The Internet is a wonderful place.
I was listening to NPR one day and they were talking about the books of 2004. The person being interviewed mentioned this book that sounded really interesting to me, but of course, I promptly forgot the title and author. I mentioned this at a discussion forum I frequent, described what I could vaguely remember about the plot, and said I thought the title started with an “S”.
I was expecting replies along the lines of “starts with an S. Oh sure. I know exactly what that is.” But instead, another member of the discussion forum e-mailed me to not only give me the name of the book and the author, but also to tell me that she works for the publisher and could send me a copy. The book arrived in my mailbox soon after.
The book was written in Spanish and was translated by Lucia Graves. I sometimes feel a little frustrated when I read translations, because I feel like I’m missing something: that poetic element of crafting words that goes beyond just telling the story. I never felt that with this book. In fact, the artful phrasing painted vibrant pictures that I wouldn’t have thought possible with translated text. This was one of the rare books I’ve read in translation that never pulled me out of the story because of language.
The story was fanciful, with twists and turns at every page. I would almost call it great fun to read, except that it also had an element of sadness to it. It had a poignant historical context that was an almost abrasive justaposition to the larger-than-life plot. And that only made the book more interesting.
One reason I really like reading non-American authors is that I get a peek into the history and culture of other countries that I would otherwise never know.
The other thing about this book is that I felt like I was almost reading about other characters from long ago. I recognized Pip and Estella from Great Expectations and the villian could have stepped right out of the pages of Dickens or Poe. At times the characters are too one-dimensional, but it’s because they serve the purpose of the story. They are symbols more than people, guideposts in the journey.
And despite the outlandish heights to which the plot aspired, it ultimately stayed grounded by its honesty about human nature.
“Sometimes we think people are like lottery tickets, that they’re there to make our most absurd dreams come true.”
The story was in one sense about love, but in another sense, it was about books. And about what it means to commit words to paper.
“… a story is a letter that the author writes to himself, to tell himself things that he would be unable to discover otherwise.”
How many times have I started to write, only to end up with something completely different at the end that I never would have guessed and realized that it’s true?
At the heart of the novel is the cemetery of lost books, where books that have been forgotten are preserved forever. That on its own is a wonderful and fanciful idea, and it’s from this that the rest of the story grows.