Friday, 29 August 2008

Review - The Shadow of the Wind

‘The Name of the Wind’ is a novel about tales and story-telling. The very similarly-titled ‘The Shadow of the Wind’ by Carlos Ruiz Zafón is an evolution of that: it is, from page one, a novel about books – reading books, selling books, discovering books, even that unmatched smell that wafts from dry pages. Although, as the novel makes clear, “Books are mirrors: you only see in them what you already have inside you...” In that sense whatever one brings to this novel is what they will get from it. It reflects whatever light is shone into it: it can be a Greek tragedy, an account of the plight of Franco’s Spain, a loving tribute to Barcelona, an involving mystery, or an extensive character-piece.

For a translation from the original Spanish, it is simply astounding how beautifully the prose flows. This is, I’m sure, a testament to the beauty of the original writing and reading it in the author’s intended language must be a treat indeed. There’s scarcely a sentence that doesn’t leap out with poetic grandeur or intimate ecstasy of perfect recognition. The narrative flows effortlessly, making perfect sense in hindsight yet being absolutely surprising in the moment of reading. In short the way ‘The Shadow of the Wind’ is written is absolutely perfect.

The story itself is one that has been told for generations. It is at its heart the epitome of a tragedy: it practically fits into the perfect archetype of Greek tragedy as outlined thousands of years ago by Aristotle. All tragic stories are broadly the same and this is one that fits into the mould of Shakespeare, Homer, or Wagner. It’s an apotheosis of tragedy: an atypical cathartic narrative with perfectly-realised and emotionally honest characters. The best part is that the tragedy forming the emotional core is only a subplot and it’s around this that the rest of the novel’s world is created.

The novel is wonderfully dense; every character is fully realised with engaging back-stories and mysterious little quirks just like the people who populate this thing called reality. Appropriately for a book about books, the narrative is layered with plot upon plot which makes the novel sound as complex as ‘Catch-22’. However despite the apparent complexity, the story comes off as simple and elegant. The story seems to combine a sense of scope with a bewitching intimacy. It’s quite nuanced which, along with the poetic style, makes it a joy to read.

It is necessary to mention that this is a book that has to be bought from a second-hand bookshop. Two weeks ago I was more than willing to pay full price for it at the monopolistic Waterstones until I discovered it in a small Scottish second-hand bookshop. Reading a second-hand copy increased the enjoyment of ‘The Shadow of the Wind’ enormously in a way that anyone who has read it will understand.

The greatest compliment I can give ‘The Shadow of the Wind’ is that, as a hopefully young writer myself, this book made me green with envy. It also filled me with admiration and, best of all, with a renewed appreciation of the literary world – more particularly the dwindling community known as book appreciators. I am unable to come up with any synopsis of this novel as meaningful as that which the author wrote himself. “...until that moment, I had not understood that this was a story about lonely people, about absence and loss, and that was why I had taken refuge in it until it became confused with my own life, like someone who has escaped into the pages of a novel because those whom he needs to love seem nothing more than ghosts inhabiting the mind of a stranger.”

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