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Homage to great readers!

I just finished reading, with much delight, Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s La Sombra del Viento, in its English translation as The Shadow of the Wind. It’s a novel about a novelist, rival book sellers, crooked publishers, a mysterious place called The Cemetery of Forgotten Books (which is where all the books I wrote must have ended up), and a vile hospice run by a some shady nuns called The Ladies of the Final Ordeal. Yes, it’s funny. It’s also Gothic, frightening, bawdy, heart-breaking, politically astute, and generous.

Barcelona is not just a backdrop but a major character in the book, and I long to see that city and read this book again while rambling around in it. All I really know of Barcelona is what I saw in a third-rate film called Gaudi Afternoon. The film really stinks, despite the fact that it has Judy Davis in it, but what makes it worth watching is the scenery: Barcelona and Gaudi’s architecture in Barcelona are so fantastic (and I do mean fantastic–suggesting wild, glorious fantasies) in the film that the landscape has entered my dreams, literally. But that’s a digression.

I think what I love best about Ruiz Zafon’s novel is that it’s a hymn to what it calls “the great reader.” Despite the fact that I’m an English teacher (among other things) and have spent much of my life reading and exhorting other people to read, it hadn’t occurred to me that there was such a thing as a great reader. What a concept.

It’s a novel that pays homage to people who read; it features sexy characters who read (sometimes aloud, to each other, in bed); and it includes several hilarious attacks on television. Not everybody loves this book. It’s an international bestseller, but some popular critics fuss about it, and I don’t know how it came off in the academic press. Maybe some of you know–if so, feel free to chime in.

Ruiz Zafon’s official website in Spanish, complete with music and animation, is here. The Complete Review gives this novel a B+ overall and includes reviews in English, French, and German though not (what a strange oversight!) in Spanish. Grumpy Old Bookman is, well, grumpy about it: he says he wasn’t really engaged and skipped around in the beginning and then wished Ruiz Zafon had done a better job of engaging him from the start, because he got lost in the Dickensian cast of characters and the many plot developments. Grumpy thinks “it’s not particularly well structured, because the author is still relatively inexperienced as a writer.” (But if you’re interested in this kind of thing, read the comments after Grumpy’s review, as many people defend Ruiz Zafon fiercely.)

Here are some of my choice bits:

Books are mirrors: you only see in them what you already have inside you. I would say the same for gurus. And certain pets. And people I’ve had crushes on. If I sat here and kept thinking, I’d probably end up with a whole list of mirrors. Maybe the whole world is a projection screen. But back to the book.

She wandered off into the shadows, carrying her bucket and dragging her shadow like a bridal veil.

I looked at the group of human remains that languished in the corner and smiled at them. It occurred to me that this very presence was testimony to the moral emptiness of the universe and the mechanical brutality with which it destroys the parts it no longer needs. Mother Nature is the meanest of bitches, that’s the sad truth.

And this–which I may use as an epilogue to my next book, if I ever write it: A story is a letter the author writes to himself, to tell himself things that he would be unable to discover otherwise. Ain’t it the truth.

But this is not a book that lends itself to “bits” or sound bites, because it’s big, sprawling, and full of developments that take many pages to set up. It demands what it praises: a great reader who can hold all the characters in her mind and drift with this large group of people through their lives. It gave me great pleasure.

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0 responses to “Homage to great readers!”

  1. Ooh, sounds like just the book I want to read. Will grab it at Powell’s when I get a chance.

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