Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Shadow of Sloppy Narration

A lot of what I read tends to be of an older vintage- books that have stood the test of time. But now and again I’ll crack open a newer novel to see what my contemporaries are up to. So, on the fuerte recommendation of fellow Shelf Actualizer Tucker, I picked up Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s The Shadow of the Wind, a book set in his beloved Barthelona.

The book came out of the starting gate strong, and I’ll say up front that I thought I was going to love it. There are some truly beautiful passages:

“…dawn poured over Rambla de Santa Monica in a wreath of liquid copper.”
and some nice aphorisms about books, reading and writing:

“…a story is a letter the author writes to himself, to tell himself things he would be unable to discover otherwise.”

“…few things leave a deeper mark on a reader than the first book that finds its way into his heart. Those first images, the echo of words we think we have left behind, accompany us throughout our lives and sculpt a palace in our memory to which, sooner or later- no matter how many books we read, how many worlds we discover, or how much we learn or forget-we will return.”
The story itself is an interesting one. It will especially appeal to booklovers and writers, and there are quite a few nice twists along the way. I’ll also add that Fermin Romero de Torres is one of the most enjoyable side characters I’ve come across in recent reading. This silver-tongued bum philosopher is both profane and profound, lecherous and loyal; and the author complements his lanky, big-eared frame with an entertaining (and insatiable) hankering for ham sandwiches.

However, the further I read the more I tired of what I’ll call Zafon’s narrative sleight of hand. The book contains a story within a story, and the main character peels back the layers of this mysterious inner story through a series of secretive interviews. The information he learns, however, isn’t revealed through direct dialogue, but through detached, third-person narratives that can stretch for pages and pages of italic script.

The first back-story “info dump” ran for 4 pages, the second for 11, and the third for 18. It wasn’t Zafon’s use of flashbacks that bothered me, but that each flashback was the source of details that were simply unknowable from the perspective of the characters sharing them- and thus gave the impression of a cheap narrator’s trick. By the time I got to the fourth installment of back-story, this time in the form of a hastily prepared hand-written manuscript left for the main character before the author’s untimely death- a manuscript that rolled on for 85 pages(!)-, not only was my patience was wearing thin but I was left with the impression that Zafon had lost all interest in telling his original story.

The last straw for me was the end-of-book realization that the bomb dropped by the main character on page 312 (“In seven days’ time, I would be dead.”) referred only to a 64-second, ambulance ride flat-lining from which the character immediately recovered. A maddening lack of pay-off, and another cheap trick to keep the reader turning pages.

I suppose a Hispanophile like Tucker will find plenty to like in The Shadow of the Wind. Perhaps there are things like Zafon’s assertion that “Madrid is a man, but Barcelona is a woman” that will ring true for them, but for someone like me, it seemed Zafon was trying too hard to tell a story that he could never effectively pull off in a first-person narrative.


  1. I´ve read the shadow of the wind and other books by this author, and reading your comment made me think you're try to hard to be smart you prove what a big idiot you are. I am sorry, dude, but one must be really dumb to read that novel and come out the other end with what you just wrote here. Sad.

  2. Hey Anonymous, thanks for visiting!

    The book was an international best-seller, so Zafon is the real winner here. Like I said above, my co-blogger Tucker loved it, and I loved the first half of it.

    But I have to call the rest of it like I see it. I hope you'll be back, despite my hang-ups with this book.


  3. I didn't have anything that I didn't like about this book. I was so swept up in the story that I'm pretty sure that I didn't notice any potential flaws. I did try another book of his, The Prince of the Mist, that I did not care for. I don't know if it was a fault with the writing or with the narration (I listened to the audio), but it just did not stick with me in the same way. I'm glad that you at least enjoyed all the book erotica, though ('cause that's what it is, right?)

  4. Absolutely. The Cemetery of Forgotten Books is a concept that kind of haunts you as a reader. And I'm always up for an antiquarian bookshop setting.