Archive | May 2020

A review of “El Principe de la Niebla,” by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

The English translation of the title is, “The Prince of the Fog.” I read this book as part of my Spanish lessons. I’m surveying a range of genres and authors to expand my vocabulary. I’ve learned that each book has a unique vocabulary, with certain words used repeatedly by individual authors. This is a short book which would probably be more correctly called a novella. It’s intended audience is probably junior high but it was challenging for me. The author is a well-known Spanish writer, so this gave me an opportunity to see how different he writes from the Latin American translations of English books I’ve read before. (I’ve recently started reading books written in Spanish to avoid translation issues.) I’m not going to review this as a children’s book, but as a general-purpose novel, which was suggested by the author himself in the foreward.

I enjoyed the story, even though I don’t generally read horror stories, because Zafon develops characters well with minimal words and reveals nuanced relationships between the characters. His descriptions of scenes and thoughts are very good but limited because of the brevity of the story. I don’t know how common it is for non-English authors to locate their stories in England; at first, I assumed the setting was the Spanish coast of the English Channel but it seems to have been set on the southeast coast of England but – to be honest – he never explicitly states the location (there are references to workers coming from London). I couldn’t help imagining Spanish characters, probably because of the language and the general culture described in the text. The Spanish was a little different from the Latino Spanish translations of English books I read before but it wasn’t difficult.

I got the impression that it was originally going to be a short story but the author realized it was getting too long because he was doing a thorough job introducing the setting and characters, so he turned it into a novel; however, since his target audience was children (who don’t generally read long books), he cut it short once the story got to the action. Nevertheless, the action scenes, culminating with a dramatic ending during a huge storm, were very exciting and easy to imagine from the descriptions. What was lacking was a sense of why any of it occurred. Instead of revealing the evil creature through the experiences of several character, the author had one of them relate what he knew about what was happening. Ultimately, I was unsatisfied with the explanation but I guess pre-teens wouldn’t be expecting too much. However, I was pleasantly surprised at the ending, which was definitely not a happy ending for everyone. I think that’s a message the target age group should learn from books before it happens to them in real life. Overall, I liked the book and would recommend it to anyone learning Spanish and looking for moderately difficult books to read.

Next up: I’m now reading a book written by a young Argentine woman using a lot of slang and vernacular…and it is very hard to read. See you next time!


Review of “Democracy in America,” by Alexis de Tocqueville.

This book is still considered one of the classics in political science, despite being written 190 years ago by a man who spent only six months in the newly formed republic. He put his time to good use, however, traveling the entire country and speaking to everyone, from congressmen and presidential advisors (he comments that it was very easy to speak to powerful people), to families living in log cabins on the frontier. Tocqueville was a very-well educated man from an aristocratic family that survived the French Revolution with their estate intact because his grandfather had supported the purpose of the revolution if not its methods (he survived the counter-revolution as well).

This book is filled with quotable thoughts which Tocqueville develops carefully using long sentences, but short paragraphs. It was translated from French (even though Tocqueville was fluent in English) using his original notes to assure an accurate translation. There are copious footnotes, both by the author and the translator, and it is as complete a treatise on the American psyche as you will find, even to this day.  I haven’t read anything in the recent books I’ve read that adds substantially to his basic conclusion, which is encapsulated in the last sentence of the book:

“Nations of our day cannot have it that conditions within them are not equal; but it depends on them whether equality leads them to servitude or freedom, to enlightenment or barbarism, to prosperity or misery.”

This quote is representative of his writing style, which I enjoy for the way it flows. The entire book presents very complex ideas about the relationship between freedom and equality in what he considered to be the most unique nation in the world. He frankly discusses the strengths and weaknesses of what he found in America and the picture is not necessarily pleasant for an American to read, but it is brutally honest and most of his conclusions are still true today. Of course, as with any book written almost two-hundred years ago, it cannot predict many of the changes that have occurred, but he doesn’t really try to make predictions. In fact, I’d say that more than 75% of his analysis is still applicable.

Well worth reading, but don’t expect a quick read because it’s 676 pages in length. One last word: the table of contents is very detailed and the chapter titles explanatory, so topics of interest can be readily located. It’s almost as if he wanted it to be browsed randomly rather than read cover to cover.

Review of “The Divine Comedy.”

I’m not sure how to review this book. It was written around 1306 by Dante Alighieri, who was a respected Italian (before there was a nation called Italy) poet in the  Middle Ages in Florence. So I’m not going to be too hard on it. It’s a very long poem (693 pages) that doesn’t rhyme because of the translation to English, so it’s very difficult to read. It was translated by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in 1858, who was a poet himself, not that it mattered because of the aforementioned problem. Sometimes, I tried to get in a poetic rhythm while reading it and other times I just read the sentences (it has normal English punctuation) and ignored the lines and stanzas. Neither method helped.

Okay. Now to the content. I would call this a work of science fiction/fantasy if it were written today. Of course, it was written as a religious poem and in fact has been treated almost as sacred by the Catholic Church. The main character is Dante, who is led through a series of ever-descending (and more disturbing) levels by Virgil (a Roman poet), where we meet people Dante knew from Florence. I have to digress a moment and say that Dante had been exiled from Florence in a dispute between two different groups supporting different Popes. Dante picked the losing side and never returned to Florence.

Hell is filled with people he doesn’t like, most of whom are repentant although there are a few who tell him to get lost. I guess he really didn’t like those guys. There are detailed descriptions of people being devoured by lizards, disemboweled, beheaded, drowning in mud and water, burned by flaming balls falling from the sky, walking through flames, and even more fun stuff. Spoiler alert: Satan is at the bottom of Hell chewing on – you guessed it – Judas Iscariot in a frozen lake! I guess that’s where the phrase “cold as hell” originated. I always wondered about that, but now I know the origin of the phrase.

Then Dante and Virgil begin climbing a mountain through Purgatory, where he meets more people he doesn’t like (but who he didn’t perceive as evil) and some erstwhile allies from Florence. They climb the mountain and angels arrive intermittently to inform residents that they’ve waited long enough. There’s a lot of wailing and moaning here but no physical punishment. They’re joined by an old friend of Dante’s, who’s been promoted to a higher level of purgatory.

To be honest, I couldn’t keep track of how many levels there were in any of the realms he visited; for example, Hell had both levels and some kind of ditches within levels. There may have been nine levels with three sub-levels in Hell (the text is rather difficult to understand on one reading) and I was so confused by the time he exited Purgatory to enter Heaven that I didn’t even try to count after that. The friend from Purgatory wasn’t ready to go to Heaven yet, and Virgil couldn’t because he was a pagan (Virgil lived before Christianity was the official religion of Rome.), so Dante is met by his new guide who turns out to be (no surprise) a woman he’d always wanted to have an affair with but hadn’t been able to pull off.

Heaven is presented as a series of rings filled with spirits who sing a lot in Latin and the whole theme of the story becomes more philosophical, mostly on religious topics. There are lectures by saints (including St. Peter) and other notables on the corruption of the Papacy (remember that Dantes’ choice for Pope lost the religious war), including some friends of his. He goes up this stairway through ever-brightening circles of saints and angels and other luminaries (literally) – by the way, I’m certain that Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” is based on this image – to finally be overcome with joy and incessant singing at the ninth (or maybe the tenth) ring. We never meet God. I guess that would have been considered sacrilegious.

My overall impression is hard to put into words. This story would make a great movie. There’s plenty of action as Dante travels through Hell and Purgatory and lots of dialogue, which addresses many topics that were of great interest to people during the Middle Ages, which has been referred to as the “Age of Faith.”  There is a very natural progression in the action and the dialogue, as well as Dante’s growing sense of his own human weakness, during his journey.

I was going to keep this review short and just say I hated the story but, as I thought about it while writing this review, I got over my initial bad impression (based on the poem format and clumsy language used by the translator) and recognized the imagination and thought that had gone into the work, especially considering when it was written. Bottom line: It’s a good story but should not be read in the intellectually punishing format I suffered through. It would be much better in prose since it has practically no resemblance to a poem in the English translation, and without the poetic English that was favored (apparently) by Longfellow. I mean, really, if you’re going to translate from ancient Italian to English, why take a detour through Old English? Let the story stand on its own merits, which aren’t that bad.