It is a general habit of mine to riffle through a book before returning or lending it, just in case some token has been left behind. On those occasions when an item has been retrieved in a search, I have felt a small sense of gratitude that I have avoided its loss, but when completing this little ritual in reverse, and I have discovered someone else’s item, it has often felt like a gifted, (albeit stolen), insight into a private world.
This felt especially true when I picked up a copy of The Alchemist in a charity shop over a year ago. The story did intrigue me, but it was actually the discovery of the postcard tucked inside its pages that persuaded me to buy the book; most particularly, it was the message on the back of the postcard that caught my attention:
At the time, it felt like a little unexpected hello from the past, due to the fact that part of my family are from Roundstone, Connemara, Co. Galway.
I finally read the book recently, and as I did so, my thoughts returned to its stowaway postcard, which I used as a ready made bookmark. The postcard itself is not a great mystery, but it is intriguing in its own subtle way, as it traverses three counties of Ireland, and appears to have been sent at a key moment in time for the three people concerned in 1986.
The image of the postcard is of Cruach Phádraig, (or Croagh Patrick), in Co. Mayo, but the greetings are sent from Connemara, Co. Galway, to a daughter* in Co. Laois.
*Note: on the photograph below, I have blotted out the intended recipient’s name.
At the time of sending, the couple’s daughter appears to be seeking treatment for mental ill health in hospital, which perhaps explains the choice of postcard, despite the brief, but bright greeting from Connemara further south along the coast. I will not tell the story of why Saint Patrick may have gone up the mountain, (after all, we can read a brief account on the postcard), but I think we can safely say that in the west of Ireland, a mountain was the closest Patrick could get to Christ’s forty days and nights in the desert.
Despite the mountain’s associations with lenten fasting via Saint Patrick, it is telling of a more ancient practice that it is at Lughnasadh, (the Celtic harvest festival traditionally celebrated in late July-early August), that pilgrims collectively climb the mountain, even though the weather is still likely to be changeable, cold and misty. It looks like it is around this day of ascent, on Reek Sunday, (1st August), that the postcard was sent, although the stamped day and month of the card are not clear enough for us to know for certain.
Perhaps for the mother who chose this postcard, there was something uplifting in the notion of Patrick’s personal renewal after his experience of suffering and privation on the mountain. The choice of stamp also has associations with new beginnings as the sabhaircín, (or the primrose), is a flower that blooms in early spring and is therefore a harbinger of new life. Whatever the sender’s intentions may have been, it is clear that the postcard is a little prayer of hopeful goodwill from a mother to a daughter across the country.
It is impossible to know what happened next in the lives of those connected by this postcard, but we can perhaps assume that the couple’s daughter did receive her postcard without incident in 1986, although we can surmise that she would not have been reading The Alchemist or O Alquimista when she received it, as the book was not published until 1988, (Brazil), or translated from Portuguese into English for publication in 1993. This imperfect fact leads us to the conjectural question of how this brief, but personal postcard found its way into a copy of The Alchemist? Given the unique nature of the book, it is attractive to imagine that the postcard was placed there deliberately somewhere along the recipient’s journey to recovery, health, and hopefully, happiness. This is especially tempting as The Alchemist is a book with an empowering and joyous message at its heart.
It is a book that doesn’t quite fit into a clear genre, and in some ways, doesn’t quite fit into the novel form either, but is instead a kind of existential self help novella with a semi-fantastical quest packed in. There are readers who attest that the book has had a powerful impact on their lives, but we can also assume that there are less vocal readers who perhaps did not read the book at the right time for the life changing lightning to strike. Either way, the book’s message is offered through the story of a young man called Santiago who goes on a quest in search of material treasure, (which he finds), but who also discovers that his true treasure lies elsewhere, in his heart:
“Remember that wherever your heart is, there you will find your treasure. You’ve got to find the treasure, so that everything you have learned along the way can make sense”.
(Coelho, Paulo: The Alchemist, (London: Harper Collins, 1995), p. 122.
To pursue a brief, but relevant diversion, this quote from the character of the alchemist is also an echo of verses in the book of Matthew and the book of Luke in the New Testament:
‘For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.’
(KJV, Matthew, 6:21/ KJV, Luke, 12:34)
For Potter fans, the quote above is also the source for that elusive epitaph inscribed on Kendra and Ariana Dumbledore’s gravestone:
‘Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.’
(Rowling, J.K.: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, (London: Bloomsbury, 2007), p. 266.
As we can see, the phrase does have a long textual history of its own and it will no doubt continue to re-surface under the guise of new literary glosses, just as it has with Coelho and Rowling in more recent years. Part of the phrase’s enduring charisma can be found in its residual mystery, as its meaning can be ambiguous, but in essence, the phrase captures the relationship between what a person is and what they invest in and value.
In Coelho’s re-writing of it, (during one of Santiago’s exchanges with the alchemist), he suggests that it is the people and objects that we pursue, and the activities we engage in that define us; so much so that those people and those activities become who we are, and by default become our treasure, (or what we value). In Santiago, Coelho creates a model for how the pursuit of a worthy dream, (or a treasure), with an open heart and mind helps us to be most ourselves; for it helps us to not give in to the fear of failure, nor value people or things that would limit and inhibit what we are, or want to be.
It is easier said than done of-course, but perhaps that is exactly why the phrase has a strange power, because our hearts can be changeable, and we sometimes pursue the wrong things, or lose the chances and people that we should have treasured. Fortunately, the phrase is also consolatory, as it suggests that if we pursue what is in our heart, then we may recognise and value what is most important to us. Equally, (and as Coelho offers to us through Santiago), we will at the very least have the chance to find out and see a lot more on the way there.
It is most definitely a message that deserves a humble quest of our very own, and it would be inspiriting to think that the daughter who received her postcard all those years ago went in search of her own heart’s treasure, whatever it may have been. For all of us though, it is not too fantastical to say that every small recognition, and pursuit of what is really in our heart, and any dream we may find there, is a little radical act of hope and joy that we can indeed treasure.
‘It’s the possibility of having a dream come true that makes life interesting…’
(Coelho, Paulo: The Alchemist, (London: Harper Collins, 1995), p. 11.