It has been poignant to be reading ‘The Winner Stands Alone’ during a time when in the real world the Cannes Film Festival is underway. I have almost felt slightly uncomfortable reading Cannes- related news stories, and I suppose that just goes to show how realistic Coelho’s characterisation is in his latest novel. At least, that of his main character, the dark Igor, is.
‘The Winner Stands Alone’ follows the journey of Igor, an extremely successful Russian businessman, who has come to the Cannes film festival to prove to his ex-wife, Ewa, the extent of his love for her. To do this, Igor pledges to destroy whole worlds. What ensues is a journey of ruthless murders and pathological conquests. Throughout the novel we also, sometimes slightly haphazardly, follow the journeys of models, designers, actors and directors, watching many of their stories intertwine and crash into each other.
In his preface Coelho writes that “this is not a thriller, but a stark portrait of where we are now.” I both agree and disagree with this statement. It is indeed a statement of where we are now. His comment on celebrity, power and the ‘Superclass’ could not be more relevant and pertinent of exactly where we are as a society right now.
However, there is certainly a lot very thriller-esque about the novel. In fact, slightly worried that maybe I have misinterpreted the word ‘thriller’ I looked up the dictionary definition which read; “a novel, play or film with an exciting plot, typically involving crime or espionage”. This certainly describes ‘The Winner Stands Alone’. It was a page-turner, and the main reason it was so captivating was because of the crime storyline, which was indeed very exciting.
I would be happy to debate this issue with others who have read the book though; as I am sure Coelho would not so explicitly have written that it is “not a thriller” for no apparent reason. But it certainly comes across far more as a thriller than his other novels do, and in some ways I did feel as though this distracted from the philosophical and spiritual characteristics, which are often the elements which make you hungrily turn the pages in his other novels.
Indeed, I have not finished the book feeling particularly spiritually uplifted, as I have done when reading some of his other novels. But perhaps Coelho does not want us to feel exactly the same on completion of all of his novels. And there certainly were some elements of philosophy in there which Coelho is often so notorious for. This comes across in particular in his discussion on celebrity and power throughout the novel. And we are forced to confront the idea that perhaps a simple life is a happier life, and that once you have reached the lofty heights of the ‘Superclass’ the only thing there is to think about is your inevitable demise.
I think it should be noted however that if you have read this novel with the hope of a similar read to novels such as ‘The Alchemist’, as indeed I did, then you may be left feeling slightly lost. But I must also make it clear that even if it does come across as a thriller, it is certainly a compelling thriller that will make you want to turn the page and will give you plenty of cliff-hangers.
On a separate note, I always feel a little more intelligent, and certainly a lot more informed after reading one of Coelho’s novels. And ‘The Winner Stands Alone’ is no exception. Whether it is about the behind the scenes realities of the modeling or film industry, the details of a highly complex method of killing, or ancient proverbs and stories which perfectly illustrate how a character in the novel is currently feeling, Coelho never fails to inform his reader. His tenacious level of research is apparent throughout the novel and always makes you feel as though this is literature worth reading not just because the language is enjoyable but also because you are constantly learning about new things.
Overall, I would recommend this book (and I think this is partly bacause I am a Coelho fan though) but if you have not read any Paulo Coelho before I would recommend reading ‘The Alchemist’ or ‘The Zahir’ first. This is not meant to diminish anything from ‘The Winner Stands Alone’ but it is to show just how brilliant, uplifting and compelling these other two novels are. To me, they play to Coelho’s strengths more fervently.