The Da Vinci Problem

I’ve just – this minute – finished reading “The Shadow of the Wind” by Carlos Ruiz Zafón, translated by Lucia Graves, who as the daughter of the poet Robert might have been expected to know better. The cover proudly proclaims it to be a number one bestseller and, even more thrillingly, “shortlisted for Richard and Judy’s Book Club”. The first two pages are full of enthusiastic reviews from the usual suspects (The Observer, The Scotsman, The Daily Mail) as well as from some less obvious sources (Trinny Woodall, Susannah Constantine, Elle Magazine).

Now, I’m all for thrillers, generally. There’s nothing I enjoy more than a big, violent, plotty, twisty, romp, and I get a bit cross when people try to argue that a book whose main purpose is to be exciting is somehow by definition an inferior piece of writing. I’m with whoever it was who said that bookshops should just have a “fiction” section in which the best storywriting gets showcased, rather than separate “literary fiction” (what?) and “genre” categories.

But it does annoy me when a book which comes in for huge amounts of praise is full of obvious, avoidable, stupid mistakes. And unfortunately this is one of those books. It is gripping, and I raced through it and enjoyed it very much, but my pleasure was tempered by constant glaring reminders that somebody, somewhere, hadn’t bothered to take five minutes to get things right.

Some of the mistakes are the writer’s, though a good editor should have corrected them. They range from actual, honest mistakes (characters go out for a walk after breakfast and return half an hour later at dusk) to wildly improbable plot points designed to haul the story awkwardly towards a designated point.

Some of the mistakes are the translator’s and I really think she’s done a poor job. The most frequent and irritating example is the dangling construction which occurs when the translation requires a change in word order. In Spanish it’s fine to say “la casa di mi tío, un hombre gordo”, but it’s not OK to translate that as “my uncle’s house, a fat man”. That’s not a real example (I couldn’t be bothered to look one up), but that’s precisely the syntax and it happens over and over again. It’s kind of hideous.

And some mistakes might be his, or might be hers. One character leaves his house “at dawn”, crosses the city, takes a tram up the mountain and arrives at a mansion, at which point “dawn is just breaking”. No way of knowing, without tracking down the original, whether the author really used the same word twice, or whether it’s a lazy and innacurate piece of translation.

There’s also 100 pages of exposition presented in the form of a posthumously-written letter explaining the mystery at the centre of the book, which seemed to me a cheap way of getting to a solution, and a twist in the last couple of chapters which is so cynical and manipulative that I almost stopped reading.

But I didn’t, of course, because it’s also exciting and I needed to know the ending, which is why the book reminded me of The Da Vinci Code, which is slightly better written than this, if you’re counting mistakes and nonsensical plot points against it, but which easily takes the gong by being called “The Da Vinci Code”, as though that makes any kind of sense at all. As you, being educated and naturally smart, know, “Da Vinci” wasn’t Leonardo’s surname; it was where he was from. Calling a book “The Da Vinci Code” is as meaningless and as bizarre as calling the New Testament “The Of Nazareth Story”. All the time I was reading the book, and enjoying it, because it’s a big, violent, plotty, twisty, romp, and because I am a sucker for riddles and puzzles and mysteries (at one point a character says that over 100 anagrams can be made from a particular word or phrase – I forget what it is – and naturally I had to put the book down and work out what they all were before I could keep reading), I had a simultaneous irritation that nobody had stopped him halfway through and said “woah, Dan, you’ve made a silly mistake here: let’s put it right before ONE HUNDRED MILLION PEOPLE read it!”.

So I can’t recommend the book, really. Which is a shame, because it was a birthday present and I enjoyed it and it’s 510 pages long which makes it good for taking on holiday. But now I’ve told you all the annoying things about it, you’re going to find it even more irritating than I did. Sorry.

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