Reviews: Z

Review: “The Prince of Mist” by Carlos Ruiz Zafon [1993]; translated from Spanish by Lucia Graves [2010]

The Prince of Mist is Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s debut novel and the first of his back catalogue to be translated into English. Although Zafon’s earlier novels, before The Shadow of the Wind, are group as Young Adult, I don’t think there should be a problem appealing to the rest of us.

Set in Spain, 1943 in the midst of WWII, thirteen year old Max Carver’s father decides to uproot his family and move away from the city and to a sleepy seaside town. Max’s father, Maximilian, an eccentric watchmaker, had purchased an abandoned house with a sad history. It’s previous owners were an unhappy couple who had trouble conceiving throughout their marriage. Eventually, they managed to fall pregnant and produced a son, Jacob. When the boy is eight, he disappears one morning and is found drowned in the sea.

From the moment Max enters their new home, he gets an uncomfortable feeling. The clocks in the house are perpetually slower than their watches even after careful examination of the mechanics by Maximilian and constant turning. A stray cat that Max’s younger sister picked up at the train station and adopted continually stalks and watches them. Max also discovers an overgrown garden at the back of the house with statues arranged in a strange formation:

The figures seemed to be arranged in concentric circles and Max realised that they were all facing west. They appeared to form part of something resembling a circus troupe. As he walked among the statues, Max recognised the figure of a lion tamer, a turbaned fakir with a hooked nose, a female contortionist, a strongman and a whole gallery of other ghostly characters. In the middle of the garden, resting on a pedestal, stood the imposing figure of a clown. – p. 27

The mystery of the statues, when Max finally realises that they are arranged to form a six-point star, deepens when his father finds an box of old film in the garage, revealing to be amateur footage of the house and the mysterious garden – except that in the film, the statues were in a different position and pose. Forming a strong friendship with a local boy, Roland, who takes him diving to explore an old ship wreck, the Orpheus, which had sunk twenty-five years ago  while carrying dubious passengers, Max see the six-pointed star again on the ship’s flag. More about the mysterious wreck and origins of the statue, particularly the ringleader Clown is revealed when Roland takes Max and his sister to see his grandfather who has been the lighthouse keeper for the last twenty-five years.

As a debut novel, Prince of Mist is a fantastic read. It’s so atmospheric and Gothic, elements Zafon later fully employs in his subsequent bestsellers. While this is book is marketed as YA, this is truly one scary and frightening read – or perhaps I’m either a complete wuss when it comes to scary books and movies or the fact that I find clowns terrifying. One downside of the book was the beginning. I’m not sure if it was the translation or the writing but some words were repeated over and over again and it just pulled the reader out from getting into the moment. Other than that, once you’ve broken in, it’s one thrilling read.

Review: “Nana” by Emile Zola [1880]; translated from French by Douglas Parmee [1992]

Nana begins during the 1862 World Fair in Paris. The theatre world has been heavily awashed in hype about the latest actress, Nana, who is due to make her debut in the stage production ‘The Blonde Venus’ with Nana playing Venus herself. What follows is a rather delicious anti-climax.

She had barely reached the second line before the audience started exchanging glances. Was this a joke, one of Bordenave’s calculated risks? They’d never heard a worse-trained voice, nor one singing more out of tune … and she didn’t even know how to hold herself on the stage – she was flinging her arms about in front of herself and swaying in a way that seemed both graceless and inappropriate.  – p. 14.

However, all of Nana’s lack of talent is soon forgiven as Nana is shown to be good natured, charismatic and even laughs along with the audience. She finally wins all the male audience’s hearts when she appears nude in the finale.

What follows is the chasing of Nana by the many men who are in love with her. A beautiful, young woman, Nana is captivating and knows how to please and is certainly not at all prudish. And despite being constantly depicted as living precariously between poverty and wealth, Nana is never shown to care for money, flinging and spending wildly. While wearing dresses that costs thousands of francs, she is constantly always wondering where her money has gone and frequently borrows from her own maid, Zoe.

Nana is a difficult character to articulate. She is a prostitute and blatant fortune hunter, seeking fame and wealth but not quite stability. The idea of marriage disgusts her and she turns down all proposals, no matter how rich the man is. She is shown to be ruthless with her lovers – she spends away her lovers’ fortunes without hesitation or a second thought and, when the money runs out, she cuts them off and throws them out. But she is also not without heart. There is a certain endearment to her. She has a little son, who was borne out of wedlock, and spoils him whenever she has the money, whenever she has time and whenever she remembers his existence. What Nana lacks is empathy.

As the novel progresses, Nana’s hedonism grows so large and overbearing, it feels like there is a gaping black vortex surrounding her, sucking everything in indiscriminately. The centre of this is the ordering of a solid, gold bed with her naked portrait carved into the bedhead. At one point, she consumes all men who happen to fall by her way and sleeps with different men and women each night. Great fortunes, some spanning back centuries, are wilted after a few weeks with Nana and great men are brought down to their knees.

This was an interesting and intense read, largely due to the ambiguous nature of Nana. She wants nothing more than respect, to be a woman of high society but it is something she will never achieve. She is always on the brink of poverty even when surrounded by such splendor and living in a palace and, yet, Nana is never seemed to be worried about it. Things are so easily given to her and, again, easily taken away and this occurs to the extreme.

The chapters are long so it is not a book you can simply pick up and put down. I would have loved to read this in French though, because I suspect my translation may be slightly off. At times, it sounded far too British and modern. Nana also appears in a prior book, L’Assommoir, where her childhood, lived in poverty and under alcoholic parents, was depicted.

Review: “The Angel’s Game” by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

The Angel’s Game is the long awaited second book by the author who gave us the wonderful invention of the cemetary for books in Shadow of the Wind. While the Spanish and original version was published last year, most of the English speaking readers had to wait a year for the translation.

Angel’s Game is billed as the ‘prequel’ to Shadow and in some ways it is rightly so but it can also stand alone. This is the tale of David Martin and his struggle through life and his dream of becoming a published and respected author. Life has been hard on David and what he really needs is one good turn and a lucky break. He gets it eventually when he is commisioned by two manipulative publishers to write a series of penny dreadfuls under an assumed name. Throughout his life, David had been receiving sporadic letters from a mysterious, and evidently very rich, fan and patron of his work named Andreas Corelli. Correli maintains he is a French publisher although nobody has ever heard or seen him and mysterious circumstances surround his publishing house in France.

The plot thickens when David, near death from a brain tumour, receives an offer from Corelli, who finally visits David, to write him a book. It would be under his own name and he would receive a small fortune as an advance. David accepts and everything in his life begins to collapse around him.

This is certainly an enthalling and wonderfully plotted story set in gothic, pre-war Barcelona. There are some lovely continuities with Sempere and Sons bookshop and the Sempere family along with the revisit to the book cemetery. Throughout the book, I caught strong whiffs of Great Expectations, which is very obvious, Dickensian story elements and a bit of Paulo Coehlo.

However, I do think the editor didn’t quite do their job properly because some parts of the book didn’t feel ‘tight’ enough to me. Some parts dragged, particularly the beginning and I’m sure there were more parts throughout the book which could have been better edited. The ending was rather … sudden for me and caused some confusion. While Zafon probably intended on leaving an open ending with the rest quite self-explanatory, I would have at least liked a little bit of closure.  It just grew a little frantic with possibly needless deaths. I remember scenes like this in Shadow towards its end also.

Despite that, I really did enjoy the book. I’ll have to reread Shadow since it’s been awhile. I’ve heard there are to be four books in this ‘series’ so hopefully we’ll see one soon and won’t have to wait another five years.