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are being allowed through. The other lane is empty because even the

people who live in the city are still only just getting ready to go to

work.

He feels no resentment. He has passed the really difficult phase,

when he couldn’t sleep because he was so filled with pain and hatred.

Now he can understand Ewa’s feelings: after all, monogamy is a myth

that has been rammed down people’s throats for far too long. He has

read a lot on the subject. The inability to be monogamous isn’t just a

matter of excess hormones or vanity, but, as all the research indicates,

a genetic configuration found in almost all animals.


12


 

PAU L O C O E L H O

 

Paternity tests given to birds, monkeys, and foxes revealed that


simply because these species had developed a social relationship very

similar to marriage did not necessarily mean that they had been faith-

ful to each other. In seventy percent of cases, their offspring turn out

to have been fathered by males other than their partners. Igor remem-

bered something written by David Barash, professor of psychology

at the University of Washington in Seattle, in which he said that the

only species in nature that doesn’t commit adultery and in which there

seems to be one hundred percent monogamy is a flatworm, Diplozoon

paradoxum. The male and female worms meet as adolescents, and their

bodies literally fuse together.

This is why he cannot accuse Ewa of anything; she was merely fol-

lowing her human instincts. However, she had been brought up to be-

lieve in those unnatural social conventions and must be feeling guilty,

thinking that he doesn’t love her anymore and will never forgive her.

He is, in fact, prepared to do anything, even to send messages that

will mean he has destroyed someone’s world, just so that she’ll know

that not only is he willing to welcome her back, he will gladly bury the

past and ask no questions.

 

H e s e e s a y o u n g w o m a n setting out her wares on the pave-

ment—various bits of craftwork and jewelry of rather dubious taste.

Yes, she will be the sacrifice. She is the message he must send, a

message that will be understood as soon as it reaches its destination.

Before going over to her, he observes her tenderly; she doesn’t know

that in a little while, if all goes well, her soul will be wandering the

clouds, free forever from an idiotic job that will never take her where

her dreams would like her to go.

“How much?” he asks in perfect French.

“Which piece do you want, sir?”

“All of them.”

The young woman—who must be twenty at most—smiles.

“This isn’t the first time someone has asked to buy everything. The



 

The Winner Stands Alone


 

13


 

next step is usually: ‘Would you like to go for a walk? You’re far too

pretty to be here selling these things. I’m . . .’ ”

“No, I’m not. I don’t work in the movies, nor am I going to make you

an actress and change your life. I’m not interested in the things you’re

selling either. I just need to talk, and we can do that right here.”

The young woman averts her gaze.

“My parents make these things, and I’m proud of what I do. One

day, someone will come along who’ll recognize their value. Please, go

away. I’m sure you can find someone else to listen to what you have to

say.”

Igor takes a bundle of notes out of his pocket and puts them gently

down beside her.

“Forgive my rudeness. I only said I wasn’t interested in buying

anything to see if you would lower the price. Anyway, my name is

Igor Malev. I flew in from Moscow yesterday, and I’m still a little jet-

lagged.”

“My name’s Olivia,” says the young woman, pretending to believe

his lie.

Without asking her permission, he sits down on the bench beside

her. She shifts up an inch or so.

“What do you want to talk about?”

“First, take the money.”

Olivia hesitates, then, looking around, realizes that she has no

reason to be afraid. Cars are now driving down the one available lane,

young people are heading for the beach, and an elderly couple are

coming toward them down the pavement. She puts the money in her

pocket, not even bothering to count it; she has enough experience of

life to know that it’s more than enough.

“Thank you for accepting my offer,” says the Russian. “You asked

me what I want to talk about? Well, nothing very important.”

“You must be here for a reason. You need a reason to visit Cannes at

this time of year when the city is as unbearable for the people who live

here as it is for the tourists.”

Igor is looking at the sea. He lights a cigarette.



 

14


 

PAU L O C O E L H O

 

“Smoking’s bad for your health,” she says.

He ignores this remark.

“What, for you, is the meaning of life?” he asks.

“Love.”

Olivia smiles. This really is an excellent way to start the day, talk-


ing about deeper things than the price of each piece of handiwork or

the clothes people are wearing.

“And for you?”

“Yes, love too. But for me it was also important to earn enough

money to show my parents that I was capable of succeeding. I did that,

and now they’re proud of me. I met the perfect woman, we married,

and I would like to have had children, to honor and fear God. The

children, alas, never came.”

Olivia doesn’t like to ask why. The man, in his forties, continues in

his perfect French:

“We thought of adopting a child. Indeed, we spent two or three

years thinking about it, but then life began to get too busy what with

business trips and parties, meetings and deals.”

“When you sat down here to talk, I thought you were just another

eccentric millionaire in search of an adventure, but I’m enjoying talk-

ing about these things.”

“Do you think about the future?”

“Yes, I do, and I think my dreams are much the same as yours. Ob-

viously, I’d like to have children as well . . .”

She pauses. She doesn’t want to hurt the feelings of this unexpected

new companion.

“. . . if, of course, I can. Sometimes, God has other plans.”

He appears not to have heard her answer.

“Do only millionaires come to the Festival?”

“Millionaires and people who think they’re millionaires or want to

become millionaires. While the Festival is on, this part of the city is

like a madhouse. Everyone behaves as if they were terribly important,

apart from the people who really are important; they’re much politer;

they don’t need to prove anything to anyone. They don’t always buy



 

The Winner Stands Alone


 

15


 

what I have to sell, but at least they smile, make some pleasant remark,

and treat me with respect. What are you doing here?”

“God made the world in six days, but what is the world? It’s what

you or I see. Whenever someone dies, a part of the universe dies too.

Everything a person felt, experienced, and saw dies with them, like

tears in the rain.”

“ ‘Like tears in the rain’ . . . I saw a film once that used that phrase.

I can’t remember now what it was.”

“I didn’t come here to cry. I came to send messages to the woman

I love, and in order to do that, I need to destroy a few universes or

worlds.”

Instead of feeling alarmed by this last statement, Olivia laughs.

This handsome, well-dressed man, speaking fluent French, doesn’t

seem like a madman at all. She was fed up with always hearing the

same things: you’re very pretty, you could be doing better for your-

self, how much is this, how much is that, it’s awfully expensive, I’ll go

away and think about it and come back later (which they never do, of

course), etc. At least this Russian has a sense of humor.

“Why do you need to destroy the world?”

“So that I can rebuild my own world.”

Olivia would like to try and console him, but she’s afraid of hear-

ing the famous words: “I think you could give meaning to my life,” at

which point the conversation would come to an abrupt halt because she

has other plans for her future. Besides, it would be absurd on her part

to try and teach someone older and more successful how to overcome

his difficulties.

One way out would be to learn more about his life. After all, he’s

paid her—and paid her well—for her time.

“How do you intend to do that?”

“Do you know anything about frogs?”

“Frogs?”

“Yes, various biological studies have shown that if a frog is placed

in a container along with water from its own pond, it will remain there,

utterly still, while the water is slowly heated up. The frog doesn’t react to



16


 

PAU L O C O E L H O


 

the gradual increase in temperature, to the changes in its environment, and

when the water reaches the boiling point, the frog dies, fat and happy.

“On the other hand, if a frog is thrown into a container full of already

boiling water, it will jump straight out again, scalded, but alive!”

Olivia doesn’t quite see what this has to do with the destruction of

the world. Igor goes on:

“I was like that boiled frog. I didn’t notice the changes. I thought

everything was fine, that the bad things would just go away, that it

was just a matter of time. I was ready to die because I lost the most

important thing in my life, but, instead of reacting, I sat there bobbing

apathetically about in water that was getting hotter by the minute.”

Olivia plucks up the courage to ask:

“What did you lose?”

“The truth is I didn’t lose anything. Life sometimes separates

people so that they can realize how much they mean to each other.

For example, last night, I saw my wife with another man. I know she

wants to come back to me, that she still loves me, but she’s not brave

enough to take the first step. Some boiled frogs still think it’s obedience

that counts, not ability: those who can, lead, and those with any sense,

obey. So where’s the truth in all this? It’s better to emerge from a situ-

ation slightly scalded, but alive and ready to act. And I think you can

help me in that task.”

Olivia tries to imagine what is going through the mind of the man

beside her. How could anyone leave such an interesting person, some-

one who can talk about things she has never even thought about? Then

again, there’s no logic to love. Despite her youth, she knows that. Her

boyfriend, for example, can be quite brutal and sometimes hits her for

no reason, and yet she can’t bear to be apart from him even for a day.

 

W h a t e x a c t l y w e r e t h e y t a l k i n g about? About frogs and

about how she could help him. She can’t help him, of course, so she’d

better change the subject.

“And how do you intend to set about destroying the world?”

Igor points to the one free lane on the Boulevard de la Croisette.



 

The Winner Stands Alone


 

17


 

“Let’s say that I don’t want you to go to a party, but I daren’t say

so openly. If I wait for the rush hour to begin and stop my car in the

middle of the road, within ten minutes, the whole of the Boulevard

opposite the beach will have come to a standstill. Drivers will think:

‘There must have been an accident’ and will wait patiently. In fifteen

minutes, the police will arrive with a truck to tow the car away.”

“That kind of thing is always happening.”

“Ah, yes, but I—very carefully and without anyone noticing—will

have got out of my car and scattered nails and other sharp objects on

the road in front of it. And I will have carefully painted all of these

objects black, so that they blend in with the asphalt. As the tow truck

approaches, its tires will be punctured. Now we have two problems,

and the tailback of traffic will have reached the suburbs of this small

city, the very suburbs where you perhaps live.”

“You clearly have a very vivid imagination, but you would still

only have managed to delay me by about an hour.”

It was Igor’s turn to smile.

“Oh, I could come up with all kinds of ways of making the situa-

tion worse. When people started gathering round to help, for example,

I would throw something like a small smoke bomb under the truck.

This would frighten everyone. I would get into my car, feigning de-

spair, and start the engine. At the same time, though, I would empty

a bit of lighter fluid on the floor of the car and it would ignite. I would

then jump out of the car in time to observe the scene: the car gradually

going up in flames, the flames reaching the fuel tank, the explosion that

would affect the car behind as well, and so on in a chain reaction. And

I could achieve all that with a car, a few nails, a smoke bomb that you

can buy in a shop, and a small amount of lighter fluid . . .”

Igor takes from his pocket a small flask containing some kind of

liquid.

“. . . about this much. I should have done that when I realized Ewa

was about to leave me, to make her postpone her decision and reflect

a little and consider the consequences. When people start to reflect on

decisions they’re trying to make, they usually change their mind—it

requires a lot of courage to take certain steps.



 

18


 

PAU L O C O E L H O

 

“But I was too proud. I thought it was just a temporary move and


that she would soon realize her mistake. I’m sure she regrets leaving

me and, as I said, wants to come back. But for that to happen I need to

destroy a few worlds.”

The expression on his face has changed, and Olivia is no longer

amused by the story. She gets up.

“Well, I need to do some work.”

“But I paid you to listen to me. I paid enough to cover your whole

working day.”

She puts her hand in her pocket to give him back the money, but at

that moment, she sees the pistol pointing at her face.

“Sit down.”

Her first impulse is to run. The elderly couple are still slowly ap-

proaching.

“Don’t run away,” he says, as if he could read her thoughts. “I

haven’t the slightest intention of firing the gun if you’ll just sit down

again and hear me out. If you don’t try anything and do as I say, then

I swear I won’t shoot.”

A series of options pass rapidly through Olivia’s head, the first

being to run, zigzagging her way across the street, but she realizes that

her legs have gone weak.

“Sit down,” the man says again. “I won’t shoot if you do as you’re

told. I promise.”

Yes, it would be madness on his part to fire that gun on a sunny

morning, with cars driving past outside, people going to the beach, the

traffic getting heavier by the minute, and more pedestrians walking

along the pavement. Best to do as the man says, even if only because

she’s in no state to do anything else; she’s almost fainting.

She obeys. Now she just has to convince him that she’s not a threat,

to listen to his deserted husband’s lament, to promise him that she has

seen nothing, and then, as soon as a policeman appears, doing his usual

round, throw herself to the ground and scream for help.

“I know exactly what you’re feeling,” the man says, trying to calm

her. “The symptoms of fear have been the same since the dawn of

time. They were the same when men had to face wild beasts and they



 

The Winner Stands Alone


 

19


 

continue to be so right up to the present day: blood drains away from

the face and the epidermis, protecting the body and avoiding blood

loss, that’s why people turn pale. The intestines relax and release ev-

erything, so that there will be no toxic matter left contaminating the

organism. The body initially refuses to move, so as not to provoke the

beast in question by making any sudden movement.”

“This is all a dream,” thinks Olivia. She remembers her parents,

who should have been here with her this morning, but who had been

up all night making jewelry because the day looked likely to be a busy

one. A few hours ago, she had been making love with her boyfriend,

whom she believed to be the man of her life, even though he sometimes

hit her; they reached orgasm simultaneously, something that hadn’t

happened for a long time. After breakfast, she decided not to take her

usual shower because she felt free and full of energy and pleased with

life.

No, this can’t be happening. She must try to appear calm.

“Let’s talk. The reason you bought all my stuff was so that we could

talk. Besides, I wasn’t getting up in order to run away.”

He presses the barrel of the gun gently against the girl’s ribs.

The elderly couple pass by, glance at them, and notice nothing odd.

“There’s that Portuguese girl,” they think, “trying, as usual, to im-

press some man with her dark eyebrows and childlike smile.” It’s not

the first time they’ve seen her with a strange man, and this one, to

judge by his clothes, has plenty of money.

Olivia fixes them with her eyes, as if trying to tell them what’s going

on just by looking. The man beside her says brightly:

“Good morning.”

The couple move off without uttering a word. They’re not in the

habit of talking to strangers or of exchanging greetings with street

vendors.

“Yes, let’s talk,” says the Russian, breaking the silence. “I’m not

really going to try and disrupt the traffic. I was just giving that as an

example. My wife will realize I’m here when she starts to receive the

messages. I’m not going to take the obvious route, which would be to

go and meet her. I need her to come to me.”



 

20


 

PAU L O C O E L H O

 

This was a possible way out.

“I can deliver the messages, if you like. Just tell me which hotel


she’s staying at.”

The man laughs.

“You suffer from the youthful vice of thinking you’re cleverer than

everyone else. The moment you left here, you’d go straight to the

police.”

Her blood freezes. Are they going to sit on this bench all day? Is he

going to shoot her after all, now that she knows his face?

“You said you weren’t going to shoot.”

“I promised I wouldn’t if you behaved in a more adult fashion and

with due respect for my intelligence.”

He’s right. The adult thing to do would be to talk a little about

herself. She might arouse the compassion that is always there in the

mind of a madman by explaining that she’s in a similar situation, even

though it isn’t true.

A boy runs past, an iPod in his ears. He doesn’t even turn to look

at them.

“I live with a man who makes my life hell, and yet I can’t leave

him.”

The look in Igor’s eyes changes.

Olivia thinks she’s found a way of escaping from the trap.

“Be intelligent. Don’t just give up; think of the woman who’s mar-

ried to the man sitting next to you. Be honest.”

“He’s cut me off from my friends. He’s always jealous even though

he can get all the women he wants. He criticizes everything I do and

says I have no ambition. He even takes the little money I earn as com-

mission.”

The man says nothing but stares at the sea. The pavement is filling

up with people; what would happen if she just got to her feet and ran?

Would he shoot her? Is it a real gun?

She senses that she has touched on a topic of possible interest to

him. It would be best not to do anything foolish, she thinks, remem-

bering the way he spoke and looked at her minutes before.

“And yet, you see, I can’t bring myself to leave him. Even if I were



 

The Winner Stands Alone


 

21


 

to meet the kindest, richest, most generous man in the world, I wouldn’t

give my boyfriend up for anything. I’m not a masochist, I take no plea-

sure in these constant humiliations, I just happen to love him.”

She feels the barrel of the gun pressing into her ribs again. She has

said the wrong thing.

“I’m not like that scoundrel of a boyfriend of yours,” he says, his

voice full of loathing now. “I worked hard to build up what I have.

I worked long and hard, and survived many a setback. I was always

honest in my dealings, although there were, of course, times when I

had to be hard and implacable. I was always a good Christian. I have

influential friends, and I’ve always been grateful to them. In short, I

did everything right.

“I never harmed anyone who got in my way. Whenever possible, I

encouraged my wife to do what she wanted to do, and the result: here I

am, alone. Yes, I killed people during the idiotic war I was sent to fight,

but I never lost my sense of reality. I’m not one of those traumatized

war veterans who goes into a restaurant and machine-guns people. I’m

not a terrorist. Of course, I could say that life has treated me unfairly

and taken from me the most important thing there is: love. But there

are other women, and the pain of love always passes. I need to act, I’m

tired of being a frog slowly boiling to death.”

“If you know there are other women and you know that the pain of

love will pass, why are you so upset?”

Yes, she’s behaving like an adult now, surprised at the calm way in

which she’s trying to deal with the madman by her side.

He seems to waver.

“I don’t really know. Perhaps because I’ve been abandoned once

too often. Perhaps because I need to prove to myself just what I’m ca-

pable of. Perhaps because I lied, and there is only one woman for me.

I have a plan.”

“What plan?”

“I told you before. I’m going to keep destroying worlds until she

realizes how important she is to me and that I’m prepared to run any

risk in order to get her back.”

The police!



 

22


 

PAU L O C O E L H O

 

They both notice the police car approaching.

“I’m sorry,” says the man. “I intended to talk a little more. Life


hasn’t treated you very fairly either.”

Olivia realizes this is the end. And since she now has nothing to

lose, she again tries to get up. Then she feels the hand of that stranger

on her right shoulder, as if he were fondly embracing her.

Samozashchita Bez Orujiya, or Sambo, as it is better known among

Russians, is the art of killing swiftly with one’s bare hands, without the

victim realizing what is happening. It was developed over the centu-

ries, when peoples or tribes had to confront invaders unarmed. It was

widely used by the Soviet state apparatus to eliminate people without

leaving any trace. They tried to introduce it as a martial art in the 1980

Moscow Olympics, but it was rejected as being too dangerous, despite

all the efforts of the Communists of the day to include in the Games a

sport which they alone practiced.

Perfect. That way, only a few people know the moves.

Igor’s right thumb is pressing down on Olivia’s jugular vein, and the

blood stops flowing to her brain. Meanwhile, his other hand is pressing on

a particular point near her armpit, causing the muscles to seize up. There

are no contractions, it’s merely a question of waiting two minutes.

Olivia appears to have gone to sleep in his arms. The police car

drives by behind them, using the lane that is closed to other traffic.

They don’t even notice the embracing couple; they have other things

to worry about this morning, like doing their best to keep the traf-

fic moving—an impossible task if carried out to the letter. The latest

call over the radio tells them that some drunken millionaire has just

crashed his car a mile or so away.

Still supporting the girl, Igor bends down and uses his other hand

to pick up the cloth spread out in front of the bench and on which all

those tasteless objects were to be displayed. He adroitly folds up the

cloth to form an improvised pillow.

When he sees that no one else is around, he tenderly lays her inert

body on the bench. She looks as if she were asleep; and in her dreams

she must be remembering some particularly lovely day or else having

nightmares about her violent boyfriend.



The Winner Stands Alone


 

23


 

Only the elderly couple had noticed them sitting together. And

if the crime were discovered—which Igor doubted, since there were

no visible marks—they would describe him to the police as fairer or

darker or older or younger than he really was; there wasn’t the slightest

reason to be worried; people never pay much attention to what’s going

on around them.

Before leaving, he plants a kiss on the brow of the sleeping beauty

and murmurs:

“As you see, I kept my promise. I didn’t shoot.”

 

H e t a k e s a f e w s t e p s and his head begins to ache terribly. This

is perfectly normal: the blood is flooding the brain, an understandable

reaction in someone who has just been under extreme tension.

Despite the headache, he feels happy. Yes, he has done what he set

out to do.

He can do it. And he’s happier still because he has freed the soul

from that fragile body, freed a spirit incapable of defending herself

against a bullying coward. If her relationship with her boyfriend had

continued, the girl would have ended up depressed and anxious and

devoid of all self-respect, and would have been even more under her

boyfriend’s thumb.

This had never been the case with Ewa. She had always been capa-

ble of making her own decisions. He had given her both moral and fi-

nancial support when she decided to open her haute-couture boutique;

and she had been free to travel as much as she wanted. He had been an

exemplary man and husband. And yet, she had made a mistake: she

had been unable to understand his love or his forgiveness. He hoped,

however, that she would receive these messages; after all, he had told

her on the day she left that he would destroy whole worlds to get her

back.

He picks up the throwaway mobile phone he has just bought and on

which he has entered the smallest possible amount of credit. He sends

a text message.



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