12 May 2009

Paulo Coelho’s The Winner Stands Alone

Glam - 'Sham'

Author: Paulo Coelho
Pages: 373
Price: 325
Publishers: Harper Collins

Personally, I’ve never been a fan of The Alchemist or its “life-altering profundity”
But yes, I do recogonise it as a hugely successful book, given that almost everyone out there who can read has read it (and much like with Chetan Bhagat’s bestsellers or Khalid Hosseini’s The Kite Runner, mass popularity of books in India is not something to be undermined given how precious little is read anyway).

The other Paulo book I've read is Eleven Minutes, which a friend gifted some years back. I don’t remember much of it except that I was riveted by the story initially. But quickly it spiralled downwards, and then just became a sorry excuse to peddle soft porn.
Unfortunately, Paulo’s latest, The Winner Stands Alone, turned out far worse than I expected. Given that his works are basically translated from Portuguese, one probably ought to give him a bit of a leeway but it’s still annoying how the story is narrated in present tense (but this is something you will probably get used to as the story progresses).

The bigger issue is that that the setting and story ring totally false. So what’s it about? A one line summary of the book would read as 'a gathering of the rich and famous at Cannes even as a multi millionaire serial killer is on the prowl to reclaim his wife'. And the glitzy backdrop of the festival offers Paulo an opportunity to ruminate on many of the superficialities that lurk beneath the surface glory and glamour. Sadly, Paulo’s narrative turns out just as synthetic as the world he wishes to critique.

The characters are predictable, namely, a small town girl - embittered by the experience back home is determined to become a model. Another one wants to be an actress and is anxious she might miss the bus, as she’s 25 already (judging from the two books I’ve read, one can’t be too pleased with the way Paulo portrays young women….in Eleven Minutes especially, I found a definite attempt on his part to titillate the reader). There's a filmmaker, who is trying to get her movie financed by a leading distributor.

These are some of the important characters but the major one is that of Igor, a rich businessmen who is at Cannes in search of his wife Ewa, who left him a couple of years back and is living with a hot shot fashion designer, Hamid Hussain. Each of the characters comes in contact with the other and their destinies collide in small and big ways. All this while, Igor is quietly going about his business of murdering at least four people in separate incidents.

As I mentioned, the story never really strikes you as authentic and the reason (among many) is because there is an awkward distance between the author and his subject. Paulo betrays a definite inadequacy in the understanding of his setting and characters, which is why a redundancy and tedium creeps in ever so often. Most of the players are stereotypes and the only character who could have probably held your interest is Igor but he’s portrayed as so cold, unidimensional and staid that you don’t look forward to any of his encounters with the other characters. In general too, there is not a single character you feel for. This is because they are just too typical, potrayed without any real nuance, depth or imagination.

The only way this quasi thriller could have been salvaged was if it was a quick fire read. But that’s not the case, as there’s a colossal amount of preaching that follows every character’s action. The language tends to be heavy and along with the rambling, it makes for an uneven, uneasy read.
The only positive perhaps is the structure of the narrative, which moves back and forth, tracking a character’s back story and so on – the sole mental exercise that the novel offers you.

With Paulo, you expect him to tell a story, pause and then throw up an existential quandary.
That’s exactly what he does here but sadly, this story cuts no ice so there’s not much pop spirituality to look forward to either.

The only one remotely interesting page I found was on Paulo’s assessment on what human beings consider ‘normal’. Most of what we do is governed by what is ‘acceptable’ rather than what we think is correct.
But barring that, not recommend at all. At least with Eleven Minutes, I felt I had entered a real world for some time but with this one, you get the feeling of being stranded with a clueless bystander.

Short interview with Paulo Coelho

Your latest book basically looks at the superfluous lives lead by the rich and famous….Is that the only overarching theme of the book that you were trying to explore and emphasize or are there other things that drew you towards this subject as well?

In this book I wanted to explore how dreams can be manipulated and how people get shattered in the process. I’m not condemning vanity – since all under the sun is vanity as Salomon said. What I am interested in is in how people allow themselves to be dispossessed of themselves. In our current society there are collective standards that are completely anonymous and yet many try to subscribe to them. Some people believe their happiness is conditioned by money, fame, beauty… How does that happen? This book arose from this central question.

Your central character, Igor ‘destroys worlds’ How exactly do you perceive this character?

When I started to write the book, I had no clue where it would lead me. Somehow the characters take their destiny from the hands of the creator. My main surprise with Igor is that he justifies his crimes in the name of love. This contradiction gradually unfolded page after page. In a way I was a spectator of my character: he had a will of his own and led me towards very dark places. I needed to follow him – in order to see how far we can go in our insanity. I’m a writer and it’s not because I write a novel that it means that I justify all the characters’ actions. There are no justifications for Igor’s murderous acts and I never pretended throughout the novel to “judge” any of the characters in their cravings, illusions, and achievements.

All your books have some philosophical insight to offer. Since you are looked upon as a ‘healer' of sorts by millions of readers, I'm curious to know if that is the role that you primarily assume while writing or choosing a theme - ie to send a message and influence.

With success, the dimensions change but the inner feeling of sharing my soul with others remains intact. I’m living the dream I had in my youth but I never look upon this dream as something that has an end. As long as I’m able to live, think and love, the spark will continue.

What’s coming up next? And what are the themes you would like to explore in the future?

I can’t say since I’m not currently writing. I don’t like to speculate about what I may or not write. It takes away the “momentum” when I actually sit down and start a story.


rohit said...

Must be an enjoyable read Winner Stands Alone by Paulo Coelho. loved the way you wrote it. I find your review very genuine and original, this book is going in by "to read" list.

Anonymous said...

Amazing book! it really got me.I read alchemist and it was amazing,too.Eleven minutes didn't get me that well but the winner stands alone made me dream.I'm a guy who doesn't like to read books that are more than 200 pages long but i just gave it a try and it gave me an amazing experience!