The Shadow of the Wind is an Amazing Novel

The Shadow of the Wind (2001)
By Carlos Ruiz Zafon
Penguin, 565 pages.

Looking for a great novel? How about a story that features passion, tragic love, war, revenge, subterfuge, fire, madness, vengeful devils, soiled avenging angels, social class tension, and Victor Hugo’s pen? It even comes with its own walking map of Barcelona for those wishing to match story to the street. Do I have your attention?

I recently revisited Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s The Shadow of the Wind, which I read about 15 years ago without realizing that it’s the first book of a trilogy. I tracked down the next two volumes in a used bookstore, but wisely decided first to re-read The Shadow of the Wind. What a book!

It opens shortly after the Spanish Civil War (1936-39), a conflict often viewed as a dress rehearsal for World War II. Alas, it ended in the deaths of nearly 2 million, the destruction of the democratic Spanish Republic, and the installation of a fascist dictatorship headed by Francisco Franco that endured until 1975. Young Daniel Sempere and his father run a small bookshop with the help of Fermin Romero de Torre, an unforgettable character who has a shadowy past and is equal parts rogue, trickster, horndog, and mentor to Daniel. Like Fermin, everything is shadowy in Franco’s Barcelona, a hotbed of anti-Franco resistance both during and after the civil war.

Our mystery begins when Daniel’s father takes him to the secretive Cemetery of Forgotten Books, a repository of works few (or none) have ever read. Every reader conjures different images of what it’s like; mine is analogous to an M. C. Escher labyrinth. Daniel is told that he can remove any volume he wishes, and he selects Shadow of the Wind by Julian Carax. Daniel is more than enthralled and sets out to find other Carax titles. They seem to have vanished, though the wealthy Gustavo Barcelo offers him a small fortune for his copy of Shadow of the Wind. Although Barcelo’s blind niece Clara is Daniel’s unrequited crush, he declines Barcelo’s offer and embarks on a labored effort to unravel the story of Carax’s life. Two sinister characters loom ominously over Daniel’s efforts: police inspector Francisco Javier Fumero, a sadistic, amoral monster; and Lain Coubert, a frightful-looking man with scorched lips, fiery red skin, no eye lids, and a melted face. Both give Daniel the same advice: forget about Julian Carax. This is all the creepier given that Daniel knows that Lain Coubert is the name given to the Devil in Carax’s Shadow of the Wind.

This is a terrific setup for a novel whose mystery takes us back to both 1919 and the Spanish Civil War, forward to World War II, and advances again to 1956 and 1966. As such it also a coming-of-age novel that eventually deposits us in Daniel’s forties. As young Daniel probes deeper into what happened to Carax and his books, he discovers that the bits and pieces don’t seem to fit the official story.

All of this is made more compelling though secondary characters of depth and memorable circumstance: Don Ricardo Aldaya, an imperious and snobbish rich businessman; his angry n’er-do-well son Jorge; their dying former governess Jacinta Coronado; and Nuria Montfort, the estranged daughter of the keeper of the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, whom we meet in a loveless marriage to Miquel Moliner, and once was one of Julian’s lovers. Above all there is Fermin, who is a force of nature who will make you laugh, cringe, marvel, and fear for his safety. Ruiz Zafon also makes us care about a character that isn’t even present: Penelope Aldaya, Don Ricardo’s daughter.

As Daniel moves through his teens and tries to woo Beatriz Aguilar, his best friend’s sister, but is decidedly above Daniel’s class rank, The Shadow of the Wind also begins to suggest a history-repeats-itself story. I shall say only that Ruiz Zafon is a skillful writer who knows how to close the circle without resorting to the obvious. Pay attention to the book’s “shadows;” what happens on the fringes is often more important than what takes place in the light of day. Note also how the very identity of a “shadow” shifts. On occasion, it’s not even a person.

At times the book will remind you of Greek mythology–Penelope’s name isn’t coincidental–but it also has elements of Great Expectations, Don Quixote, Victor Hugo, Umberto Eco, Gothic novels and caper films. It is unabashedly anti-modern in its disdain for mid-20th century technology (such as television) and you don’t need a course in Spanish history to know that Ruiz Zafon deplored Francoism.

One can debate what qualifies as literature–­as opposed to simply “fiction”–but I doubt that anyone would argue that The Shadow of the Wind is not a serious work. Stay tuned as I dive into the remaining books of the trilogy.

By the way, the Cemetery of Forgotten Books does not really exist. It should, it should!

Rob Weir


There's More to See at MASS MoCA than Hancock Exhibit (Luckily)

Mind of the Mound: Critical Mass
Mass MoCA, North Adams, MA
Through October 2019

As many of you know, I’m a fan of the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA). I go there a few times per year because I’m guaranteed to see things I’d be hard pressed to see elsewhere. This summer’s big show comes from Trent Doyle Hancock. Well …  they can’t all be winners.

I guess it would have helped me appreciate “Mind of the Mound” if I had ever heard of Hancock’s bumbling graphic arts superhero Torpedoboy. Or maybe not. Sometimes one doesn’t get something because there’s nothing to be got. That’s how I felt about this large but uninspiring exhibit. Here’s the deal if you know even less than I knew when I went in. Hancock has constructed a fantasy world around the Mounds, who are human/plant hybrids who toil heroically for the greening of the planet. Alas, they are opposed by the Vegans (really?), mutants that eat tofu and kill Mounds whenever possible. Torpedoboy tries his best to aid the Mounds, though he’s not always successful. Hancock overlays all of this with a fuzzy mythology that he calls the Moundverse.s his work a comment on im Crow and vigilante rule? Dunno!

Let me quote–from the exhibit’s brochure–how Hancock describes the Mounds: “[They] are not only natural depositories for memories and other bits of discarded humanity, but they are a way for us to build a collective psycho-emotional hierarchy, as well as way to describe an individual’s intuitive profile.” Does that make any sense to you? Nah, it didn’t for me either. Did Hancock open an app that randomly generates artist statements? 

What do we actually see? That’s a bit random as well. Hancock cites influences such as painters Philip Guston, Marvel comics, the set designs of Peewee’s Playhouse, TV shows, films (“Repo Man,” “Clash of the Titans”), and graphic arts pioneers such as Art Spiegelman and R. Crumb. As you make your way through the Mind of the Mound, you will find artifacts and hints of his various inspirations, as well as actual toys and books. If you’ve never been baptized in this, it looks like a children’s game show in which contestants make their way down at cotton-candy-colored game board that skirts past and into various mounds, domes, and what appear to be shops. The experience is as if someone had run a Second Life fantasy through a massive 3-D print printer.

If you’ve got a Candy Crush-like addiction to Hancock’s fantasy world, perhaps you’ll enjoy this. I was not inspired to go deeper.

Among the good things about Mass MoCA, though, is that there’s always something else to grab you attention. There is, for example, an Annie Lenox exhibition titled “Now I Let You Go,” which is as enigmatic as you’d expect from Ms. Lennox. It’s a collection of objects–many of them personal–but also writings, recollections, and stories. It’s jumbled into something that’s hard to describe. It’s kind of like a memoir meshed with an installation.

Jim Morrison and Pam Courson
Freddie Mercury
If that’s as elusive for you as Hancock’s objective, try something more concrete. MassMoCA also possesses a large collection of rock n’ roll photos that it cherry-picks for shows. The one currently on display is called “The Bright and Hollow Sky,” a selection of vintage and more recent shots of pop and rock idols. It’s always fun to waltz through one’s own past, though sometimes it’s a bit jarring to see how things looked in earlier days! 

There’s also “Chrissie Hynde: Paintings.” Did you know she painted? I don’t think I did. She’s competent, though it would be fair commentary to call much of her work derivative–of Picasso, the Cubists, Surrealists, Lucian Freud, Milton Avery, and scads of others, including Joni Mitchell. But, hey, she’s not bad even if she isn’t the savant with a brush that she is with a guitar. Hynde was one of rock’s pioneering bad girls, so you know the work is filled with swagger and bravada. And if you know her music, you also know she doesn’t give a rat’s ass what you think of her art. I like it, whether she cares or not. 

Finally, if you’ve not yet seen “Language of the Future,” personal musings of a 1984 multimedia presentation from Laurie Anderson, you must. Can you say “certifiable genius?” If you but watch 10 minutes of the video, you’ll come away with your mind blown. To say that Anderson sees the world and hears music differently from most scarcely dents the parameters of her capacious mind. You get the feeling that when the next great social, cultural, or technological transformation comes that Anderson will have arrived two or three steps ahead of the pack.  

Like I said, always something to see at MASS MoCA.

Rob Weir


Paris Nocturne: Patrick Modiano is Rediscovered

Paris Nocturne (2003/2015 in English)
By Patrick Modiano
Yale University Press, 148 pages

It’s amazing what a Nobel Prize can do. Patrick Modiano was a celebrated French writer before he won the Nobel Prize for literature in 2014, but his acclaim was among a small group of literati and was far from a household name. Since his Nobel, much of his earlier books have been translated into English, including Paris Nocturne, which appeared in English 12 years after it was published in France.

Modiano writes beautifully, though his prose is often spare. His work is also serious, literary, and interior. This is to say they are not books in which a lot happens. The concept of “mania” appears in most of his works, but it’s the sort of chaos and confusion that occurs in the mind more than in physical space. Modiano delves deeply into memory and the mania that comes from not knowing which memories can be trusted and which cannot.

Paris Nocturne is true to its title in that things occur in gloaming and in darkness. Our nameless 20-year-old narrator walks across the street at the Place des Pyramides in Paris and is grazed by a car. At first he thinks he’s fine, but the blood on his jacket and the pain in his ankle tells him he’s not. What happens next is a blur: a woman smashing her car into an arcade and staggering out, she beside him in a police van, a cup being placed over his nose, the smell of ether, several days of delirium, and awakening in a clinic where a man presses upon him a very large wad of cash.

While delirious he “remembers” being hit by a car under similar circumstances when he was a child. The woman in that memory looks like the one who recently hit him. She cannot possibly be, but he nonetheless is haunted by his impressions and has only the woman’s name, Jacqueline Beausargent, and the memory that her car was a sea green Fiat to go by. He was also told that the man who gave him the money is named Soliere and that, “he’s no choir boy.” Our narrator painstakingly sets about the task of tracking down Beausargent. Along the way, present memories and those from the past–being abandoned in childhood, a past love, school days–intersect, clash, and interweave.

Have I given away the book? No. It is not an adventure, a mystery, or an exploration of the Parisian underworld. It’s not really a narrative in any conventional sense. It is, as I suggested, about memory. Acts of remembering and forgetting are central to Modiano’s writing. He is deeply attuned to the French national memory and at attempts to reframe reality in the wake of two shameful French episodes: the Vichy government’s collaboration with the Nazis during World War II, and France’s attempt to maintain its colonialist grasp upon Algeria during its struggle for independence (1954-62). That conflict caused a quarter million casualties. Paris Nocturne isn’t about war or national shame per se, but Modiano suggests that what we choose to remember, think we recall, and conveniently forget springs forth from a national collective consciousness. We do not know when this story is set in time, but are we to infer that the narrator’s ruined ankle will exempt him from fighting in Algeria? Perhaps.

Paris Nocturne isn’t an “easy” read, even though it conforms to the short single-movement structure of its musical counterpart. Modiano’s writing brings to mind the work of others who employ untrustworthy narrators, such as Proust, Joyce, John Knowles, and Julian Barnes. Why read Modiano? First, because of the elegance of the language, which is powerful without resorting to complexity or frippery. Add to this his keen powers of observation. Recall that most of this book is set after dark. Modiano vividly describes Paris in the shadows. Plato remarked, “We can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark; the real tragedy of life is when men are afraid of light.” Did Modiano intend for us to muse upon this through a narrator who is neither child nor adult? I’m not sure. All I can say is that I read Patrick Modiano because he makes me ponder such things.

Rob Weir