The Winner Stands Alone by Paulo Coelho

And He said unto his disciples, Therefore I say unto you, Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat; neither for the body, what ye shall put on. The life is more than meat, and the body is more than raiment. -- The Gospel According to Luke

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

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

Bookstore in Cyprus by Thelma We live in a very sad world. A world where the only drivel people read is glossy magazines devoted to 'celebrities', where they watch utter garbage on TV, where they themselves yearn to be celebrities.

What are these 'celebrities'? People whose only name to fame is that they are a celebrity. They are generally of little talent, here today, gone tomorrow, to be replaced by the next celebrity. These non-entities are famous for being famous, nothing else.

We have the cult of the non-entity. People with no talent other than for being offensive get paid enormous sums for presenting TV programmes where they interview other non-entities, who in turn get paid vast sums for being 'celebrities'.

It was not always so. Once upon a time we would celebrate people of intellect and talent: Emile Zola, Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins, Lewis Carroll, Mathew Lewis, Edgar Allan Poe, Ann Radcliffe, Leo Tolstoy, Hermann Hesse, Astor Piazzolla, Mozart, Bach, Vivaldi, Picasso, Dali, Newton, Einstein ...

There are people of talent today, the Brazilian writer Paulo Coelho, the Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk, the Indian writer Arundhati Roy, the Spanish writer Carlos Ruiz Zafón, the Swiss writer and philosopher Pascal Mercier, the beautiful and talented Russian artist Dasha Balashova, so why do we have this obsession with 'celebrities'?

In the summer I like to pay a visit to Brighton, wander around the old part, in particular North Laine, where there are still old shops retaining individuality and character. Then I like to wander down to the beach where this guy has a bookstall near the old derelict pier. He has a good selection of books, including good literature. What I have noticed is that the people browsing through the literature, and when you engage them in conversation know their literature, are nearly all female, usually in their twenties, and nearly always from Latin America or Eastern Europe.

There is thus hope yet.

People do have dreams, but it seems to be nearly always dreams planted in their minds by market manipulators. They have to have the latest mobile phone, the latest trainers, the latest fashion, listen to the latest banal pop that all sounds the same.

We all should be a 'winner'. Not in the sense of someone who finally wins what is important to his/her life. Not in the sense that happiness is the most valuable gift on Earth and it can be attained here and now, when your work fulfills your heart. We should be a winner in the sense that the system portraits a successful person: celebrity, influence, photos in glossy magazines, behaving like the masters of the universe.

Yes, you may reach the goal society has fed you but will you be satisfied? Will you be whole? Will you be in peace? This cycle of possession never ends because the moment that you think that you have reached your goal another desire creeps in. And how can you find rest when it is the hunt that moves you?

While people are connected omniscient thanks to their mobile phones and GPS they all speak the same words, fight for the same goals, and crave the same things. How could it be otherwise? If fashion exists it is precisely because you can mold the desire of the masses or how else could a bag, a dress impose itself as necessary?

In a world of invisible yet unsurpassable 'diktats', where a few puppeteers pull the strings of the many, instill in other people's dreams the pursue of superficial things, there seems to be a rising feeling, a silent despair that creeps in.

Greed to have, greed to be seen, greed to prevail, even greed to kill, if you think it is for a good cause like love, for example.

What we don't know is that, behind the scenes, the real manipulators remain anonymous. They understand that the most effective power is the one that nobody can notice until it is too late, and you a trapped.

Paulo Coelho finished writing The Winner Stands Alone just as the financial markets started to collapse.

Soon after I finished writing The winner stands alone, the financial market collapsed. Will this lead us again to the real values? I really don't know. What I do know is that we cannot continue to allow our dreams to be manipulated.

Maybe, just maybe, with the financial system collapsing, a system driven by greed and wanton consumerism, people will take stock and rethink their lives. Maybe like Santiago in The Alchemist, they will learn to follow their dreams, adopt real values, not follow the plastic dreams they have had manufactured for them.

We all need basic food, shelter and clothing, clean water, but what do we need beyond that?

We pursue increase in GNP as though it is religious salvation. Shopping has become a leisure activity, not a walk in the park or the countryside, a trip to the theatre or art gallery or museum, but shopping. People go out and shop, not because they need something, shopping has become an end in itself. What at best was once seen as a necessary chore people now engage in willingly. We go out and buy stuff, we bring it home where it becomes clutter, six months later it becomes trash and we throw it out. The Third World is exploited both for its labour and resources, the environment becomes polluted, we all work more hours than we need, in jobs we hate, just so that we have the money to carrying on consuming.

And does it make us happy? The answer is no.

Bookstore in Russia by Daria In the 1950s it was realised that if the economy was to keep on growing, if Big Business was to keep on growing and raking in big bucks, then we all had to be conned into buying stuff we did not want or need. At the same time in the US it was realised that its citizens were a small proportion of the world population but were consuming nearly all its resources. To maintain the status quo of huge inequality, the US had to remain the dominant military force.

From the 1950s onwards, although there has been a steady growth in GNP, there has not been a steady growth in personal wellbeing.

It is our consumerism and greed that has brought us to the brink of disaster, and yet what do politicians do when the economy teeters on the brink of the chasm, when car production drops, when spending on the High Street drops, they go out of their way to stimulate pointless consumerism, propose a car scrappage payment to encourage the purchase of new cars, pour billions into propping up failing banks, meanwhile the poor are left to starve, climate instability worsens.

We need to re-address our way of thinking. An economy that is fit for purpose, that is for the wellbeing of people and planet, not to the benefit of global corporations and their puppet politcians.

In our arrogance we think we can save the planet, not recognizing that the planet is far more powerful than us and that one day Gaia will strike back and wipe off the face of the earth the cancerous infection known as mankind.

It is all about image, be it wearing the latest fashion or consuming a can of coke. We think we are in control of our own destiny, but we are not, we are being manipulated by con men.

Fashion. Whatever can people be thinking? Do they think fashion is something that changes according to the season of the year? Did they really come from all corners of the world to show off their dresses, their jewellery and their collection of shoes? They don't understand. '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.'

Ever since groups of men and women first started living together in caves, fashion has been the only language everyone can understand, even complete strangers. 'We dress in the same way. I belong to your tribe. Let's gang up on the weaklings as a way of surviving.'

But 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. If they were to visit Silicon Valley, where the billionaires of the IT industry wear plastic watches and beat-up jeans, they would understand that the world has changed; everyone now seems to belong to the same social class; no one cares any more about the size of a diamond or the make of a tie or a leather briefcase. In fact, ties and leather briefcases don't even exist in that part of the world; nearby, however, is Hollywood, a relatively more powerful machine albeit in decline which still manages to convince the innocent to believe in haute-couture dresses, emerald necklaces and stretch limos. And since this is what still appears in all the magazines, who would dare destroy a billion-dollar industry involving advertisements, the sale of useless objects, the invention of entirely unnecessary new trends, and the creation of identical face creams all bearing different labels?

How perverse! Just when everything seems to be in order and as families gather round the table to have supper, the phantom of the Superclass appears, selling impossible dreams: luxury, beauty, power. And the family falls apart.

The father works overtime to be able to buy his son the latest trainers because if his son doesn't have a pair, he'll be ostracised at school. The wife weeps in silence because her friends have designer clothes and she has no money. Their adolescent children, instead of learning the real values of faith and hope, dream only of becoming singers or movie stars. Girls in provincial towns lose any real sense of themselves and start to think of going to the big city, prepared to do anything, absolutely anything, to get a particular piece of jewellery. A world that should be directed towards justice begins instead to focus on material things, which, in six months' time, will be worthless and have to be replaced, and that is how the whole circus ensures that the despicable creatures gathered together in Cannes remain at the top of the heap.

What are people buying into, what are they paying a high price for? It is not the designer on the label as the design will have been by a young designer who wants out to set up his own label. It will have not even have been made by the company, it will have come from some Third World sweatshop, a dollar or less at the factory gate, one hundred dollars or more retail. All that people are paying for is the label, the brand name.

Often the products from different brands, different labels, all come out of the same factory. Production is moved around the world to keep prices low, which impacts on working conditions.

Anyone considering buying a leather bag or pair of gloves from designer brands Prada, Mulberry, Louis Vuitton, Aspinals of London and Samsonite could be forgiven for assuming that paying such high prices might mean avoiding the exploitation and abuse for which high street fashion is renowned.

However, as Turkish workers at the DESA factory in Turkey could tell you, the reality is very different. Long hours, low wages and appalling conditions are the norm and for many months the factory has been running a campaign of harassment and intimidation against the union they formed to stand up for their rights. [see DESA Workers Win Supreme Court Case]

The ultimate chic, a t-shirt bearing meaningful words from a critic of the fashion industry Cannes International Film Festival is an annual film festival held in the south of France, the major film festival where everyone who is anyone has to be seen.

Cannes is where in 1953 an unknown 19-year-old French teenager posed in her bikini on the beach for a photographer. Brigitte Bardot became an overnight success. Now every blonde thinks she can do the same.

Cannes is where every starlet is a wannabe film star, where every budding director has the film script in his pocket, where every nobody wants to be a celebrity, wants to join the glitterati. They have seen their dreams in the glossy magazines, know it is who they want to be.

Cannes is a complete contrast to the BeyondTV International Film Festival held every year in Swansea in the south of Wales. No pretentious crap, just people wishing to show their work that other people wish to see. [see BeyondTV 2007]

In The Winner Stands Alone we see Cannes through the eyes of the people there.

Gabriela, an undiscovered actress, thinks all her hard work and graft is about to be rewarded, she is about to hit the big time as a star. It will come not a moment too soon as she has already hit 25.

Igor Malev, a Russian millionaire, owner of a Russian telecom company, believes money can buy everything, until he finds it cannot buy the one thing he wants most, his ex-wife. For all his wealth, Igor is a thug, he is quite willing to kill to get what he wants.

Igor Malev is in Cannes to make a statement, to send a message. Igor has promised to destroy whole worlds to get his wife back ... And Ivor always keeps his word.

Savoy, the local police inspector, who believes he has a serial killer on the loose, who if he solves the murders and apprehends the killer will achieve fame before the world's media.

Only Jasmine, a stunning black model, this year's new discovery, seems to be unfazed by what is happening around her, is able to keep her feet firmly planted on the ground. Only Jasmine values what is real in life, is not mesmerised by the shallowness of tinsel town.

It is all smoke and mirrors. These glamorous lives are on a treadmill they do not know how to or dare not get off. Their lives are governed by the corporations that own them. Even their wealthy lifestyles is not their own.

The Emperor has no clothes.

Like an actress in her mid-twenties, the film industry is passed its sell-by-date. The film industry is of similar vintage to the car industry. Both industries are passed their prime and are now in terminal decline. Why go to the cinema when you can watch a film at your own convenience on your laptop? Why buy a DVD when you can pick it up as a freebie with the comic they call a newspaper or download it off the Internet? For years the film industry has been ripping of the punters regional encoding on DVDs, a film released on DVD, then a special extended edition, then a two-disc collector's edition with special features, over-inflated prices all intended to rip-off the unwary. An industry in its death throws, lashing out. [see From Pirate Coelho Central and Pirate Bay case exposes corporate greed]

If we are to dream, to follow our dreams like Santiago, it should be our own dreams, what makes us who we are, what gives us our individuality, what makes us human, not plastic dreams manufactured for us by global corporations and their puppet politicians.

The Winner Stands Alone is a world of excess and glamour and the latest fashion. It stands in stark contrast to the trashy novel by Lauren Weisberger, The Devil Wears Pravda and its adulation of fashion.

The Winner Stands Alone is a brilliant and damning indictment of the shallow world of fashion and celebrity. It is though more than that, it is a critique, exposé and analysis, but with the soul searching that only Paulo Coelho can achieve.

Like The Zahir, The Winner Stands Alone is a tale of obsession, obsession that turns to murder.

Occasionally there is a writer, a book, a novel that leads to the exposure of prevailing social conditions, that raises social awareness, that leads to social reform. Charles Dickens exposed the conditions of the Victorian underclass and this led to social reform. Upton Sinclair did the same with his exposure of the working conditions of the American working class. John Steinbeck in The Grapes of Wrath showed the impact on the mid-west of the Great Depression. Alexander Solzhenitsyn exposed the horrors of Stalinist Russia. Rachel Carson in Silent Spring showed that pesticides were killing wildlife. Naomi Klein with No Logo brought to wider public attention the sweatshop conditions that lie behind many famous brand names. More recently Marina Lewycka with humour and wit has exposed in Two Caravans the working conditions of illegal migrant workers in England and the abomination of factory farming. George Orwell in Nineteen Eighty-Four and Aldous Huxley in Brave New World foretold the future and so it has come to pass.

Has Paulo Coelho managed to do the same with his exposure of the shallow nature of celebrity and fashion?

... 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, being "follow your dream" the most important of all. Not the dreams of the Superclass. Not the dreams of our parents, or our partners. We should be what we always wanted to be.

Will The Winner Stands Alone cause a fundamental shift in social attitudes? Has Paulo Coelho caught the mood of the times with the global economic collapse? Will a better society emerge?

As Paulo Coelho says: 'We are part of the solution, if we go back to the real values of life ...'

The Winner Stands Alone is a tale of our times. It is also a well-written thriller.

'The Road Not Taken' by Robert Frost is quoted by in The Winner Stands Alone. It is being read by the black model Jasmine. She chooses to take 'the one less traveled by'. To choose ones own path, not that followed by the common herd, to follow ones destiny, is a common theme in the writings of Paulo Coelho. It is therefore most apt in The Winner Stands Alone, a world of celebrity and fashion. This is reinforced a little later when the last two lines return to Jasmine in her thoughts.

Synchronicity: The day after I picked up a copy of The Winner Stands Alone, I turned on the radio and found myself listening on BBC Radio 4 Thinking Allowed to an excellent discussion of an exhibition illustrating throughout history status and rank, wealth, poverty and inequality through the visual arts.

Synchronicity: It was Good Friday, a couple of days after I had picked up my copy of The Winner Stands Alone. I turned on the radio and an item on the lunchtime news was the efforts Monte Carlo was taking to attract the Super Rich to its casinos, now it was likely to lose its attraction for dirty money. Monte Carlo is just down the road from Cannes.

The ultimate chic, a t-shirt bearing meaningful words from a critic of the fashion industry. [see Paulo Coelho t-shirts from Mango]

Within weeks of the publication of The Winner Stands Alone, Paulo Coelho attended the Cannes Film Festival and stayed at the very same hotel featured in the novel!

A copy of The Winner Stands Alone has been registered as a BookCrossing book. [see BCID 7102112]

BookCrossing books are released into the wild and their progress checked on the Internet via a unique BookCrossing ID (BCID).

For my lovely friends Iva and Alissa who I am sure would enjoy The Winner Stands Alone and agree with the sentiments expressed. And my lovely friend Maria of whom Jasmine reminds me. And my lovely friend Polina who would also enjoy The Winner Stands Alone.
Books Worth Reading ~ Paulo Coelho
(c) Keith Parkins 2009 -- June 2009 rev 9