The Writer as Tragic Exile
Day of the Bees. Thomas Sanchez. Flamingo. 2001 (384 pages). ISBN-10: 0007104006. ISBN-13: 978-0007104000
The Shadow of the Wind. Carlos Ruiz Zafon. Penguin. 2005 (487 pages). ISBN-10: 0143034901. ISBN-13: 978-0143034902
2666. Roberto Bolano. Picador. 2009 (912 pages). ISBN-10: 0312429215. ISBN-13: 078-0312429218
Thomas Sanchez’ Day of the Bees, Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s The Shadow of the Wind and Roberto Bolano’s 2666 are primarily concerned with the search of a reader, or a group of readers, for the elusive figure of a writer.
Such a search is, of course, a rich metaphor for the intense engagement every reader has with the text he is moved by. Interestingly, however, all three authors do very little to explore the metaphor underpinning their writing.
There is a remarkable similarity to the delineation of the writer figure in all three books. The writer is, when his readers begin their search, in an exile caused by his distinct “otherness,” his inability to conform to, or accept, social norms. He is also a tragic figure, somehow incomplete, someone whose chances at happiness are undercut by the same emotional fervidity that informs his writing. Both the writer and the readers, whose search for him is the subject matter of the novels, are, moreover, people given to dangerous obsession.
Furthermore, in each of the three novels, the world the writer is exiled from (also the world the reader investigates in his quest for the writer), is a disordered dystopia, riven by surveillance and mistrust. In finding the writer, the reader escapes the unhappiness inherent in this world.
In both 2666 and The Shadow of the Wind, the quest of the readers ends with an happiness that is alloyed. Sanchez, on the other hand, sacrifices the rich possibilities of such an ending for one that is rather contrived, uniting the reader with a female relative of the writer. Parallel to the quest of his reader for the writer figure is the story of the writer and his lover, one that is played out through a series of letters. For the most part, these letters are vivid, moving and harrowing, especially in their depiction of the war that separates the writer and his lover.
On the other hand, there are moments when Sanchez gives his imagination too free a rein. The passages where the lover internalizes the writer to the extent that she imagines an ongoing dialogue with him are unconvincing and worse, trite.
Of the three books, The Shadow of the Wind, with its genuinely terrifying book-burning sociopath, is the most compulsive page-turner. This can only be due to Zafon’s taut plotting – his language, and perhaps this is the fault of the translation, is deeply unoriginal, even in its attempts at lyrical prose.
2666 is not just about the search of a group of extremely erudite readers, all of whom are university professors, for an ever-elusive writer. While all three books are indictments of a particular kind of society, a society that is a metaphor for the increasingly intolerant mores that undermine our ability to appreciate literature and art, 2666 goes deepest in its indictment, relegating the literary quest to the sidelines as it depicts murder and corruption on both sides of the US-Mexico border.
2666 is perhaps an admirable book, a book that must be a part of every bookshelf. But, for all its rich prose (it is the most literary of the three), it is not a compelling book. One can leave it unfinished and not feel any regret. The writer’s craft, creditably served by an excellent translation, is its own worst enemy – even the most dedicated reader would be put off by the extremely large sentences, some of which occupy more than two pages.
But both 2666 and The Shadow of the Wind (despite its conventional happy endings) are not books that offer an easy answer to either the question of the fraught relationship between a writer (inherently a figure in exile) and his obsessive reader, or the larger questions implicit in the society they indict. And this is part of their charm. Sanchez’s Day of the Bees, on the other hand, undoes both the brilliant portrayal of a France under occupation during World War II and the unflattering depiction of a narcissistic writer by insisting upon a neat ending, one that disenfranchises its writer figure by making him undergo an extremely unlikely redemption.
About the author:
Adreyo Sen is pursuing his MFA at Stony Brook, Southampton.