Life: The Shadow of the Wind edition

Bea 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.

—Carlos Ruiz Zafón, The Shadow of the Wind

Carlos Ruiz Zafón's The Midnight Palace and The Prince of Mist show moments of promise, and yet. . .

I bought Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s The Midnight Palace and The Prince of Mist because I loved The Angel’s Game and The Shadow of the Wind so much. But The Midnight Palace and The Prince of Mist are disappointing. The most fascinating thing isn’t their generally low quality, however. It’s the moments when the later Zafón pokes through, showing what’s to come. I left The Prince of Mist and The Midnight Palace at my parents’ house, and when my Dad started reading one, he stopped and mentioned how awful they were. But they have moments where Zafón shows what he’ll later become—where he describes places, engages and rewrites cliches, talks about shocking family secrets, reveals the semi-supernatural villain. Unfortunately, cliches dominate, the writing is flat, and characters hold the interest of small-town human interest stories. But his later work gets those things right.

I wrote a whole post describing why the young adult novels are bad and pointing out the germs that later sprouted into his stronger, later work. But you know what? All those examples don’t matter. The books are weak for all kinds of reasons that are obvious on a first reading. I deleted all my earlier commentary because I realized that Zafón is an example of an experimental artist, as defined by David Galenson in his fascinating book Old Masters and Young Geniuses: The Two Life Cycles of Artistic Creativity. Zafón’s books are important only because they also show the danger of assessing an author based on a single work: Zafón’s young adult novels came out before his later, better novels. If I’d read them first, I doubt I would’ve read what came next. Fortunately, however, those books weren’t translated until after Zafón became successful.

In Galenson’s distinction, experimental artists tend to grow slowly; their early work is very seldom considered their important work. By contrast, Galenson describes conceptual artists who tend to do important early work that totally redefines their field; their later work tends not to have the punch it might otherwise have. Experimental artists often don’t have a single defining work, but rather a large body of production that often feels like a unified whole. Conceptual artists often have one or a small number of significant works. The theory is much elaborated from this unfortunate sketch, which naturally loses many of the details that make Galenson good. But you can graft his analysis directly onto Zafón. If I thought the earlier books were worth the effort, I would take your time and mine to do a major compare and contrast between them. They’re not, however. What is important is the lesson one can draw about not prematurely judging a writer based on premature work that might not show the late emergence of talent based on experience and extensive effort in a field.

I’m not going to read Zafón’s other young adult novels; he wrote four prior to The Shadow of the Wind. But when his next novel in the Shadow of the Wind and Angel’s Game sequence emerges, I’ll gladly clear the decks to read it.

Finishing The Shadow of the Wind

After rereading The Shadow of the Wind (previously mentioned here and here), I’m astonished and breathless at the conclusion. The first and second time through I didn’t pay nearly close enough attention to the closing pages and how they deftly finish the circle while simultaneously pointing to the future.

I can’t believe I missed them.

I also hadn’t realized just how effectively the story’s stories-within-a-story devices work because on earlier reads I think I got too caught up the plot to appreciate what was happening. Now I have enough perspective and restraint to appreciate how Daniel, the protagonist, functions as a detective in a way that moves him from passive boy to active adult. The stories he gets others to tell him are incomplete, and part of what’s amazing about the novel is its transition from story to story and place to place.

In the last two years I’ve begun watching for those transitions with much greater (and professional) care: weaker novels make them stand out, while stronger ones make you forget they exist because each move from chapter to chapter and section to section feels completely natural. The Shadow of the Wind is certainly among the latter. By the time Nuria Monfort’s story appears in full, I was aching to know it, yet savoring its telling. I can point to one or two technical weaknesses in the story—how come it sounds like the rest of the narration, denying her a unique voice?—I don’t care. The novel is too strong for minor points like that to hold it up.

When dialog works: Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s The Shadow of the Wind

I’m rereading Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s The Shadow of the Wind, which gets better with each repetition; the first time I got lost in the plot and was more annoyed by the occasional cliche than I am now. Now the cliches seem more like cheek and a nod back at pulpy origins. This bit of dialog reminds me about a lot of what works in the novel, especially the over-wrought language of Fermín, the older rascal who takes to advising the young and overly proper Daniel:

‘People who have no life always have to stick their nose in the life of others,’ said Fermín. ‘What were we talking about?’
‘About my lack of guts.’
‘Right. A textbook case. Trust you me, young man. Go after your girl. Life flies by, especially the bit that’s worth living. You heard what the priest said. Like a flash.’
‘She’s not my girl.’
‘Well, then, make her yours before someone else takes her, especially the little tin soldier.’
‘You talk as if Bea were a trophy.’
‘No, as if she were a blessing,’ Fermín corrected. ‘Look, Daniel. Destiny is usually just around the corner. Like a thief, a hooker, or a lottery vendor: its three most common personifications. But what destiny does not do is home visits. You have to go for it.’

I love the second line, and the first spoken by Daniel, whose acknowledgment that they’re discussing “my lack of guts” implicitly admits that Fermín is already right, and Daniel knows it, but he still needs to be talked into doing something about it. He’s too passive—and knows that, too—but is also so passive that he doesn’t really know how to stop being passive. He can only offer objections when he should be as direct about Bea as he is about solving the mystery of Julian Carax, which is the plot’s primary strands and one that interweaves with the others.

That said, the passage isn’t perfect, and “trust you me” is probably a translator’s error. But I didn’t notice it as I read: only caught it as I began writing this. The novel is sufficiently involving to make one forgive minor sins. “Trust you me” could also be Fermín’s character: he’s stuff with half-believed folk wisdom (“Life flies by, especially the bit that’s worth living”), and only half believing it that lets such wisdom be funny—and, strangely, truer than it would be from someone delivering ridiculous lines like “Destiny is usually just around the corner” straight. Fermín also does imply that Bea is an object (which is objectionable; how many of us want to be “a trophy?”), but he doesn’t believe it: that half-belief lets him get away with it. We love his cheek, his pretend expertise (Daniel is “A textbook case,” as if textbooks are written about smitten adolescents, rather than novels), and it’s sustained throughout the novel.

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