The joy of tex(t)
I don’t really know what to do with myself this evening… By 10 o’clock I’d finished the washing up and my wife was in bed reading her book, quite content. I, on the other hand, wander aimlessly around the house looking like someone who’s been stood up by a close friend. I guess I’m tired. It was a late night last night.
For last night I emerged emaciated, blinking into the light, dazed and confused from the most intense reading session I’ve been dragged down into since my university days. Dragged because, as much as enjoyed it, my purpose had become fixated around solving the parts of the puzzle and putting the pieces together by reading the next chapter, the next page, the next sentence of one of the most compelling literary worlds I have ever had the pleasure to enter…
The year is 2006 or 2007, I can’t quite remember. I lie on the top bunk of a sterile white bed in a room for three. The room smells of bleach cleaner or TCP or some other smell of repeated disinfectant. Bright Mediterranean sunshine streams aggressively through the window; far too direct and high to be anything other than the middle of the day. Despite this, I’ve been in bed for well over 18 hours. I feel the eyes of a thousand insomniacs boring into the back of my skull with envy. Little do they know I’ve had no more sleep than them, and certainly nothing more exciting than sleep either. Outside, the side street of Calle de la Unio opens out East onto Las Ramblas, the heartbeat of Barcelona’s tourist centre.
My friends are out there, somewhere. Walking the streets of the Gothic quarter or, more likely, hanging out of some Irish bar with all of the culture and decorum of British lads on tour. I was never going to blend into this trip seamlessly. I, on the other hand, am dehydrating in a sealed room like the national delicacy that is Serrano ham. Two days ago I went to watch RCD Espanyol play Granada in the Olympic stadium, spending all day in the powerful Easter Spanish sunshine. I then spent the evening indoctrinating myself into the delights of Estrella Damm lager before trying, for the first time, pimento olives drowned in an description-less spicy sauce. I woke the next day feeling instead like I had spent a damned lifetime in the cells of Montjuic castle that overlooks that football stadium, the rest of Barcelona, and the Mediterranean all the way out to the Balearic islands. I discovered, days later – I was in no position to discover anything at first, that I had probably given myself sunstroke, liver damage through well-meaning alcohol abuse, food poisoning from copious amounts of dodgy olives or a combination of all three. To this day I have never fully given up long days of sunshine or that first cool crisp sip of lager on a hot day. I have, however, not touched an olive in the 13 or so years that have followed.
I was very unwell that night and for the next few days. My friends cared for me as best they could and eventually left me to rehabilitate in isolation, once it was clear I could partially fend for myself. My biggest regret (although a wiser person than me would suggest that I’m looking in the wrong places for the causes of my problems) was deciding to share toiletries with my very good friend and housemate on this university tour. Not because she had bad taste or anything less than perfect planning, but because the body wash we had planned to share to save on luggage space was olive flavoured. Never before has one person wretched so badly at the smell of Body Shop shower gel in the entire existence of human-kind.
My sole companion on those days of wretched internal reconstruction was a book: The Shadow of the Wind. A translation of the Spanish book by Carlos Ruiz Zafon about Daniel Sempere, a boy who finds a book (also called The Shadow of the Wind) by the fictional Julian Carax. Or at least I think he’s fictional – in my sub-optimal state the layers between fiction and reality became blurred. I was the perfect captive audience for what I suspect the author had planned for his readers. Little did I know at the time but I was dozing in virtually the epicentre of the world in which this and the subsequent three books in the series (or should I say collection as they’re not strictly sequential) were set. Central in space but distant by roughly 60 years given that the book is set in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War. In my first venture out of the hostel following the post-olive recovery, I headed up Las Ramblas and brought what at the time seemed the greatest falafel pitta, nay the greatest fast food, of all time in a questionable Turkish kebab shop just past the Church of Saint Mary of Bethlehem. Little did I know that if I had gone just 20 meters further down the road I would have been at the junction of Calle de Santa Anna – the street which is home to the Sempere and Sons bookshop; the focal point for much of the set of books.
Such was the impression that Barcelona, and my fictional mental guidebook, made on me; I took my (now) wife with me to go back years later. We even tried to visit (without much planning and therefore success) some of the locations from the books. I’d read maybe two of the four by then. The mystical centre point to all the books (and the term for the collection of books as a whole) is the Cemetery of Forgotten Books. I have never been able to work out where this might be – never remotely accepting that it may exist only in Zafon’s fictional world. I fell head first into that cemetery back on that first visit to Barcelona in much the same way that the protagonist, Alicia, does not long into the final book in the series: The Labyrinth of the Spirits.
It is that book that I have been devouring, or should I say it devoured me, for the last two weeks. Less than two weeks actually, I believe. I don’t know that I have ever read 800+ pages of a novel in such a short period of time. But for those few days I was utterly addicted. I found myself reading in the shortest of available windows. The 10 minutes (optimistic) while my wife is putting Piglet to bed before I need to start the washing up. That 30 minute window in bed (I would tell myself) before I should turn out the lights and go to sleep. Such was my desperation to finish the book by the end: much of the penultimate section was read while sat on a shoe-fitting bench (designed in the style of a multi-carriage train) while my son was having his hair cut in a child-focused department store.
The final straight of the effort was a reading session pushing deep into the night as I clambered to cover the last hundred pages of the book. Knowing in the back of my mind, although never fulling admitting to myself, that I was going to keep going until I finished. I woke out of the end of the book in such a state of disorientation that I felt I had materialised into this world at the moment another world had closed up. Such was the bittersweet satisfaction of tying up all of the strands of the stories but also knowing there were no more to unravel.
I have absolutely no idea whether this is the greatest book ever written or whether I was just the happy recipient of a conclusion to a world of mystery that was opened to me in delusion on that sterile youth hostel bed on my precipice of adulthood. But I certainly haven’t enjoyed a book as much as that in a long time. I can definitely add it to the (growing) list of things that seems to keep me from this blog! However, if you are ever tempted to lose yourself in the streets of Barcelona (metaphorically, I think) then I would strongly recommend the set of books. They are designed so that you can read any of them in any order, such that they are not sequels and prequels. But to get the most out of the last one (The Labyrinth of the Spirits) I would suggest that some familiarity with the other three will help sow the seeds of satisfaction that comes to seeing them resolved.
Please let me know if you decide to read them or, perhaps, already have. I’d love to know what you think. The only other person who I know has read one of the series independently of my recommendation didn’t particularly enjoy it. Perhaps it is just specifically tailored towards my predispositions… Interestingly, I remember the album that I was listening in that same youth hostel clearly too: Begin to Hope by Regina Spektor, an equally eclectic and seminal input into steering my adulthood. Perhaps I should look to see whether I can get the same level of closure from latest versions of her works.
I haven’t even started on the Gaudi architecture or the spiritual impact that Sagrada Familia had on me. Perhaps it’s time to go back?