Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Memory of the Wind

I just finished The Memory of the Wind, one of the most disappointing books I've read in a long time.  It's not so much that it wasn't good, as that it started out extremely well, and then deteriorated badly in the last third.

I think that Zafon, the author, shares a lot with Dickens, good and bad, but with a few deficiencies that Dickens didn't have which drag down this novel.

First, the good:  The opening is very evocative.  Young Daniel is taken by his father to the cemetery of lost books, a huge library of old, forgotten titles lovingly preserved by a select few initiates.  (Or so Daniel tells us -- later, his girlfriend will find Tess of the D'Urbervilles there, which is not exactly a forgotten title).  Zafon brings forth Barcelona from the mist beautifully, and the cemetery is enticing and foreboding at one and the same time.  In some ways, this reminded me of the opening of Great Expectations, set in an actual graveyard -- there's the same Gothic atmosphere.

Like Dickens, Zafon creates memorable characters who jump off the page.  Fermin, the ebullient, funny sidekick will remain in memory much longer than the creaky plot that surrounds him.  Carax, the mysterious author at the heart of the story, is a wonderfully enigmatic character, feeling fully-formed even in the very few pages in which he actually appears.

Unfortunately, like Dickens, Zafon enjoys a lot of the Gothic hugger-mugger, except even more so, and it becomes a detriment.  We have not one but three cruel fathers locking up children or wives, we have incest, we a cruelly disfigured vengeful figure, and so on and on.  The Economist suggests that it's all parodical, but I think that either way it's a huge mistake; if Zafon intends a parody, he can't expect readers to become emotionally attached to the characters, and without that attachment the end loses all its resonance.

Speaking of resonance, my other big problem with the novel is that it's over-structured, a problem Dickens certainly never had.  There are large-scale echoes, like the one-too-many ways that fathers have a difficult time relating to their children.  Even worse is the way that Daniel's story echoes Carax's, underlined by the way several characters tell us that Daniel looks like a young Carax, even though they're not related.  It's just too much, and feels too schematic, so that the ending scenes are telegraphed from miles away, and it's not even particularly fun to see them worked out.

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