Dream-like and disorientating

mist

Carlos Ruiz Zafón The Prince of Mist
Orion Children’s Books 2010
Translated from the Spanish by Lucia Graves
(El principe de la niebla 1993)

The fiction of Ruiz Zafón reminds me of dreams bordering on nightmare. Everything is vague: geography (even when set in a well-known city like Barcelona), supporting characters (especially when they appear able to anticipate the protagonist’s mood and thoughts) and time (even when we’re given a specific year and month in which the story takes place). Disjointed places and sequences cause confusion and disquiet in dreams; in novels they can also be frustrating and irritating. Ultimately I found The Prince of Mist — the author’s first novel, in this instance for a young adult readership — as unsatisfying as the dream-like adult novels he is more famous for; unsatisfying because they are full of manufactured mysteries as insubstantial to the grasp as shadows, winds and mists. But I’m getting ahead of myself here.

It is June, 1943, and it is Max Carver’s 13th birthday. His father Maximilian, a watchmaker, gives his family some unwelcome news: they all — Maximilian and wife Andrea, along with Alicia, Max and Irina — have to leave the city and relocate to a small village on what appears to be the Atlantic coast. At journey’s end, after three hours on the train, they arrive at a seaside station — only to be joined by a mysterious stray cat, who seems to have adopted them.

Further mysteries await: the early 20th-century house was built by the Fleischmans, a couple whose long-awaited son drowned; they left behind an old film projector with several reels of really odd home movies; and up the hill from the house is a curious enclosure which, to Max at least, is too eerie for words, swathed in mist and apparently full of statues of circus performers. To add to the family’s woes, young Irina has a strange episode which leads to a coma and hospitalisation. Will Max and his older sister Alicia’s growing friendships with Roland (a young man about to be called up to the forces) and with his adoptive grandfather — who is also the lighthouse keeper — help to return some normality to their lives?

I found it quite hard to locate this book’s setting. You’d expect, what with Ruiz Zafón being Catalan, that the action takes place on the Mediterranean coast. Or, to keep the Spanish aspect, that it could conceivably be set in Galicia, on the northeast tip of the peninsula. But I could equally imagine it in a Cornish setting (there’s little to suggest that it couldn’t) and I’m not the only reviewer to sense a Famous Five vibe here (albeit much darker than anything that Blyton would have envisioned). The pan-European names also add to the deliberately disorienting narrative: for example, many of the names are German (Maximilian, Kray, Fleischman), Irina is Russian, Carver is an English surname, Eva Fleischman née Gray has a German forename and an English last name, Roland is French. In fact, the most notable absence is any obviously Spanish name. Maybe this is deliberate, an attempt to give a European flavour to the novel so as to appeal to a wider readership. What it also does is to add to the disorientation the story has already conjured up.

hexagramHere’s what really pulls the ground from under our feet: the introduction of so many spooky elements in a novella of only some two hundred pages of largish type. We have a sinister looking cat; a six-pointed star in a circle; a watch (a “Time Machine”) that Max is given by his father but which never seems to tally with normal time; that mist-shrouded enclosure and their shifting figures; the weird home movies; Irina’s sudden illness; the wrecked ship in the bay; the lighthouse keeper with a secret; the mystery of what happened to the Fleischman boy; approaching thunderstorms; and the repeated mention of a fortune-teller called Dr Cain. They must all be related, but how? Many of those links suggested though less rarely explicitly stated, resulting certainly in a tale of terror even if logical connections fly out the window — all, as we’re now familiar with, typical Ruiz Zafón fare.

And here’s one possible way through what appears to be a dark landscape of figures occasionally made vivid by bright lightning flashes: Ruiz Zafón is currently a scriptwriter in the States, where he has been since the nineties. His stories are characterised by strong images, crucially important in the writing of screenplays, and my guess is that his stories would work better as films — in which “Show, don’t tell” is ever the byword. Lucia Graves appears to have done a good job conveying those images in her translation.

I don’t want to give the impression that I found this as unsatisfying as I’ve so far suggested. The way in which the author deals with burgeoning young love is sensitively done, as is the sadness visited on a couple who couldn’t — or wouldn’t — have a child. Some characters have enough about them that one longs for them to re-appear in a sequel, but though The Prince of Mist is the first in a trilogy (The Midnight Palace and The Watcher in the Shadows follow) I’m not sure that that they ever did. The key question for me, as always, is ‘Would I read this again?’ I think you may already know the answer to that.

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15 thoughts on “Dream-like and disorientating

    1. My copy is even now on a pile to go to a charity shop, Stefy — after all, somebody may like it! And it’s definitely not bad enough to go in the recycling bin — though with a few books, which nobody deserved to be tortured by, I have been sorely tempted!

    1. I began, Lory, as so many others did, with The Shadow of the Wind, and I liked it better than the next title, a prequel, but that’s just faint praise. I had better hopes for this YA novel but it really didn’t press the right buttons for me. I’m wandering whether to bother with any more — life’s too short!

    1. Exactly — I get the impression it’s all more of the same. But it must appeal as he has legions of fans who buy his books. Mind you, it’s always interesting to see how often ‘The Shadow of the Wind’ appears on charity shop bookshelves in amongst the usual suspects (like Dan Brown and Kate Mosse) …

  1. One of my reading pet peeves is being asked to pay attention to something, or being shown something seemingly important, only to have the author walk away from it. George R R Martin is guilty of this; some are red herrings, but most come across as poor writing..

    Zafon’s style make work better on screen. We’ve all seen this oddly placed objects that call out for attention, yet are never mentioned, or once scene characters. Kubrick was famous for this, but I don’t feel this works in literature. I will be sure to skip this series.

    1. You’re right, Sari, visual references in films work on a different level to the spoken script or even all-out action — they’re like the harmonic or instrumental colouring you get in, say, orchestral works which point up without distracting from the principal thematic themes, the melodies that we mostly consciously follow and remember. Once they intrude so much that they distract from the themes the effect is unbalancing.

      The three of Ruiz Zafon’s works that I’ve read so far have so much extra ‘noise’ in them (because when reading a book we have the leisure to press ‘pause’ and ponder possible significance, unlike a live performance or a cinema showing) that I lose the point, if any, that he’s making. If they’re ever made into movies they’d be tightened up to work better than they do on the page.

      Reposted because it should have appeared as a reply, not as a comment!

  2. Richard

    Hello there. I find it interesting that you find so much negative things to say about Zafon’s work but you’ve already read three of his novels. I have read all of his work and I’ve got to say I do not agree with any of the points you make and find quite sad that people may take what you say just at face value and miss out on reading this great writer just because a blogger decides to condemn his work. I know that is just your own opinion, and of course you’re entitled to it. What I find interesting also is your emotional response to those elements you claim to dislike about his work. None of the readers of Zafon’s work I know, and I know plenty because I am a librarian, have responded like you. None seem unable to trace the threads of “logic” in the narrative and if anything all seasoned readers find that Zafon’s work has such a powerful sense of place, of atmosphere and of imagery that I find most peculiar anybody would say it is “vague”. Which brings me to think that one of the wonderful things about books is how they elicit a response in the reader that can be different and initiate a process of thought that leads us in such different directions. I hope you don’t mind my expression of disagreement with your conclusions. I know everybody has an opinion, and thank God for that, but I just thought it very sad to think any readers out there would miss on the immense pleasure of reading one of the greatest writers of our time just because somebody in a blog “didn’t get it”. If I had passed on so many masterpieces that at some point somebody wanted to convince me or others not to read my life would be much poorer for it. Sometimes it is smart to think critically of the critical comments as well and not accept what people say just because. Good reading to all!

    1. Richard, I’m sorry if you felt offended by my comments and opinions on Ruiz Zafon’s work but, as you say, everyone’s entitled to their own opinions and as this is my blog I don’t feel obliged to reflect dissenting opinions such as yours in my posts. I broadly stand by my statements, and certainly by my emotional response.

      As to my comments putting potential readers off, I think you overestimate my influence — I certainly hope my readers are able to make up their own mind, and those few that are swayed to my view are certainly likely to be outweighed by the millions of readers this popular author has already won over. His continuing and future success is not going to be unduly affected by my mildly critical review, is it?

  3. Pingback: Literally challenged: update | calmgrove

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