I didn’t finish this book so I won’t rate it. But I read about 1/3 of the novel, then I skimmed through a number of middle sections, and I read the ending. I know what happened and why and I think I’m entitled to express what I liked and didn’t like. My problems are two-fold: the characters and the story.
The story is too dark and tragic for me, reflecting the time and place of its setting: Spain during Franco’s dictatorship. Some readers’ reviews mention the Gothic atmosphere, but I disagree. There is inherent horror in any dictatorship, and it has nothing to do with the Gothic time period. A police state is the same in any era: the authorities are all-powerful, routinely employing torture and murder, and the people are helpless, because human rights don’t exist. That is exactly the world the author describes. And that’s exactly what I dislike. The book and the reality of the time it portrays are too grim, too hopeless for me, too full of fears.
On such a bleak background, the protagonist Daniel steps as a ten-year-old boy. The book is supposed to be his coming-of-age journey; it spans a couple of decades, but it seems to me that Daniel never really matured. He didn’t feel like 10 years old in the beginning either. He felt like a obdurate teenager (maybe 15) in the beginning, and he remained the same till the end. He caused calamities for several people by his relentless search for the mysterious writer Julian Carax. Everyone told him to stop, but he wouldn’t. He plowed ahead like a mindless tank, setting off a chain of suffering and deaths, and he never acknowledged his own culpability. Instead, he heaped all the blame on the villain, Inspector Fumero, or rather the author did.
The other characters are a diverse bunch, some of them more sympathetic than others, but they all fade behind the flamboyant, expressive narrative. The writer’s prose is like a character itself – it has a personality that out-shadows all the other characters in the book. Flowery metaphors and colorful similes dominate the pages; some might say there are too many of them, but I rather like it. It’s poetic and romantic. It speaks to me. I love the writing while I don’t like the story. Isn’t it strange? I also like the fact that it’s a tale about books and writers, a literary detective story to a degree. Below are a few quotes I couldn’t resist.
Daniel’s father brings him to the ‘Cemetery of Forgotten Books’:
When a library disappears, or a bookshop closes down, when a book is consigned to oblivion, those of us who know this place, its guardians, make sure that it gets here. In this place, books no longer remembered by anyone, books that are lost in time, live forever, waiting for the day when they will reach a new reader’s hands. In the shop we buy and sell them, but in truth books have no owner. Every book you see here has been somebody’s best friend.
The place is reminiscent of every second-hand bookstore, the institutions that keep disappearing in America. I’m infused with nostalgia and longing just from reading the lines. I want to be there, to browse, to inhale the musty smell of old books, to touch them. Browsing through Amazon pages doesn’t have the same charming appeal, not even close.
In theory, I know that the second-hand book trade doesn’t benefit writers, at least not financially, but it allows books to live for a long time, decades or even centuries. In comparison, digital books can’t change hands legally. Every publisher puts a comment in every ebook, discouraging readers from passing the file to others. It’s almost impossible to enforce, but the mere notion that sharing a book has become illegal, that books are now commodities and sell in the same online place as lingerie and pickles, seems obscene somehow. Especially because I’m a writer.
“Barcelo can express himself only in frilly words,” my father whispered…
I admire the word choice here, both of the writer and the translator. I love frilly words too.
“Latin, young man. There’s no such thing as dead languages, only dormant minds.”
Don’t you just love the old booksellers and their endless erudition? That’s disappearing too, together with the bookstores.
The Ateneo was—and remains—one of the many places in Barcelona where the nineteen century hasn’t yet been served its eviction notice.
This one sentence conjures a cityscape, doesn’t it?
“These people who see sin everywhere are sick in their souls and, if you really press me, in their bowels. The endemic condition of the Iberian saint is chronic constipation.”
The author obviously assumes that his readers are more intelligent and liberal than we really are. Nice to be so positively misjudged.