Saturday, June 29, 2013

The Shadow of the Wind (La Sombra del Viento)
Carlos Ruiz Zafon, 2001
Translation to English in 2004, Lucia Graves

The book opens in 1945 Daniel Sempere’s father takes him to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books where eleven year old Daniel adopts a book titled The Shadow of the Wind, written by Julian Carax in 1935.
Zafon layers the love stories of Julian Carax and Daniel Sempere, not so much as a book within a book, but more two stories within one novel. He sets these tales on the plane of surreal Barcelona, as much a character in the novel as either Julian or Daniel.

Seeking more information about Julian Carax, Daniel falls in love with the beautiful Clara Barcelo almost twice his age, when he seeks out Clara’s uncle, a noted book seller and collector. Clara knew of Carax through an old tutor and had long searched for titles by the author to no avail. Barcelo knows just enough to send Julian down several circuitous paths, chasing the whereabouts and intrigues of the missing author. Eventually Julian gives his prized book to Clara, hoping to garner her love.

Daniel meets Lain Coubert in the street one night following an argument with his father. Lain’s leathery, burned face scares Daniel. The monstrous man seemed to have stepped from the pages of Carax’s novel. Lain is the name Carax gave the Devil in Shadow of the Wind and he wants to buy the book from Daniel. Shaken, Daniel seeks out Clara to protect her from Lain and to hide the book. He finds Clara in bed with her lover. The enraged lover beats Daniel and throws him from the house, but not before Daniel finds the book.

Stumbling from the house, Daniel passes a beggar camped outside Clara’s door. The beggar invites Daniel to rest and share some cheap wine. Eventually, Daniel’ father employs this beggar, Fermin Romero de Torres.

Daniel conspires with Fermin to unravel the mystery of Julian Carax and the missing books. They learn that Julian and Fermin share a common enemy, who yet seeks to detroy Fermin and those who help him.

The plot unfolds into a history of Julian Carax that mirrors Daniel’s story. Daniel falls for his best friend’s sister, just as Julian had done years earlier. Brothers and rival suitors tear through the linked tales in past and current setting for the book, while Fermin and Daniel track further into the reaches of a colorful underbelly of Barcelona. Meanwhile, Fermin’s enemy seeks to kill both Fermin and Daniel.

I enjoyed the dense layering of plot and setting. At one point Daniel promises to show Bea, his lbeloved, a side of Barcelona that will make her want to stay, in the city and with Daniel. In showing Bea the city, Daniel reveals Barcelona to the reader, delighting, scaring and enticing. Fermin Romero de Torres establishes a running commentary on politics women and Barcelona adding delightful turns of phrase, sophistry and wisdom to the text. Julian Carax as well as the old librarian delighted me throughout.

All in all a great, if long, read.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

The Story Ends Here

Comments for Writing Rogues on:
Dysfunctional Narratives: or: “Mistakes were Made”
The first essay in Burning Down the House, by Charles Baxter, 1997 Greywolf Press

Baxter frames his examination of passive narrative in critique of the politically conservative. He points to Nixon’s use of plausible deniability as a catalyst for a cultural shift. Baxter states: “The greatest influence on American fiction for the last twenty years may have been the author of RN, not the writing but in the public character. He is the inventor, for our purposes and for our time, of the concept of deniability... they (public figures claiming deniability) create a climate in which social narratives are designed to be deliberately incoherent and misleading. Such narratives humiliate the act of storytelling.”

Putting aside the essay’s political framework, Baxter’s point surfaces in this last sentence. Storytelling suffers without clear villains. Without discernment or its coarse cousin, judgement, an author seldom delivers on plot or even character. Often I’ve heard writers, including myself, exclaim that our fiction is character driven when what we mean is; ‘I don’t have much of a plot and I really don’t want to offend anyone, least of all my characters.’ This failure to act coupled with paralysis of thought, limits the story and removes the reader. Protagonists and antagonists lose punch. Weak and fungible, these two character roles fade and a victim emerges. The victim has been put upon by a gathering of nebulous villainy without a face. A soft fuzzy glow surrounds the pedantry of the non-protagonist. Blug. According to Baxter, eventually blame is assigned and the story ends. What story?

Most of us writer types have been eviscerated for using passive voice in our work, so we remove it and grumble. Surely passive voice leads to deniability, but Baxter speaks of an umbrella passivity; a monster cumulonimbus pouring–scratch that. Way too active. A damp, tepid blanket of a plot coupled to moist, rotting fibers of character. The book may or may not use passive voice, but it employs deniability as its overall failsafe; as if we’re saying, “you won’t catch this author having an opinion. Un-huh. I’m as much a dupe as my lackluster story.”

Perpetual victims make for tedious tales. Baxter cites C.K. Williams’ discussion of narrative dysfunction as the process by which we lose track of the story, stating, “one of the signs of a dysfunctional narrative is that we cannot leave it behind, and we cannot put it to rest, because, it does not, finally, give us the explanation we need to enclose it... Stories about being put upon almost literally do not know what to look at. The visual details are muddled or indifferently described or excessively specific in nonpertinent situations.”

In a passive book, characters don’t make mistakes and muhaha-bad-guys don’t exist. Villainy gives a character and a book “largeness, a sense of scale.” Without accountability, villains don’t color the landscape of the story. The plot fails and the characters float in a hopeless sea, unmoored and hapless. The characters remain sketches unaided by mistakes or flaws without direction. Quoting Baxter, “There is such a thing as the poetry of mistake, and when you say, “mistakes were made,” you deprive an action of its poetry, and you sound like a weasel... And I suppose I am nostalgic–as a writer, of course–for stories with mindful villainy, villainy with clear motives that an adult would understand, bad behavior with a sense of scale that would give back to us our imaginative grip on the despicable and the admirable and our capacity to have some opinions about the two.”

Baxter defines the novel employing dysfunctional narrative as an emerging artform in America. I would add, “but not a story.” In using what Baxter calls dysfunctional narrative, an author sketches a poignant scene, cleans his brushes then leaves the work unfinished. As my mother would say, “poor pitiful Pearl, just so forlorn,” after a doll from the 1950's (great blog And forlorn describes this artwork. Another word which recalls the original meaning of forlorn is Godforsaken.

Taking a tiny punch at Calvinism and later Protestantism, Baxter argues predetermination. I don’t argue that predestination, poorly constructed, accurately describes this artform, entirely managed and without recourse. I will argue that Calvin and Arminius were strong proponents of accountability in the form of confession, contrition and reconciliation, all of which make for wonderfully flawed characters and Tolkien’s famous story type, eucatastrophe. Baxter notes that the characters are fated in passive books, “all personal decisions have been made meaningless, deniable. It is a life of fate, like a character disorder.” Call it a book disorder?

The passive novel is a new concept for me and a delightful way to describe a type of book. Thank you Charles Baxter.

Enough for now. BEV