“The Shadow of the Wind” by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

While attempting recently a purge of my overloaded hard disk (isn’t it curious, incidentally, how even those of us on the British side of the Atlantic now spell “disc” with a “k”?), I came across a few notes I had written for the book group (to which I belonged at the time) on The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón. Since any search of this title on the net yields page after page of gushing encomia, I thought a dissenting view might not go amiss. So, without further comment, here it is.

***

In The Shadow of the Wind, we are asked to believe that the fictional Julian Carax was a great writer; indeed, the intended effect of the novel depends upon us accepting this as a fact. But, for all that, I can’t help wondering: What sort of writer was Julian Carax? We are told that many people have found his writings “inspirational”, but we are never told what sort of books he wrote. Nuria Monfort tells us that she had read all his works within two weeks. She – and the author Ruiz Zafón – takes it for granted that this is indicative of the quality of Carax’ writing. To me, it indicates quite the opposite. I cannot think of any writing of substance that one can race through. Any book of quality, any book of substance, needs to be read slowly, and savoured, and thought about. The only books that one may race through are books where there isn’t really much to be absorbed. I have never regarded “un-put-downable” as a recommendation in itself: the best books are those that you need to put down frequently in order to reflect upon what you have read. The fictional Carax would have been writing his novels in the 20s and 30s: those were the decades in which novelists such as Proust, Joyce, Kafka, Faulkner, Bulgakov, Mann, Woolf, etc. were all active. And no, you can’t race through any of their novels.

Of course, one can race through a novel that tells a good story well, with no pretensions of being profound or “inspirational”. One can race through The Three Musketeers, Treasure Island, Dracula, the Sherlock Holmes stories, the Flashman novels, etc., as these are superbly narrated tales. But we are not led to believe that this is the sort of novel Carax wrote: his books inspire his readers. And I can’t get my head around this concept of books that inspire – and hence, one may assume, books of some substance – which may nonetheless be galloped through.

One must beware of sentimentality about books. There is nothing particularly wonderful about a book: the vast majority of books (if my regular bookshop-browsing sessions are anything to go by) are pretty innocuous at best, and usually pretty worthless. When I was a student, the shelves in bookshops used to be overflowing with novels by Harold Robbins, but they don’t even turn up in charity shops any more: if Harold Robbins is remembered at all, it is because there’s a gag in an episode of  Fawlty Towers about Sybil reading one of his novels. Presumably, all those millions of copies of his books that had once been available have now been pulped. And not only is the world not poorer for this, it is arguably much richer. And, similarly, I guess, most of the books I see nowadays on the shelves at Waterstones will eventually be pulped too, with no discernible loss to humankind.

Just imagine all those books that so richly deserve to be pulped (i.e. most books that get published) ending up in the Cemetery of Forgotten Books. What a terrible, tawdry place it would be! No doubt, it would contain the odd treasure here and there, but for the most part, the shelves would be groaning with the most unutterable tripe. I can’t really feel very inspired about such a place. And a book picked out more or less at random from such a ghastly place is most likely to be fully deserving of being pulped. Let’s not get sentimental about it.

So, would The Shadow of the Wind end up in the Cemetery of Forgotten Books? Who knows. But, despite page upon page of Amazon reviews telling me how inspirational it is (not to mention recommendations on the back cover of my edition from those two giants of literary criticism, Trinny and Susannah, who give us such incisive insights as “The most amazing book ever! Beautifully written!”) I can’t help feeling that in years to come, this book will be keeping those Harold Robbins novels company.

Like Carax’ novels, this book is an easy read. Which is another way of saying that the prose is so bland and the content so lacking in anything that may make me want to linger that I can get through it at a fair lick. True, the writing is not clunky, as it is in, say, The Da Vinci Code. But it isn’t very interesting either. And, every now and then, the blandness is broken by the author inserting a paragraph or two of self-consciously purple prose, perhaps under the mistaken impression that such writing is, somehow, “poetic”. It’s almost as if he had found on page 164 of “How to Write a Novel in Ten Easy Steps” the final instruction: “Now sprinkle in a tablespoonful of imagery.”

Sadly, he seems to have little idea about imagery. The very second sentence gives a foretaste of what is to come:

“It was the summer of 1945, and we walked through the streets of a Barcelona trapped beneath ashen skies as dawn poured over Rambla de Santa Monica in a wreath of liquid copper.”

Hmmm. One wonders how a wreath, which has a very specific solid shape, can be “poured”; one also wonders how the skies can remain “ashen” when the dawn is pouring itself in the form of “liquid copper” – because, after all, copper is not of an ashen colour, is it? This is the writing of an over-enthusiastic sixth former who hasn’t yet learnt his craft.

Throughout, there is imagery that just has not been thought out. A flash of lightening “bleeds” through the cracks of the door: this is clearly not literal, but it doesn’t really make much sense as metaphor either. (At least, I have no idea what it is a metaphor of, and neither, I suspect, does the author.) Later, the streets bleed in the rain: no, I have no idea what that means either. At one point, snow is described as “God’s dandruff” (I kid you not!). At another point, a void “weighs down” upon the soul: just how much weight, one wonders, does a void have? And so on.

Imagery is difficult, and requires skill. But not only has Ruiz Zafón not mastered this skill, he seems blissfully unaware that there exists anything that needs to be mastered.

And when the prose isn’t self-consciously (and, to my mind, incompetently) purple, it is merely bland. Just read any page of George Macdonald Fraser, say, or of Patrick O’Brian to confirm that aiming for a popular market need not necessitate such characterless writing.

Sadly, it was not just the prose I found characterless. I got no sense of place. Merely mentioning the streets and some landmarks, or giving the odd passage of description (which is presumably Step 9 in the novel-writing recipe book: “Mix in a few descriptive passages here and there”), is hardly enough to bring a city to life. From reading this book, at no time could I picture Barcelona. Take, for instance, that old deserted mansion of the Aldayas: given the part it plays in the novel, it should have had about it an air of fear, of menace. I didn’t get that at all. Once again, a few comparisons will make clear what is lacking here: read Bram Stoker’s account of Castle Dracula, or, from more recent times, read Susan Hill’s description of the old house in The Woman in Black: in both these cases (just to pick on the two that occur immediately to mind), the author has conveyed a sense of menace, of evil, lurking in a place. There is nothing like that here.

Or consider the characterisation. There isn’t any. There’s Furmin, who is, I think, supposed to be a colourful character: all I can see is a sort of Catalan version of the Cheeky Cockney, a serial bottom-pincher with a heart of gold who keeps coming up endlessly with woefully unfunny lines. No, I’m sorry – it needs considerably more than that to convey a colourful character (once again, look through any of Macdonald Fraser’s Flashman novels to see how a really skilful writer does it).

Then, there’s Fumero, who is a sort of Scarpia-like character – the epitome of all that is evil. And we know he is evil because he keeps doing evil things. Very evil things. But at no point does the character itself exude a sense of menace. Once again, compare Count Fosco, or Long John Silver, or Count Dracula, or Milady, or Phyllis Niedlinger: all of these characters exude an air of menace, even when they are not doing anything particularly nasty; all of these characters have a threatening presence. In comparison, Fumero is merely bland and forgettable.

As for the rest, there is barely any characterisation at all. Daniel and Julian both have sex as teenagers in a society in which pre-marital sex was considered unacceptable; that does not mean, of course, it didn’t happen, but it does mean that it did not happen as frequently as it does in more liberal societies, and that the psychological ramifications would, necessarily, have been different. But both Daniel and the young Julian are, effectively, modern Western teenagers, who take pre-marital sex for granted: there is no indication at all that they have grown up in a sexually repressed society. And as for the girls – Penelope and Beatriz – we know absolutely nothing about them beyond the fact that they were gorgeous – it being one of the unwritten rules of any love story that anyone who is less than gorgeous has no business falling in love.

Neither is there any sense of these people living in a totalitarian society. What sort of totalitarian society is it where people openly and loudly criticise the government on a public bus? At the end, Fumero is killed, and that seems to solve all problems. Surely, in a totalitarian society, the problem is not so much that there is a single evil man in a position of power, but that the nature of the power structure itself is evil? But that sort of thing is clearly far too sophisticated a concept in a work as essentially simplistic as this.
So what of the plot itself? Generally, the storyline in itself doesn’t matter too much. What really matters is the skill with which the story is told. Even books such as The Three Musketeers or The Count of Monte Cristo would have been dull if narrated by a less skilful storyteller than Dumas. But, it hardly goes without saying, Zafón is no Dumas. Much has been made of the multiple plotlines in this novel, but frankly, compared to what one gets in this respect in The Count of Monte Cristo, what we get here is child’s play. There aren’t really multiple plotlines, as such. Whenever a new aspect of the plot is revealed, it is inevitably through a long narration: each time a new character is introduced, it is almost inevitably to allow this new character to tell us some more of the plot. Indeed, there were times I was scrawling in the margin of my copy “Bloody hell! Not another big chunk of exposition!” And yes, that is precisely what we got. And of course, the solution to the “mystery” – such as it is – is explained in a very long piece of narration. This is clumsy storytelling. In a detective story (which is what this essentially is), the detective has to work out the solution of the mystery: here, Daniel is simply told the solution by someone in a very long narrative letter. (The letter-writer, Nuria, seems to have the same prose style as Daniel.)

Spoilers in next paragraph … but they’re so very obvious it doesn’t matter

And it isn’t much of a solution either: I’m not a great reader of mystery stories myself, but it was long obvious even to me that (a) the man in the mask was Julian himself; and  (b) Julian and Penelope were actually brother and sister. Both of these had been telegraphed to the reader.

End of spoiler warning

But even beyond all of this, what I found myself disliking most were the pretensions to profundity. I’m afraid I find phony profundities particularly irritating – all this “Life can be beautiful if you hold on to your dreams” kind of crap. For instance:

“Julian once wrote that coincidences are the scars of fate.”

Eh? What the bleeding hell does that mean?

Or, when Miquel bids farewell to Julian at the station:

“Keep your dreams … You never know when you may need them.”

How true. How very true. When you wish upon a star, makes no difference who you are, when you wish upon a star your dreams come true.

However, even if one were to ignore the cod profundity, Zafón falls well short in his basic narrative skills. I never went along with “just a story” line of criticism: storytelling is a fine art, and one shouldn’t be dismissive about it. This book was badly plotted, badly paced, with no sense of place, and not even the basic characterisation to make the reader interested in what happens. Alexandre Dumas or George Macdonald Fraser it ain’t.

As I was reading it, I took to scrawling my own notes in the margin. Most of them were along the lines of “What the fuck!” (I do usually try to be a bit more articulate than this, but one does sometimes need to give way to the impulse of the moment.) Modesty prevents me from claiming that my scrawled margin notes are the best pieces of writing in my copy, but they are certainly the most sincere and deeply felt.

Advertisements

13 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by richard on October 6, 2010 at 5:37 pm

    I’m sorry, but yours must be the most obtuse and dumb review of a book I’ve even seen. It is interesting to note that your very hostile reaction to this book seems to come from a very personal set of issues. You don’t seem even able to understand the most obvious ironies in the book (the “god’s dandruff” part is a parody of an amateur’s poet verse, for that is a quote of that poet -a minor character- writings and not the author’s metaphor). You claim that those aspect in which the authors excels the most (imagery, style, atmosphere, plotting, pacing, characterization…) are were he fails. It is also interesting that you seem to disagree with millions of readers around the world, but no matter. The snobbery, pedantry and stupidity of your review (delicious the final proclamation of how you feel these “notes” are your best writting so far…) are staggering. You seem to be one sad, pretentious dunce. Extremely opinionated, as is usually the case, and profoundly stupid. I’m sorry if I am too blunt, but I was offended to find somebody, even a nobody like you, so determined to insult one of what I, and many other readers, feel is one of the greatest novels of the last few decades. I would hate to think that because an idiot went on with his sound and fury, anybody would be discouraged to discover this great work. It is morons like you who are pushing people far away from the beauty of literature. Because if I was a young reader and saw that a dimwit like you presented himself as a stalwart for literature, I would suspect it was something for idiots and people who can’t get a date. Your bigotry, stupidity and absolute lack of insight reminds us all we need to think for ourselves and not let the dumbest and loudest, that’s you my friend, try to do our thinking for us.

    Reply

    • Hello Richard, and thank you very much for your comments. I thoroughly enjoyed reading them.

      Reply

      • Posted by richard on October 6, 2010 at 7:41 pm

        I realize the tone of my comments was too personal and offensive, and I apologize for that. I was out of line. I still profoundly disagree with your arguments and still think they’re deeply flawed, but I guess the point of blogs and things like this is to provoke discussions and share ideas, no matter how absurd they may seem to other people. So, my apologies again for the tone. Cheers, Richard

  2. Hello Richard, thank you very much for your apology. It is accepted, and much appreciated.
    Cheers, Himadri

    Reply

  3. Posted by Sue G. (Klara) on October 13, 2010 at 12:59 pm

    I’m pleased to see that Richard has apologised for the tone of his post, particularly since many of Himadri’s comments on ‘The Shadow of the Wind’ echo some of my own responses to this book! I read it some years ago, when it was short-listed for the Dracula Society’s ‘Children of the Night Award’, and I wasn’t convinced by it. I loved the concept of The Cemetery of Forgotten/Lost Books, but was frustrated by the fact that we, as readers, were never given a taste of these books, and in particular, those written by Carax. For me, a much more succesful novel based on the concept of a lost writer is John Harwood’s ‘The Ghost Writer’ in which tantalising pastiches of a late Victorian ghost story writer are cunningly embedded in the text and illuminate the book as a whole. Without samples of Carax’s work, how are we to believe in him.

    Reply

    • Hello Klara, (I’m sorry – I’m too used to calling you Klara!), good to see you here!

      I agree that it is among the major flaws of the novel that we are given no indication that Carax was a great writer. We are frequently *told* that he was – but the only indication we get is the character Nuria telling us that she raced through all his works in 2 weeks. That really does not tell me that Carax was a writer of substance: quite the contrary.

      I think one should take popular literature seriously: not to do so is mere snobbery. I have great respect for the skill and the craftsmanship required to tell a story well. Many of the great storytellers – Dumas, Stevenson, Conan Doyle, etc. – are as dear to me as are the Tolstoys & Dostoyevskys. Unfortunately, “The Shadow of the WInd”, while quite clearly aiming for the popular market, falls far short in terms of craftsmanship: when it isn’t plodding, it’s incompetent. This makes particularly risible the pretensions it seems to have of being something more “highbrow”.

      Thanks for the tip about “The Ghost Writer”. Now that the dark evenings are uponus, I am planning to read a good few supernatural thrillers. I have the new Susan Hill (“The Small Hand”) lined up, as well as Shirley Jackson’s “The Haunting” (which, for some reason, I’ve never read before!) “The Ghost Writer” could complete a good, creepy trio!

      All the best, Himadri

      Reply

  4. Posted by alan on October 17, 2010 at 11:14 am

    This is very commercial piece of work. Nothing wrong with that in principle, but I dislike this level of pandering to popular taste. He doesn’t challenge the reader.
    The author understands the appeal of children’s fantasy to a modern Western ‘adult’ audience (Harry Potter et al) and so provides a children’s book with added sex and violence.
    The word ‘Meretricious’ could have been invented to describe this book.
    However, I do think that is entertaining. It reminds me of the quote attributed to Noel Coward : “Extraordinary how potent cheap music is.”

    Reply

    • Hello Alan, I agree with you thatthis is a commercial piece of work, but the adjective “commercial” need not – indeed, *should* not – be used in a pejorative sense. As I have tried to make clear, I have the greatest respect for good popular writing, and to overlook (or to pretend to overlook) the pisspoor quality of this book on the grounds that it is “popular” is to do an immense disservice to those very fine writers who have produced – and continue to produce – popular writing of a high quality.

      I agree with you that this is essentially a children’s book with a bit of sex and violence thrown in. And also that the author quite clearly understands the appeal of children’s fantasy to a modern “adult” audience. I think this appeal has been apparent since the late 70s, when the “Star Wars” films and the big budget kiddies’ films of Spielberg drew in vast numbers of adults as well as children.

      Where I think I part company with you is in your assessment of this book’s entertainment value. I really cannot see any entertainment value at all in badly written tosh.

      Reply

  5. Posted by alan on October 17, 2010 at 7:52 pm

    I think that you are being very optimistic about Harold Robbins.
    amazon.co.uk shows 1075 results.
    One fan’s review of ‘The Dream Merchants’ says:
    “This is a classic love story…”
    Another’s review of “The Adventurers” says:
    “A sort of trashy, ‘War and Peace’ but easily read and good fun”
    A reviewer of “Never Enough” says:
    “I would recommend this book with the highest rating, five stars, which the late Harlod Robbins rightly deserves. ”
    Shall I buy you a copy? – I’ve been struggling to think of a Christmas present.

    Reply

  6. Posted by Maureen on March 28, 2011 at 7:38 am

    How thorough you were in your review (which I just stumbled upon this morning, months after the fact)! EVERYONE in Barcelona was reading this novel in its heyday, so I took up a copy and kept on going until the last 50 pages (when I finally figured out I had better things to do, a curtain that needed ironing, for example), all the while assuming SOMETHING was going to be appear that warranted the appreciative outcry. I was alone in my pithy, admittedly less eloquent analysis -‘complete waste of time’.

    It occurred to me that the author might have been imagining a movie deal as he wrote. A good screenplay writer would have had his work cut out for him, were he of a mind to develop a character worth watching. There certainly were none worth reading about.

    Reply

  7. Posted by Kelsey on May 13, 2013 at 12:25 pm

    To be fair, some of the imagery and “phony profundities” work significantly better in the original spanish version (which I’m currently reading).

    That being said, they still are a bit annoying and in general I agree with all your critiques. It’s harder for me to identify what is dumb narrative technique and what is just me not understanding the spanish language. However, it does work well as my first spanish novella thanks to the redundancy and (relative) simplicity 🙂

    Reply

    • Hello Kelsey,
      This post was quite an early one in this blog, and I only put it up because I had already written it for the reading group I was then member of. I don’t think I’d put up such a post now, although I do continue not to think at all highly of this book. It’s best, I think, to write about what one likes rather than about what one doesn’t, but since this one is already up, it might as well stay there.

      I’m afraid I am a poor linguist, and unable to read in Spanish!

      All the best,
      Himadri

      Reply

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: