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The Alchemist

Paulo Coelho

Section 4

Section 3

Part Two, Section 5

Summary

Santiago arrives in Tangier and sits at a bar. When he sees people engaging in local behaviors such as sharing pipes and walking hand-in-hand, he scorns the people as infidels. He worries that he can’t speak Arabic, reassuring himself only with the money in his pouch. A man of similar age and appearance as Santiago addresses him in Spanish. Santiago tells him he needs to get to the Pyramids and offers to pay him to serve as a guide. The young man explains that the route across the Sahara desert is dangerous, and Santiago needs to show that he has enough money to make the trip. The bar owner speaks angrily to the young man in Arabic, and the young man drags Santiago outside, saying the bar owner is a thief. Santiago gives the young man his money to purchase camels.

The two traverse a crowded marketplace and Santiago notices a sword on display. Santiago asks the young man to find out the sword’s price, but realizes the young man has disappeared. Santiago waits at the marketplace until nightfall for the young man to return and begins to cry when he realizes he’s been robbed. Santiago takes inventory of his remaining possessions. He has his book, his jacket, and the stones Melchizedek gave him. He considers selling the stones to pay for a trip back home. He asks the stones if he will find his treasure, but when he puts his hand in his pocket he realizes the stones have slipped through a hole and fallen to the ground. As he collects them, he remembers his promise to make his own decisions, and he resolves to continue his mission.

Santiago falls asleep in the marketplace. He wakes as merchants begin setting up shop for the day. A candy seller offers Santiago his first sweet. Santiago notices that some merchants speak Spanish and others speak Arabic, but they communicate with each other without words. Meanwhile, a crystal merchant wakes up feeling anxious. For thirty years, his shop has stood on a desolate street and attracted few customers. Business once boomed when Tangier was a busy port, but sales have fallen off ever since nearby Ceuta became a more important town.

That day, the crystal merchant sees Santiago looking around his shop. Santiago offers to clean glasses in the shop’s window in exchange for food, but the crystal merchant does not respond. Santiago cleans the glasses anyway. During that time, two customers enter and buy crystal. When Santiago finishes, the crystal merchant takes him to a café. He explains that Santiago didn’t need to clean, because the Koran orders him to feed the hungry. Santiago replies that they both needed to cleanse their minds of bad thoughts. The crystal merchant says it was a good omen that customers entered while Santiago cleaned and offers Santiago a job. Santiago says he will clean all the merchant’s crystal overnight in exchange for money to get to Egypt. The merchant replies that the trip to Egypt is so long and expensive that Santiago couldn’t earn enough for the trip in a year. Santiago feels disappointed but agrees to take the job.

Analysis

Santiago’s initial experience in Tangier illustrates the fact that moving on from a comfortable situation can present a challenge, even if the challenge arises in the pursuit of a Personal Legend. As soon as Santiago arrives in Tangier, he feels a suspicion of the “infidel” Muslims. Tangier seems uncomfortably foreign, largely because the people behave differently than in Spain, and Santiago dislikes the place. Santiago quickly pays for these prejudices when he decides to trust the familiar, Spanish-speaking young man instead of the Arabic-speaking bartender. When the young man robs Santiago, Santiago realizes that he must readjust his perspective on his surroundings. Notably, Santiago lost track of the young man while admiring a sword that he planned to buy upon his return. By focusing on a material possession instead of his Personal Legend, Santiago lost the only wealth he had. At nightfall, Santiago laments all of his lost material possessions. He only remembers his quest when he feels Urim and Thummim and appreciates them for their symbolic value rather than their material value. Remembering the stones and Melchizedek’s words immediately renews Santiago’s commitment to his quest.

We see in the crystal merchant, like the baker, someone who has forgotten his Personal Legend and become trapped in an adequate, but unfulfilling, situation. He has not adapted to Tangier becoming a less vibrant port town because he feels scared of change. The crystal merchant’s belief in omens presents his most redeeming trait. From the very first time he sees Santiago, he decides to stop and watch him even though Santiago clearly has no money. The crystal merchant proceeds to offer Santiago a job, despite the fact his business already struggles, because he considers as omens the visitors who arrived while Santiago cleaned. Throughout The Alchemist, characters who believe in omens appear wise and prosper. Unlike materialistic characters, these characters accept the interconnectedness of Personal Legends and The Soul of the World. We also see this interconnectedness in Santiago’s run-in with the candy seller and the other merchants, who communicate in a “universal language” despite the fact that the actual languages they speak differ.

From this section of the book forward, the book no longer refers to Santiago by name. Instead, the novel refers to him only as “the boy.” The change has two effects. First, it allows the reader to experience Santiago as a mysterious stranger, as the crystal merchant and other people who encounter Santiago see him. Second, it turns Santiago into a universal symbol rather than an individual character. Referring to Santiago as “the boy” makes him a mythic figure, just as Melchizedek attains mythic significance when Santiago forgets his name and starts thinking of him as “the old man.” In turn, The Alchemist acts less as a personal story about the adventures of one character and more as an allegorical fable with universal implications. This change raises the question of why Santiago ever had a name in the first place. Although no single answer emerges, it may be that readers can better identify with Santiago when he has a name and identity. Once the reader has achieved that level of sympathy, his name is no longer necessary.

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