No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Sunday, February 26, 2006

#14: The Shadow of the Wind -- Carlos Ruiz Zafón

I wanted to like this book more than I did, and I'm having difficulty in pinpointing the reason, or reasons, for my lack of enthusiasm.

The plot's an effective blend of Victorian melodrama and an understated, po-mo knowingness: conflation of author and character, a novel about ... but let the book describe itself.

"... about accursed books, about the man who wrote them, about a character who broke out of the pages of a novel so that he could burn it, about a betrayal and a lost friendship. It's a story of love, of hatred, and of the dreams that live in the shadow of the wind."

That's the narrator, Daniel, explaining mysterious events to the girl he loves: who says, with more honesty than devotion, "you sound like the jacket blurb of a Victorian novel."

The novel takes place in Barcelona, in the 1950s -- I read it there, having asked friends to recommend a good Spanish novel set in the city I was about to visit for the first time -- and Barcelona, "a faraway city trapped between a crescent of mountains and a sea of light, a city filled with buildings that could exist only in dreams", is as much a character in the novel as its setting. Indeed, the city came to life, in the pages of this book, more than did some of the characters. I was immediately engaged by ex-tramp, ex-mental patient Fernan, but Daniel's father was seldom more than a shadowy outline in the background: his passivity made me sad.

I wonder if the reason that The Shadow of the Wind didn't draw me in was the quality of the translation. It was translated by Lucia Graves, daughter of Robert Graves, and there's a poetic quality to the prose: but it feels stilted in places, as though it's lost a certain colloquial quality, and much of its humour, in translation.

Or perhaps it's that I read it in determinedly sunny and cheerful modern Barcelona, rather than the grimy, oppressed city oppressed by Franco's secret police, where nobody is safe and corruption is rife. It's not a cheerful setting: Zafón evokes it convincingly.

There's a lot that I did like about The Shadow of the Wind: Victor Hugo's pen; 'a story is a letter the author writes to himself, to tell himself things he would be unable to discover otherwise'; Julian Carax, the absent author at the heart of the mystery, and his warped sense of humour; and the description of Sagrada Familia as 'a cathedral ... that sounded like a large hair comb made of melting chocolate.'

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