Saturday, May 8, 2010

Reading Zafon's The Angel's Game for review--so I thought I'd post this 2005 review of his earlier book, The Shadow of the Wind from The Compulsive Reader:

The Shadow of the Wind
by Carlos Ruiz Zafon
Paperback: 496 pages
Publisher: Penguin (Non-Classics); Reprint edition (February 1, 2005)
ISBN: 0143034901

As Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s novel, The Shadow of the Wind, begins, the hero, ten year old Daniel Sempere, is heading off to the discovery that will dominate his young life. It is five o’clock in the morning. His father is escorting him to a mysterious building seen only in shadow. He must tell no one about it. They stop before what Daniel describes as the "carcass of a palace, a place of echoes and shadows." The door is answered by a little old man of "vulturine" appearance. Inside, the building is something out of an Escher drawing. "A labyrinth of passageways and crammed bookshelves rose from base to pinnacle like a beehive woven with tunnels, steps, platforms, and bridges that presaged an immense library of seemingly impossible geometry." It is the "Cemetery of Forgotten Books."

Tradition has it that first time visitors must choose a volume from the stacks and make it their mission to keep that book alive. Daniel has been brought here to make his choice. After a half hour’s wandering through the stacks, he comes upon a book that he has never heard of before, by an author he doesn’t know, but a book that he knows is his fate:"The Shadow of the Wind" by a seemingly unsuccessful writer, Julian Carax. He takes it home and reads, and as he reads, he is enthralled by the book "Page after page I let the spell of the story and its world take me over. . . ." The story is a "ghostly odyssey" after lost youth haunted by a "cursed love." The book becomes an obsession as does the book’s author. When he discovers that someone using the name of one of the characters in the book is trying to destroy all of the works of Julian Carax, Daniel begins his own odyssey, in quest of information about the writer.

He learns that Carax is dead, presumably killed in a duel, so he pursues friends and acquaintances for what they can tell him. Gradually, bit by bit, he begins to piece together the story of the man. The more he discovers about Carax, the greater become the parallels between the life of the author, the protagonist of his novel and Daniel’s own life. It is not without reason that the story of Carax’s life,"The Shadow of the Wind, " is embedded in The Shadow of the Wind, the story of Daniel’s life. Early on he uses the image of the Russian doll–dolls within dolls, stories within stories–to describe Carax’s book. It is an image no less appropriate to his own work as he weaves back and forth between his own life and that of the mysterious Carax.

It is the kind of structure some critics have called arabesque: pieces of stories woven into complex patterns that juxtapose illusion and reality, humor and horror, the vulgar and the sublime. On the one hand the stories themselves are filled with the stuff of gothic exotica: dark shadows, decaying mansions, hidden rooms, ghoulish villains, star-crossed lovers, intimidating fathers, family secrets and ancient sins–mystery enough to keep the reader turning page after page with the same urgency as the young Daniel. On the other hand there are jealous husbands, lecherous gourmands, brothel keepers, cafes and all the trappings of the twentieth century city. There may be a faceless evil that takes his name from the devil in Carax’s novel, but there is also the real evil of a renegade policeman who would just as soon put a pistol to your head as not. There is betrayal; there is devoted loyalty. Once the reader buys into it, it is the kind of book that careens headlong towards its end and drags the reader uncomplaining along with it. Besides there seems to be much more than mere romantic melodrama.

Zafon peoples his story with a cast of characters both minor and major as rich and varied as might well fill the pages of a Dickens or a Victor Hugo: a randy old man who wants a prostitute to cuddle with once more before he dies, a beautiful blind woman who thinks nothing of leading on an impressionable young boy, a storekeeper who likes every so often to dress up like a gypsy and sing to a crowd. Moreover he draws his characters with quick, sure strokes. Here is Gustavo Barcelo: "Perpetually affixed to his mouth was an unlit pipe that impregnated his person with the aroma of a Persian market. He liked to describe himself as the last romantic, and he was not above claiming that a remote line in his ancestry led directly to Lord Byron himself." Here Professor Velazquez "who enjoyed a reputation as a Don Juan, and there were those who considered that the sentimental education of a respectable young lady was never complete without a proverbial weekend in some small hotel on the Sitges promenade, reciting Alexandrines tete-a-tete with the distinguished academic."

There is something reflexive about Zafon’s novel, something very close to a kind of postmodern metafiction. It is, after all, a novel about a novel. What the ‘meta’ in metafiction denotes is the use of the form to comment on itself. In some cases, as for example in Vanity Fair, it involves the author speaking in his own voice about the nature of his art–Thackery’s famous comments about his characters as puppets. Zafon, on the other hand, has his characters speak for him. Carax, one character reports, has said that "a story is a letter the author writes to himself, to tell himself things he would be unable to discover otherwise." While Zafon doesn’t go as far as some in stressing the fictionality of his fiction, he is not shy about having his characters speak about the form, its genesis and its uses.

Zafon, like all serious contemporary novelists, has to be concerned with questions of the form’s relevance in a world more and more dominated by electronic media, a world in which the shelves of the Cemetery of Forgotten Books are in danger of collapse from their load. Although set in Barcelona before the electronic revolution, one character (a sometime wild-eyed madman, named Fermin Romero de Torres) already recognizes the danger: "Television, my dear Daniel, is the Antichrist, and I can assure you that after only three or four generations, people will no longer even know how to fart on their own and humans will return to living in caves, to medieval savagery, and to the general state of imbecility that slugs overcame back in the Pleistocene era."

Fermin argues that television invites passivity in its audience. It creates what we now call couch potatoes. The novel on the other hand requires an active audience. It requires a reader willing to put something of himself into the book. Reacting to the comment that books are boring, Carax says: "Books are mirrors: you only see in them what you already have inside

you. . . ." If a writer puts himself inside his books, so does a good reader. In this sense the reader becomes a collaborative force, a co-creator. At the end of the book, Daniel’s wife says "that the art of reading is slowly dying, that it’s an intimate ritual, that a book is a mirror that offers us only what we already carry inside us, that when we read, we do it with all our heart and mind, and great readers are becoming more scarce by the day." Indeed the whole novel is about the interaction between a ‘great’ reader and a book, a book that in many ways is a mirror of what he already has inside him. Daniel Sempere is a ‘great reader.’ What the modern world needs if we are not to return to the caves are more Daniel Semperes.

The Shadow of the Wind is the kind of book that may well help grow some, if not great readers, at least a few compulsive ones.

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