Well I went round the house a couple of days ago picking up books that I fancied (or thought I ought to fancy) reading. It's a heterogenous bunch. Toni Morrison is in there and so is Malcolm Lowry. It's extraordinary how books accumulate.
The Malcolm Lowry was a prize I won for writing a topical haiku for The Guardian, the Toni Morrison I bought in a fit of earnestness about five years ago, the Zafon was something Ailz bought (with her inherited nose for a questionable bargain) because it was in a stock clearance- two big fat novels for only £10!
Soooo- the Zafon came out top of the pile because it seemed to be the lightest. It's a thriller and a romance and a comedy. Hugely ambitious and with way too much story. Question: why should I care about all these characters whose lives intertwine and who I have difficulty telling apart? Answer: Erm..... Basically, I don't think our author is in control of his material. There's social realism and watered down Borges and plot, plot, plot and actually it's all pretty silly. As E.M. Forster once remarked, "Yes, o dear yes, the novel tells a story."
There are novelists who are all about story. And there are others- among them some of the best- who don't give a rat's fuck. And another lot- like my man Dickens- who care about story but aren't very good at it. I think Zafon is category three. But he's a good writer and the preposterous story he's got to tell is really just an excuse for him to reflect on the history and marvels and utterly unique character of his home town.
And since his hometown happens to be Barcelona- which is one of the wonder cities of the world- I'm happy to go along with him.
I was in Barcelona for about three hours- yes, I know- a ridiculously short time- and it gave me a migraine and left an indelible impression. Barcelona is Roman, medieval, industrial and a port, has it's own hallucinogenic style of Art Nouveau and is the capital of a nation (Catalunya) that doesn't exist but ought to. Reading this book makes me feel like I'm extending my stay.