Sacrificed on the Altar of Melodrama – A Review of The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

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It is a mildly terrifying thing when I read a book that is much-loved by a great many people, and come out the other side wondering why the book is so popular in the first place. I suppose I simply came to the hype much, much later than everyone else did; after all, the book of which I speak was first released, to much popular acclaim, some twelve years ago, and I am only reading it now, when the hype has long since quieted and the book likely lives in the warm, rosy glow of nostalgia for those who claim to love it. I, for my part, come to it with fresh eyes, with an awareness of its popularity and yet unaffected by it, since the hype is a part of my past and therefore does not affect my reading of the novel.

This blindness can be a boon, in its own way; it allows me to appreciate the book on its own strengths, its own merits, my judgment unclouded by hype. At the same time, however, I worry that those who read my thoughts regarding a book they love may turn into a metaphorical lynch mob. This may seem laughable to some, but this is the Internet: such things are possible.

And yet, when I first started reviewing books, I promised myself that I would do so in complete and utter honesty of my own opinion. I promised myself that I would not compromise my own conclusions regarding a book, and in the same manner I promised I would not judge others for their own opinions. The latter has been more difficult than the former, or at least, it has been the case up until now. But if I cannot be honest here, and about books, of all things, then what would have been the point of writing book reviews for the past five years or so?

So here I am, with a review of The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón. This book has languished in my TBR list for years now, at least since I first heard about it when it became popular in 2005. It may very well have gone on languishing in the TBR, too, had it not topped a randomised list of books my friend and I had selected for our bookish podcast. Since it seemed like as good an option as any other book I could have picked up, I decided now was a good time to pick it up, so I could give myself time to make notes and observations in time for the first podcast episode.

The Shadow of the Wind takes place in Barcelona, during the height of the Franco dictatorship, sometime in the 1940s or 1950s. It follows the story of Daniel, son of an antiquarian book dealer, who is introduced to the mysterious Cemetery of Forgotten Books when he turns eleven. There, he finds a book written by one Julián Carax, titled The Shadow of the Wind. That book, and the mystery of Carax’s identity, absorbs Daniel and encourages him to uncover what has happened to the mysterious author. However, in doing so, he stirs up a hornet’s nest of tangled secrets – secrets that no one was meant to uncover.

One of the most notable things about this novel, and one which many other readers have rightfully pointed out, is the beauty of Zafón’s language. Since I am sure that translation from Spanish to English has dulled the beauty somewhat, the original Spanish must be positively incandescent in its prose – a quality which surely encouraged publishers to pick up Zafón’s work to sell in the English language market. Take this excerpt, for example:

Night watchmen still lingered in the misty streets when we stepped out of the front door. The lamps align the Ramblas sketched an avenue of vapor that faded as the city began to awake. When we reached the Calle Arco del Teatro, we continued through its arch tower the Raval quarter, entering a vault of blue haze. I followed my father through that narrow lane, more of a scar than a street, until the gleam of the Ramblas faded behind us. The brightness of dawn filtered down from balconies and cornices in streaks of slanting light that dissolved before touching the ground. At last my father stopped in front of a large door of carved wood, blackened by time and humidity. Before us loomed what to my eyes seemed the carcass of a palace, a place of echoes and shadows.

Here is another example:

That Sunday, clouds spilled down from the sky and swamped the streets with a hot mist that made the thermometers on the walls perspire. Halfway through the afternoon the temperature was already grazing the nineties as I set off toward Calle Canuda for my appointment with Barceló, carrying my book under my arm, beads of sweat on my forehead. The Ateneo was—and remains—one of the many places in Barcelona where the nineteenth century has not yet been served its eviction notice. A grand stone staircase led up from a palatial courtyard to a ghostly network of passageways and reading rooms. There, inventions such as the telephone, the wristwatch, and haste seemed futuristic anachronisms. The porter, or perhaps it was a statue in uniform, barely noticed my arrival. I glided up to the first floor, blessing the blades of a fan that swirled above the sleepy readers, melting like ice cubes over their books.

These two passages show the two distinct faces of Barcelona that Zafón employs most frequently in this novel: one limned in yellow sunlight, slow and sleepy and thoughtful; the other cooler, darker, more mysterious, wreathed in blue mist. I have never been to Barcelona, and I suspect a great many readers have not visited the city either, but in these passages the reader is transported to Barcelona – not the Barcelona of today, but the Barcelona of yesteryear, before the lights were as bright and the streets as crowded. In this novel Zafón builds Barcelona not only as a setting, but as a character in its own right; the city breathes, and in doing so, tells a story all its own, one that lingers largely in the background, but essential to the story nevertheless.

The excerpts also show the quality of Zafón’s writing. It is clear that he has the ability to paint an entire scene in words alone, with a certain cadence to the telling that lures the reader until he or she is wholly sunk into the story and does not want to leave. These are qualities any reader looks for in a writer, and Zafón has them in spades. Credit must also be given to Lucia Graves, who has managed to capture much of the gleaming light in Zafón’s original Spanish narration and given it, largely undimmed, to readers of the English language.

Another aspect of Zafón’s writing that Graves has managed to capture in her translation is the tautness of the plot. It is essential for any good mystery to have a certain level of tension running through it, a sense that the reader is being inexorably pulled forward towards the secret in the story’s dark heart. Though there are moments in the novel when the plot seems to slow down and detour from the main plot thread, these detours do not detract overmuch from the plot’s overall tension, and Zafón is clever enough to bring the tension back up again at the most opportune moment.

However, despite all these positive qualities, the novel is still remarkably flawed – specifically, in the way female characters (and the one lone queer character) are treated. Throughout the novel, these characters (but most especially the female characters) are thrown under the bus in order to advance the characterisation of the male characters. Even worse, said female characters are slotted into very specific stereotypes: they are either “virtuous” or “sluts” – and even if the character is the former, all it takes is the right (or wrong) male character to cross her path, and then she is instantly transformed into the latter and is punished for it. It would take reading the novel to identify all these instances, but the following excerpts are a fairly good example of how the author treats the female characters of this novel. I begin with the following (the character’s name has been removed to minimise spoilers):

…[she] had been a woman who made a living from her talents. She was only nineteen when she arrived in Barcelona in search of a promised job that never materialized. before dying, her father had obtained the necessary references for her to go into the service of the Benarenses, a prosperous family of merchants from Alsace who had established themselves in Barcelona.

“When I die,” he urged her, “go to them, and they’ll take you in like a daughter.”

The warm welcome she received as part of the problem. Monsieur Benarens indeed received her with open arms—all too open, in the opinion of his wife. Madame Benarens gave Sophie one hundred pesetas and turned her out of the house, not without showing some pity toward her and her bad luck.

“You have your whole life ahead of you, but Ih ave only this miserable, lewd husband.”

On the face of it, there is absolutely nothing wrong with this portrayal. It is a common trope, after all: a naive young woman finds her way to the big city looking for work, and finds herself confronted by a crueler world than she ever imagined. What matters is what comes next: how she deals with the world she finds. This is, I think, where an author can steer the story right, or steer it absolutely wrong. Unfortunately, the following excerpt shows just how wrong the author has steered this story – not just in this instance, but in many other instances both before and after this portion of the novel:

[She] had only to exchange one look with Don Ricardo Aldaya to know she was doomed. Aldaya had wolfish eyes, hungry and sharp, the eyes of a man who knew where and when to strike. … Just as the hatter exuded kindness and warmth, Don Ricardo radiated cruelty and hate. … [She] felt for him that species of contempt that is awakened in us by the things we most desire without knowing it. … Nothing had ever terrified her so much as sensing that animality under her own skin, the prey’s instinctive recognition of her predator, dressed in elegant linen. …

A week later [she] saw Don Ricardo Aldaya waiting for her at the entrance of the music school… They exchanged glances, and, without saying a word, he led her to a building two blocks away. It was a new building, still uninhabited. They went up to the first floor. … Don Ricardo Aldaya shut the door, and they looked at each other.

“I haven’t stopped thinking about you all week. Tell me you haven’t done the same and I’ll let you go, and you won’t ever see me again,” said Ricardo.

[She] shook her head.

Their secret meetings lasted ninety-six days. …

I understand that, in many ways, women in the time period the novel is set were far more vulnerable than they are now in the 21st century, but surely they are not as completely helpless as they are portrayed to be in this excerpt? Surely even a woman of the mid-20th century would be intelligent enough to, at the bare minimum, avoid a man who so strongly radiates “cruelty and hate” – especially since she has already survived enough of the world to carve out a life and decent living for herself? While I am certain that, yes, a woman can be that self-destructive, regardless of the time period she lives in, what bothers me is that this whole mess does nothing to develop the character from who she was before. Instead, it destroys her – and for no other reason than it provides context (perhaps even excuses?) a male character’s atrocious behaviour, as well as providing some kind of sick illustration of what happens to women who cease to be virtuous.

Equally notable (and insulting) is the trope of pregnancy and childbearing as a kind of punishment. To continue from the previous excerpt:

… Perhaps for that reason she accepted [the hatter’s] promise of marriage. By then she already suspected that she was carrying Aldaya’s child, but was afraid of telling him, almost as much as she was afraid of losing him. … [Aldaya] gave her five hundred pesetas and an address on Calle Platería and ordered her to get rid of the baby. [She] refused. Don Ricardo Aldaya slapped her until her ears bled, then threatened to have her killed if she dared mention their meetings or admit that the child was his. …

In this novel, pregnancy is treated as a kind of punishment for a “mistake” a woman has made, and said woman has no choice but to put up with that mistake, whether by bearing a child she does not love, or by having her mistake haunt said child like a kind of stain upon his or her future. This trope is also the lynchpin upon which the novel’s climax hinges – along with another, more melodramatic trope that I shall not mention because to do so would be to spoil a major plot twist.

And now I come to the other problem I have with the novel: its reliance on melodrama – more specifically, the kind of melodrama that relies on harming women in order to be achieved. While I usually have no problem with the use of melodrama in a story, I do take issue with it when it gets in the way of what would otherwise be a solid, intriguing mystery – which is what drew me to this novel in the first place. When I first heard about it, I was expecting a kind of mystery story that hinged on books as a way of arriving at the answers to the central conundrum. I was deceived; the books are more like MacGuffins, while the answers to the mystery are arrived at by watching a string of women get hurt (or die, both on- and offscreen) because the author, for some inconceivable reason, decided that throwing enough of them under the bus would make for an interesting story.

Overall, The Shadow of the Wind might be considered a study in contrasts. On one hand, the writing is absolutely exquisite: Zafón is an amazingly talented writer, for his prose to be considered exquisite even in translation (credit to Lucia Graves for her excellent work). On the other hand, what might otherwise have been an excellent read is marred by its treatment of its female characters, whose suffering without any kind of redemption or furthered characterisation might be considered a cornerstone of the entire novel. Given this novel’s popularity I have to wonder if I am the only one who sees this problem; I certainly hope that is not the case.

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