Oaulo Coelho’s The Winner Stands Alone leaves the reader cold, not only because the world he has woven the story around is superficial, selfish and unscrupulous, but justice is not carried out. And the trap he talks about seems to be set by him for the reader too.
The plot of the novel spans 24 hours, during the Cannes festival. Igor, a Russian millionaire has come to seek his love (ex-wife) back. She is now the wife of a top dress designer and is a successful professional. One young girl is here to get her first break in the world of glamour. And there is an out of work actress trying her luck.
Igor and his wife Ewa started off a modest life, working hard and living happily. But soon Igor stuck gold and became a millionaire. He develops a cruel streak. For instance, he kills a beggar ‘to put him out of misery’ because he disturbed the sweet time Ewa and he were having. Growing increasingly claustrophobic Ewa leaves him.
Igor wants her back. In his obsession he has ‘forgiven’ her for leaving him for another man. He wants to destroy the world to let her know the extent to which he will go for her.
And yet, when he is face to face with her, he does not want her any more.
Hamid, Ewa’s second husband, the son of a routine cloth merchant in the Middle East gets the support and aid of the Sheikh to learn haute couture. He wants to prove to the West that creativity and sophistry belonged to this side of the globe too. But he gets sucked into the system and he becomes part of the West to whom he wanted to prove a point.
Coelho, in his preface, gives a hint of the theme, the importance of paying a price for following your dream. Without condemning he exposes the hollowness of the values that have in the past few decades come to rule us – power, money, and fame. And men and women are willing to stoop and even kill for these. Igor represents the power hunger. He wants to rule the world, play god. In Hamid, money and recognition have replaced the dream of a humble boy who was excited by the colours and textiles.
Another dreamer gone awry is an aspiring actress Gabriela who goes through hell to reach the top in the fashion. Her moment of glory comes and goes even before she could enjoy the few moments. She even gets a new name, which she cannot remember. Coelho uses these tricks in his narration to convey the futility of situations. Gabriela ala Lisa Winner hopes that her photograph with a superstar would be splashed in her home papers (Chicago) and she would be written about. She would cash in on it and climb the ladder higher.
Poems and stories within the plot of the novel add power to the narration. Through Igor, Coelho narrates an old Afghan story. A city which is a victim of a succession of arrogant kings decides to approach the council of elders. The council suggests that the people elect a king every four years. During the rule he would have absolute power and no one could question him. But at the end of the four years, he has to walk out of the city, into the valley of death (because it was a desert) with family with nothing but the clothes on their back. The council feels that no one would come forward and the city would eventually accept democracy. A young man with four children comes forward to accept kingship. He becomes king and from day one, caravans of things are being taken out of the city. The council and the people think that he was taking the treasure away. They are not worried. They are confident that after four years, he would walk into death and they would bring the wealth back. At the end of four years, he and his wife and kids walk out. The wife was sad that her children were going to die. They walked a whole day and rested in the night. At dawn, the wife went up the mountain just to enjoy a few remaining moments of life. What she saw ahead of her was a city, fully functioning and in order. The husband who joined her said, this is your kingdom. The caravans leaving the city were not carrying gold and ornament. They were carrying seeds and implements, to build this new city and grow food for it. “I knew that four years was not time enough to change centuries of corruption and bad governance. So I built a new city,” he said. Igor justifies his killing spree believing that he is the man who had come to change the glamour world of Cannes that hides all kinds of ugliness.
What irks is the way Igor gets away with multi-murders. And every time he murdered the way he seeks refuge in religion, saying the angels were driving him to it. He even promises in mind to make a shrine for an angel, who he believes was guiding him.
“This is not a thriller, but a stark portrait of where we are now,” says Coelho in the preface. True. But a thriller can be dismissed after the climax, this book leaves the reader disturbed. Igor, Hamid, Ewa, Gabriela are all characters whom we encounter in our daily lives. Coelho does not condemn anybody or take sides. He lets the reader do that.
(HarperCollins Publishers India, A-53, Sector-57, Noida-201 301 (UP))