term ‘magical realism’ became highly fashionable since 1920. On the face of it
is an oxymoron’s describing the forced relationship of irreconcilable terms. In
recent years the term ‘magical realism’ has become most popular among many
other genres, referring to a particular narrative mode. What the narrator’s
mode offers is a way to discuss alternative approaches to reality to that of
western philosophy, expressed in many postcolonial and non-western works of contemporary fiction
by, most famously, writers such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Salman Rushdie.
It is this aspect that has made it most pertinent to late twentieth-century
The term “magical realism” was first
introduced by Franz Roh, a German art critic, who considered magical realism an
art category. According to him in “Magical Realism: Post-Expressionism”,
“It was a way of representing and responding to reality and pictorially
depicting the enigmas of reality” (7). In Latin America in the 1940s,
magical realism was a way to express the realistic American mentality and
create an autonomous style of literature. “Magic Realism”
was a term
first coined in
1949 by the
Cuba novelist Alejo Carpentier to
describe the matter-of-fact combination
of the fantastic
and every day in
Latin American fiction.
Later exemplified by
novels like Gunter Grass’s
Drum (1959) and Maruez’ Sone Hundred
Years of Solitude
and also applied
to paintings by
famous painter Michael Parks.
Rob Gonsalves a Canadian
painter often categorized
as surrealistic but
injects a sense
of magic into
realistic scenes. The premise of Brenda Cooper’s book, Magical Realism in West African Fiction:
Seeing with a Third Eye, reiterated throughout the book in different ways,
is that “magical realism arises out of particular societies-postcolonial,
unevenly developed places where old and new, modern and ancient, the scientific
and the magical views of the world co-exist” (216). In Cooper’s
conclusion, she enunciates once again her overriding, critical parameter in the
book: “The magical can be a device for exposing reality, but only if there
is a degree of critical, ironic distance from it which prevents supernatural
explanation being proffered to elucidate historical processes” (222).
Magical realists incorporate many techniques
that have been linked to post-colonialism, with hybridity being a primary
feature. Specifically, magical realism is illustrated in the inharmonious
arenas of such opposites as urban and rural, and Western and indigenous.
The plots of magical realist works involve issues of borders, mixing, and change.
Authors establish such plots to reveal a crucial purpose of magical
realism: a more deep and true reality than conventional realist
techniques would illustrate. In New
Letters on the Air: Contemporary Writers on Radio, Okri said:
Everyone’s reality is superstitious. It’s a
simple fact you can’t get away from . . . . An important part of my tradition
is that we do not believe that the dead die . . . . We are now becoming
increasingly dissatisfied with the linear, scientific, imprisoned . . .
description of reality and human being. (226)
Magical realism, or
magic realism, is a narrative technique that blends reality with the fantastic.
Both the ordinary and the extraordinary are presented as a matter of fact, and
there is usually a strong hint of social criticism that runs throughout the
narrative. This is certainly what Coelho does in The Alchemist. Coelho brought about magical aspect in a clear
manner. Santiago, an ordinary shepherd, embarks on a journey to realize his
Santiago, the protagonist of The Alchemist, operates the story of his
own life in a way that is reminiscent of Joseph’s role in the Old Testament,
although he takes divination one step further. He is able to interpret
objective phenomena, rather than simply dreams, as omens of future events. The
young shepherd meets an extraordinary man who claims to be the King of Salem.
Melchizedek is his real name; a mysterious king who
wears a golden breastplate. He is a character from the Bible. In The Alchemist, Melchizedek helps those who are at the point of
discovering and following their Personal Legends.
Melchizedek is a mysterious individual who turns out to be a high priest of the
Old Testament because he possesses the Urim and the Thummim, the two magic
stones, one black and one white, which is given to Santiago by Melchizedek,
Santiago’s journey is widespread with magical
realism; the ordinary and extraordinary are constantly blended. “Urim and
Thummim” (39). These stones are a fortune telling device that in a tight spot
will help Santiago by giving him a clear yes-or-no answer to his queries. The
stones are used only once, however, because knowing too much about the future
can be a hindrance: life is full of obstacles, and it does not help to know the
suffering one will have to endure along the way. It is enough to know that
there is no such thing as luck or co-incidence. All things happen for a reason,
and all are a part of the mysterious chain.
Melchizedek explains that “there is a force
that wants you to realize your Personal Legend… in order to find the treasure
you will have to follow the omens” (27-8). Magical realism calls for people to
take an active role in pursuing their dreams by paying attention and acting on
lessons learned in life; success without effort will not happen.
Upon Santiago’s first experience of
loss and bad luck, Santiago finds comfort when the stones tell him the king’s
blessing is still with him. When Santiago tries to ask too much of the stones,
they fall through a hole in his sac as a reminder that he is supposed to make
his own decisions. After spending nearly a year with the crystal merchant,
Santiago feels strength transmitted from the old king through the stones and is
once again encouraged to continue his journey.
Even though Santiago uses Urim and Thummin one
time, the stones help Santiago realize direction and patience, while also
helping him realize what he needs to do to succeed in achieving his dreams.
When Santiago sees a hawk swooping down to
make a kill, he knows the oasis will be attacked, suddenly, one of the hawks
made a flashing dive through the sky, attacking the other. As it did so, a
sudden, fleeting image came to the boy: an army, with its swords, riding into
the oasis. The vision vanished immediately, but it had shaken him.
Santiago is a foreigner. The chieftains want to know why this has happened;
“Who is this stranger who speaks of omens?” asked one of the chieftains, eyeing
the boy. It is I,” (101) the boy answered. And Santiago told what he had seen
Why should the
desert reveal such a thing to a stranger when it knows that we have been here
for generations? How come it is possible said another of the chieftains.
“Because my eyes are not yet accustomed to the desert,” the boy said. “I can
see things that eyes habituated to the desert might not see. (101)
It is precisely because Santiago is a
stranger because he sees with the eyes of a foreigner the land he inhabits that
he is able to divine the future, to see the divine within the everyday.
Omens are an
important element of magical realism. Omens play a large role in Santiago’s journey throughout the
novel. From the very beginning, omens
and signs that foretell the future, which is introduced as portents are not be
ignored, since they are messages sent by the universe.
Santiago will be
shown many signs along the way that he will have to properly interpret in order
to move forward. Some of these omens are a butterfly that represents both
change and freedom, the hawks that portend danger in the oasis, and the scarab
beetle Santiago finds at the pyramids that tells him where to dig.
life, he has to overcome many naysayers, such as his father and the crystal
merchant, who tell him his dream is impossible. “Even if you cleaned my crystal
for an entire year… even if you earned a good commission selling every piece,
you would still have to borrow money to get to Egypt. There are thousands of
kilometers of desert between here and there” (44). These characters are older people who have,
for one reason or another, let fear kill their own dreams. “There is only one
thing that makes dreams impossible to achieve: the fear of failure” (135).
The other magical aspects were wind, desert,
heaven, and the creator. They play a highly magical role; the boy being caught
in a camp was made a pact to turn himself into wind. On the day before he is expected to turn himself
into the wind, Santiago climbs to the top of a cliff. He looks out at the
desert and senses that it can feel his fear. So he went for seeking help from
On the third day, Santiago brings
the tribal chief and his officers to the cliff. Again he looks across the
desert, and this time Santiago asks for the desert’s help in becoming the wind.
The desert replies that it can provide its sand to help the wind blow, but no
more; the desert needs assistance from the wind itself. Soon, a breeze tickles
Santiago’s face. The wind knows what the boy needs but regretfully tells him,
“We’re two very different things”(139).
learned much from the alchemist, however. He protests that he and the wind
aren’t very different at all. For one thing, they share the same soul.
Intrigued, the wind nevertheless insists that people can’t turn themselves into
the wind. Sensing that the wind might ultimately relent and grant his wish,
Santiago tells it,
When you are loved,
you can do anything in creation. When you are loved, there’s no need at all to
understand what’s happening because everything happens within you, and even men
can turn themselves into the wind. As long as the wind helps, of course. (140)
Suggesting that Santiago asks heaven for help,
the wind then creates an enormous sand storm called a simum. .
Now Santiago beseeches the sun to
help him turn the wind for the sake of love. The sun acknowledges that it knows
about love. Then the sun complains that people always want more, implying that
this is a bad thing. Santiago disagrees, saying that “Each thing has to
transform itself into something better, and to acquire a new Personal Legend,
until, someday, the Soul of the World becomes one thing only. (143)
The sun decides to transform itself
into a brighter sun. The eavesdropping wind then decides to blow harder. Still
the sun can’t turn Santiago himself into the wind. “Speak to the hand that
wrote all,”(144) the sun finally suggests. Santiago begins to pray, and in
praying he understands that he isn’t alone in not comprehending the universe
completely. The sun and the wind and the desert also don’t entirely know their
reason for being. Finally, Santiago reached through to the Soul of the World,
and saw that it was a part of the Soul of God. And he saw that the Soul of God
was his own soul. And that he, a boy, could perform miracles.
Santiago is able to speak to the desert, the wind, and the sun; he
convinces all of these entities to help him prove to the tribal leaders that he
is an alchemist. And finally everything changed like the chieftains
In various guises this idea that individuals are often
unaware of the magic staring them in the face and need a nudge to see it weaves
its way through Coelho’s novel. This is especially evident at the point of
anagnorisis when, after years of searching, Santiago suddenly realizes where
the treasure is hidden. Thus, when Santiago is discovered digging for treasure
near the Pyramids, he is attacked and nearly left for dead.
Finally, magical realism in the novel comes
full circle when a robber boy tells Santiago that his treasure is really to be
found at the starting point of his journey the shepherd’s barn in Spain. But
then the leader of the robbers comes back and says to him: “You’re not going to
die. You’ll live, and you’ll learn that a man shouldn’t be so stupid” (155). Two
years ago, right here on this spot, the leader had a recurrent dream, too. He
dreamt that he should travel to the fields of Spain and look for a ruined
church where shepherds and their sheep slept. In his dream, there was a
sycamore growing out of the ruins of the sacristy, and he was told that, if he
dug at the roots of the sycamore, he would find a hidden treasure.
robber said Santiago, “But I’m not so stupid as to cross an entire desert just
because of a recurrent dream” (155). Again, while the Egyptian sees nothing in
his dream, he interprets it as meaningless, the foreigner, the Spaniard, sees
that it contains the truth. The real suddenly has burst open to reveal its
magic. Santiago discovered his treasure, which was the whole time just beneath
his feet near the sycamore tree. The leader is the unknowing recipient of
treasure, and although the answer comes from within him in the form of a dream,
he is unable to decipher its meaning. It is the foreigner who is able to
decipher the rebus that comes from the unconscious.
The system whereby the subject’s unconscious
needs to be interpreted the other is echoed by the rule whereby the events of a
national culture need to be deciphered by a foreigner to function as omens. There
are a number of ways in which The
Alchemist overlaps with the ideology and techniques of magical realism in
the use of the omen to structure the story and its vision of magic just
palpitating beneath the surface of things. The novel re-enacts the drama of
cultural hybridity that lies at the core of magical realism.
Santiago is rewarded
by the universe for his tenacity and enthusiasm. The universe conspired to help
him as he helps himself by learning patience, staying the course, and properly
interpreting the omens along the way.
Fate is constantly
intertwined with will, and a key theme of The
Alchemist focuses on how much life is under one’s control, and how much is
controlled by fate. Here also Santiago’s life is connected with fate and his
free will which forms the crux of the next chapter.
The most prominent
theme in The Alchemist is the idea that each person has a
Personal Legend a type of ideal fate or destiny and that each person can chose
whether or not to pursue that legend. Santiago is also in the course of
pursuing his destiny which is dealt with in the next chapter.