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el palacio de la medianoche

30 april 2008

El Palacio de la Medianoche is marketed as a juvenile novel, though its author Carlos Ruiz Zafón thinks its appropriate age range is 9 to 90. Like many authors of young adult fiction, he seems to have written just what he thought was a good story, and found that the main audience for good stories, in publishers' minds, is kids, or at least the young at heart.

In a 2006 preface, Ruiz Zafón says of his early "novelas juveniles":

Son historias de misterio y aventura, novelas que quizá el Julián Carax de La Sombra del Viento podría haber escrito desde su ático en el barrio latino de París, mientras pensaba en su amigo Daniel Sempere.
[They are stories of mystery and adventure, novels that perhaps the Julián Carax of The Shadow of the Wind could have written in his garret in the Latin Quarter of Paris, while thinking about his friend Daniel Sempere.] (9)

Interest in The Shadow of the Wind, of course, sparked the reprinting of Ruiz Zafón's juveniles in Spain and (in Spanish) in the United States. I have mentioned The Shadow of the Wind in several other reviews here, because it is a lovely, classic novel, one which reflects much of the Western tradition and serves as a counterpoint to many other fictions and metafictions. The shadowy writer Julián Carax, a central enigma at the heart of The Shadow of the Wind, might very well have written El Palacio de la Medianoche, which in its own way holds up a hall of mirrors to the juvenile adventure tradition.

The central dynamic of El Palacio de la Medianoche comes, in fact, from Star Wars. A pair of twins is born to a virtuous couple. But cosmic mistakes are made. Their mother dies. The twins' father has sold his soul to a dark adversary. He disappears and is replaced by his mirror image, an even darker adversary whose main goal in life is to track down and destroy those twins. The twins, a boy and a girl, are separated at birth, and reunited 16 years later in an effort to vanquish their implacable pursuer.

Ben, the male twin, has been raised in an orphanage. There, he acquires six fast friends with different talents. The chums form the "Chowbar Society," a group dedicated to the usual all-for-one adventuring, and they are put to a severe test when Jawahal, the twins' enemy, reappears after those same 16 years of biding his time with extravagant schemes of revenge and a vampiric desire to possess the body of Sheere, the female twin, in hopes of living forever. And you think kids today grow up too fast.

Harry Potter comes to mind as well as Star Wars (school full of friends, youthful hero with an inveterate enemy, magic, duels, sympathetic elders who try to help the kids but only succeed so far). But El Palacio de la Medianoche was first published four years three years before Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, J.K. Rowling's first novel. I doubt that she read Ruiz Zafón's novel in Spanish, though I suppose there's an outside chance she could have. The resemblance only confirms that both books draw from a long tradition of kids' Gothicky adventures.

There is a little too much Gothic in El Palacio de la Medianoche for my tastes, and a little too much molten metal, and a little too little character development. As always with texts (or films) of this type, the quieter effects are better. Jawahal able to craze the glass of Ben's window from a distance is a spine-tingling moment; Jawahal summoning up spectral trains aflame and melting steel bridges into rivers is sort of, whatever. But though a bit overwrought, Palacio is a page-turner for any age reader. The Shadow of the Wind, too, contains innocent children, an implacable pursuer, and a magical if somewhat fallen world circumscribed by a city (Barcelona in the adult novel, Calcutta in the juvenile) that has seen better days, full of sinister architecture and hideous scenes of ancient crimes. In El Palacio de la Medianoche, we see how Ruiz Zafón's obsessions worked their way into narrative well before the inception of his masterpiece.

Ruiz Zafón, Carlos. El Palacio de la Medianoche. 1994. New York: Knopf, 2006.

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