'Not a thriller but a stark portrait of where we are now'


The world has recently lost its most loved celebrity, the ‘King of Pop’ Michael Jackson. In his legendary life of 50 years that constituted enormous talent, a troubled childhood, spectacular achievements, glory, wealth, scandals, and finally a death apparently caused by the pressure of sustaining that larger-than-life fame, MJ was the supreme example of celebrity existence. And it is the dark reality behind such fantasy-like lives led by the glamorous people of showbiz that Paulo Coelho tries to expose in his new fiction The Winner Stands Alone.

Set against the backdrop of the glittering Cannes Film Festival, the book basically tracks the journey of its protagonist from being a mad lover capable of macabre acts for the sake of his love to someone who can destroy the same love for a higher purpose.

Russian millionaire Igor Malev’s wife Ewa, whom he thought to be his soulmate, has left him for a fashion magnate Hamid Hussain. Igor wants Ewa back at any cost, even if it means killing people or “destroying whole worlds”, as he puts it. Igor follows Ewa and Hamid to Cannes where they are making an appearance. There, Igor manages to “destroy a few worlds” with well planned and intelligently executed acts hoping that Ewa would understand his deep feelings for her behind his insane behaviour.

While Igor’s desperate longing for Ewa and the means he adopts to reunite with her form the thriller aspect of the book, it is actually the dark underbelly of the world of glitz and glamour mainly comprising films and fashion, that Coelho fiercely exposes in The Winner Stands Alone.

All characters in the book including Olivia, a street vendor; Javits Wild, a highly influential American film distributor; the unnamed popular Hollywood actor; Gabriela, a wannabe starlet; Maureen, a talented filmmaker in need of a little more recognition and success; Jasmine Tiger, a 19-year-old fashion model who is mature for her age — serve one grand purpose for Coelho, that is to burst the massive bubble of awe that surrounds the ‘Superclass’ made up of Hollywood actors, producers, fashion designers and supermodels among others. While fashion is ‘merely a way of saying: “I belong to your world. I’m wearing the same uniform as your army, so don’t shoot,” Hollywood ‘still manages to convince the innocent to believe in haute-couture dresses, emerald necklaces and stretch limos.’ Employing all possible shades of sarcasm, Coelho rips apart the facade of the superstars of the glamour world to reveal the ugliness of jealousy, insecurities, fear, selfishness and ruthless competition that lie beneath it.

In the preface, Coelho declares that ‘the book is not a thriller but a stark portrait of where we are now’. Accordingly, despite the presence of thriller elements in the form of sophisticated killings, police investigation, detectives, etc, the book essentially retains the spiritual theme that is fundamental to all of Coelho’s works. And this fact also makes the thriller part of the book look ridiculous at places. But the conviction with which he portrays how the material excesses of modern life bring about spiritual hollowness that becomes the source of all ills in society, is convincing. However, it is not just the ‘Superclass’ that Coelho targets in the book. He also gives a glimpse of the real manipulators of the glamour world who pull the strings behind the scenes like the underworld, politics, corruption, etc.

The Winner Stands Alone is a reality check for those who are too mesmerised by the lifestyles of the wealthy and famous to notice the gaping holes of darkness in their inner worlds. Coelho’s prose is energetic, easy-flowing, captivating and his message is hard-hitting. Coelho comes up a winner with this one!

The Winner Stands Alone
Paulo Coelho
Translated from Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa
HarperCollins, 2009,
pp 374, Rs 325

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