April 24, 2004

Sound Familiar?

Posted by Ed

Certain novels have the power to reduce their reviewers to feats of unimaginitive musing--driving original thoughts from their minds and making them all sound the same. Carlos Ruiz Zafón's Shadow of the Wind is a case in point.

From Michael Dirda's review in The Washington Post:

Critics describing a new novel will sometimes resort to a particularly seductive formula: "If Judith Krantz had written Ulysses . . ." or "Half Georgette Heyer, half H.P. Lovecraft," or "If you enjoyed A Dog of Flanders, you'll just purr over The Cat's Pajamas." This is a seductive formula because it's easy to use (too easy, most of the time) and because it can quickly convey something of the range and complexity of a new book without going into a lot of detail.

But such shortcuts also remind us that novels, like most literature, build on earlier books as much as they do on life or on a writer's personal traumas. Indeed, one loose definition of modernism might be writing that is actually rewriting.

The Shadow of the Wind provokes such thoughts because it is a long novel that will remind readers of a good many other novels. This isn't meant as criticism but as an indication of the story's richness and architectonic intricacy. Before everything else, Carlos Ruiz Zafón's European bestseller is a book about a mysterious book, and its even more mysterious author. Try to imagine a blend of Grand Guignol thriller, historical fiction, occasional farce, existential mystery and passionate love story; then double it. If that's too hard to do, let me put it another way: If you love A.S. Byatt's Possession, García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude, the short stories of Borges, Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose, Arturo Pérez-Reverte's The Club Dumas or Paul Auster's "New York" trilogy, not to mention Victor Hugo's Hunchback of Notre Dame and William Hjortsberg's Falling Angel, then you will love The Shadow of the Wind.

From Richard Eder's review in The New York Times:

When book publicists try to dress up their product in designer clothes, they reach for the verb ''meets.'' Made-up instances: ''John le Carré meets Dostoyevsky,'' for a thriller with metaphysical ambitions. ''P. G. Wodehouse meets Sophocles,'' for a tragicomedy set during an English country weekend. It's lowdown and lazy, but here goes: ''Gabriel García Márquez meets Umberto Eco meets Jorge Luis Borges'' for a sprawling magic show, exasperatingly tricky and mostly wonderful, by the Spanish novelist Carlos Ruiz Zafón. The three illustrious meeters must surely have been drinking and they weave about a little, but steady remarkably as the pages go by.

Sound familiar? (The Dirda review, in particular, will give you a good sense of the novel, though I was amused to see how similar the opening was to the first paragraph of the NYT review.)

The Shadow of the Wind has apparently been a literary sensation and a run-away bestseller in Spain (and in much of Europe.) An English translation of the novel has just been released in America; the translation was written (I was intrigued to learn) by the daughter of Robert Graves.

I've been spending the afternoon sitting in the computer lab of the Chicago science library, reading Ruiz Zafón's novel, leafing through Habermas's Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, and writing some of my thoughts on the theoretical problems associated with my dissertation. There are worse ways to spend a Saturday afternoon...

Posted by Ed at April 24, 2004 05:12 PM

Have you encountered a review that reads like Dirda meets Eder?

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