this journey is a red herring: upon finally arriving at the Pyramids he realizes that in fact the treasure is to be found right back where he started, buried underneath the ruined church in southern Spain in which we first found him.
Of course, there’s a touch here of Eliot’s sentiments in the Four Quartets:
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
But I think there’s more to it than that, something specifically associated with the pleasures of the middlebrow.
Because I’m struck also by how many of those who report to have liked The Alchemist associate it with travel. Take Ashea’s account, for instance:
The first time I read it was in a hammock, in the rainforest in Guatemala with an overfed Spider monkey in my lap (long story but I assure you its true) and the second time while backpacking through Cambodia
and Gillian’s response: “That’s cool that you read it while you were also travelling, I bet that would totally make a difference.” And I’m sure it would, not merely because this is “beach” literature. Rather because this is a literature of transport.
Jan Radway in A Feeling for Books outlines the system of evaluation for middlebrow literature precisely in these terms: a book is valued if it provides “a feeling of transport and betweenness, a feeling of being suspended between the self and the world, a state where the one flowed imperceptibly into the other, a place where clear boundaries and limits were obscured” (117). Surely sitting in a hammock with a monkey in your lap is also a pretty good approximation of precisely this same suspension between self and world. The exoticism of Coelho’s frankly Orientalist vision is a good fit with the common desire of backpackers to find themselves by losing themselves a little bit, by resituating themselves (ourselves) in a slightly overwhelming, slightly intoxicating environment of (more or less) manageable difference.
Yet this desire to lose yourself or be carried away by literature is very different from the instincts inculcated in academic and professional analysis. As Radway points out, however much recent theory has celebrated the “pleasure of the text”, still “academic professionals tend to construe the reading process as one marked explicitly by labor” (108); the “standard practice in English [but, I’d add, not only English] education seem[s] to dictate disapproval of this sort of readerly absorption in supposedly bad books” (121).
Radway describes the middlebrow (exemplified for her by the Book of the Month club) as caught between these twin desires, as a search for “hybrid books” that combine both “education and sensual pleasure” (113). And surely The Alchemist sets out to be hybrid in precisely this way: providing both the pleasure of the quest, an absorption in difference and transport to different worlds, and also a claim to educate, to facilitate self-help.
More generally, Bad Latin American literature (which I’m increasingly tempted to suggest is almost all Latin American literature in translation) finds its niche in this precarious middlebrow compromise between delight and instruction. Is it to be condemned for never quite living up to its literary pretensions, or to be praised for providing both pleasures (the sensual and the intellectual), if always in attenuated form?