The Winner Stands Alone by Paulo Coelho

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I am generally not attracted towards novels based on glitz, glamour, celebrities and movies. So when I picked up The Winner Stands Alone by Paulo Coelho, I was a bit apprehensive about it. But this book is much more than the glamour of celebrities and the dreams of ordinary people to have a glamorous life. Through this book, Paulo Coelho explores the importance of morality or rather lack of morality in the pursuit of something you are obsessed about and exposes the dark sides of an International Film Festival.

“This is not a thriller, but a stark portrait of where we are now.” – Paulo Coelho

Paulo Coelho started his writing career in 1982, with Hell Archives and The Pilgrimage in 1986. Next year he wrote The Alchemist which achieved world wide fame for one of the best-selling books in history, selling more than 30 million copies. It has been translated to more than 67 languages. After Alchemist, Coelho wrote Brida, Zahir, Eleven Minutes, The Fifth Mountain, and Veronica Decides to Die.

His latest novel, The Winner Stands Alone, published in 2008, takes place against glitzy background of the Cannes Film Festival. Cannes International Film Festival is held every year in the southern France. Everyone who is anyone in the glamour industry is seen there. Before exploring the different facets of the glamorous festival and the lives of the ‘Superclass’, Coelho’s term for the powerful, he talks about the significance of dreams, morality and power in today’s materialistic world.

“One of the recurrent themes of my books is the importance of paying the price of your dreams. But to what extent can our dreams be manipulated? For the past decades, we lived in a culture that privileged fame, money, power – and most of the people were led to believe that these were the real values that we should pursue.” – Paulo Coelho

Coelho develops a number of characters in this book – producers, actors, designers and supermodels – to give a glimpse of the festival from every possible perspective. He critically analysis and portrays unrestrained ambition for fame and power, manipulated dreams, the craze for dark glasses which are a status symbol, mad cell phones and the ostentatious haute couture and jewellery. Swanky parties dominate the entire festival, and fashion is of utmost important. In Coelho’s words, “some people believe that ‘fashion’ is everything. Every six months, they spend a fortune changing some tiny detail in order to keep up their membership of the very exclusive tribe of the rich.” The Winner Stands Alone is not just a story about the conflict of ethics and morality, but a story about ordinary people who want to reach the ‘Superclass’. The ‘Superclass’ travels in private jets, limos and Maybachs, gets botox injections and dress up in high fashion. They “rule the world; their arguments are subtle, their voices soft, their smiles discreet, but their decisions are final.”

The story revolves around Igor, a successful, rich and handsome Russian businessman but with a blurred distinction of good and evil. He believes that killing is acceptable if it is done for a good reason. He is obsessed for his ex-wife, Ewa, who left him for a successful fashion designer, Hamid. She runs a successful haute-couture shop in Moscow and had left Igor when she realized that he was a psychopath who could even kill if he thinks it’s for alleviating suffering. Igor pursues her to Cannes, where he has determined to ‘destroy whole worlds’ to get her back. He isn’t angry at her for deserting him; rather he forgives her and wants her back at any cost. Hamid is a successful fashion designer, who started off to change the system by showcasing his native country’s culture through his designs, but later fell in the trap of the same system. Gabriela, an aspiring actress, reaches Cannes in the hope that all her life’s hard work will be rewarded and is convinced that being a celebrity is the ultimate achievement and fame is the supreme reward. Jasmine, a successful model from Africa, is another character that Coelho develops and who is the only one grounded in reality. She is not captivated by the shallow world of glamour and sticks to her values.

The plot occurs over 24 hours, amidst lot of action and thrill. Igor is on a mission to get back his ex-wife. His plan is to kill random people, and send cryptic messages to Ewa to win her back by proving his loves for her.

What specifically caught my attention are the different ways by which Igor murders random people. This may sound sadistic, but I was completely intrigued by the technicalities of each method that Coelho describes. Igor first kills a street vendor with his mere hands by using Sambo, then he murders a prominent film distributor in a beach lunch party where lot of people are present, including the victim’s body guards, but he still escapes unsuspected due to his cold intelligence.  His immense wealth gives him access to unique and effective poisons such as curare which he uses on the needle with which he kills the distributor; and then the hermetically sealed envelope filled with hydrogen cyanide which he slips into a hotel room to kill an unknown person. And all this while, Igor remains insensitive to any moral considerations. Though, between the murders, when he sees that Ewa is not responding to his messages, he thinks of giving up and surrendering, but eventually concludes that destiny wants him to fulfill his mission by destroying all worlds to get back Ewa.

Through Igor, Coelho unveils the potential of an individual’s immorality and the harm that it can cause to the society. Coelho tries to intertwine the stories of all the different characters that he portrays but it doesn’t come out effectively. Nevertheless, he successfully examines the psychological and philosophical aspects of the role of morality in pursuing your obsession. The Winner Stands Alone serves as a carrier for exposing the world of glamour which is consumed by the desire for fame, money and power, and its destructive consequences. As always, Coelho searches for answers to moral and spiritual questions but on another level. The Winner Stands Alone is much more than a story of blurring ethics. It is a critique, analysis and exposure of the shallow nature of glamour. I hope that much more people read it, so that the social attitude towards fame and power changes and a better spiritual and moral, rather than materialistic society emerges. In his words, Coelho urges people to find the solution nto today’s problems by going back to real values that matter.

“… please join me in this journey into a world that is coming to an end. You will see glittery, glamour, and blood – but don’t see this book as a thriller: it is a crude portrait of where we are now. We are part of the solution, if we go back to the real values of life. “Follow your dream”. Not the dreams of the Superclass. Not the dreams of our parents, or our partners. We should be what we always wanted to be.”

This book had a deep impact on me, and gave me something to think about seriously. This was not just a book about the dreams of the rich or the ordinary, but the one that showed me the reality of where we are heading to in the mad race for fame and money. Everyone has their own conceptions about life, society, power, dreams and morality. It depends on the individual that whether he allows his dreams and ambitions to overpower his morality and dignity or not. Read this book if you are searching answers to ethical questions in this materialistic world, else read it know about the background workings of Cannes, or just sit back and enjoy its thriller aspect. This is one book that you should not miss!

Mahima Taneja

[Image courtesy: http://thethoughthole.files.wordpress.com/2010/01/0109002312.jpg]

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