Ever since I first read The Shadow of the Wind 15 years ago, I have kept an eye out for similar works. Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s epic, which spins a fantastical tale of a family bookshop in Barcelona and the mysterious Cemetery of Forgotten Books, captured my imagination like few other books before or since, so I’ve always been hopeful that lightning could strike twice with another translated book.
All of which leads me to Jaume Cabré’s Confessions, a monster of a book translated into English from its native Catalan, in 2014, by Mara Faye Lethem. Whilst family secrets stand at the heart of the narrative, plus the fact that it too is set in Barcelona, that’s where the similarities with The Shadow of the Wind end. It’s a read that is both engrossing and exhausting, so let me tell you a bit about it.
Adrià Ardevol, a professor and expert in linguistics, has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Determined to write his life story as his memory collapses around him, Adrià hands over a stack of papers to his lifelong friend, Bernat. But making sense out of the jumbled notes won’t be an easy task for Bernat because whilst Adrià had been writing a paper on the nature of evil, he then decided to write his memoirs on the back of the same sheets. Adrià’s story is framed as a letter to his love, Sara, but includes his memories of a complicated relationship with his parents, the history of his friendship with Bernat, his time studying in Germany and perhaps most significantly, the blood-stained history of a valuable violin that came into his father’s possession.
If this sounds like a complicated set-up for the story, then prepare for your mind to be well and truly boggled. Whilst the overall progression of Adrià’s story is linear, the information is sometimes presented in a random order that perhaps represents the crumbling and increasingly fragmented nature of his memory. But this non-chronological sequence pales into insignificance when compared to the author’s bold stylistic choice to interweave the history of the Lorenzo Storioni violin into Adria’s memoir.
As a reader, I am sometimes annoyed when the point-of-view character changes within a paragraph or a chapter, and I often obsesses about how character A can know this or that about character B, but I quickly had to put aside any such prejudice when reading Confessions. It’s clearly a conscious choice on Jaume Cabré’s part, and whilst the author has admitted in interviews that he sees his part as a narrator who knows the entire story and will tell the reader everything he knows at the appropriate point, the approach works well given his main protagonist’s state of mind. To give you an idea of the narrative flow, we might have two characters talking and by the end of the sentence, we are witnessing the actions of another set of characters hundreds of years before. Yes, you read that right: by the end of the sentence. Not a new chapter or a new paragraph separated by three little asterisks and a couple of carriage returns, but the same sentence! In this way, for example, we see the narrative flow from a Nazi Doctor at Auschwitz to a Spanish Inquisitor some 500 years before.
Whilst the main focus is on Adrià, Sara and Bernat, we are presented with a huge cast of characters that incorporates Adrià’s parents and teachers; his one-time girlfriend, Laura; the family maid, Little Lola; and the employees in the family antique shop. We also follow the story of Nazi doctors at Auschwitz and their attempts to evade justice (and in one case to atone for his sins) after the war, an eighteenth-century fugitive who sells the wood that is eventually used to make the violin; plus various monks and members of the Spanish inquisition.
I could go on but hopefully this will give you an idea of the scale and breadth of the novel. It took me about 25 hours to read in Kindle format, and I notice that the hardback edition is 1000 pages long! The big question is: was it worth my time and effort? I’d have to answer a resounding: YES! Whilst it was certainly a challenging read, there are so many aspects of this book that I loved.
Adrià’s story is written for his love, Sara, but I also enjoyed reading about his relationship with Bernat – a true friend in every sense of the word. The two meet as youngsters at violin classes, and we get to find out how their lives progress. I think both the love story and friendship aspects of the book are well written and carry an emotional gravity that makes this such a compelling and touching story. But just as important as Sara and Bernat is the history of the Storioni violin. The instrument is as much a character in this book as any of the human protagonists. We learn about events before, during and after its manufacture, starting in the middle-ages. It witnesses the horror of Auschwitz, the battle for its ownership during the fallout from World War II, and we discover how Adrià’s father came to own it. The violin plays a significant part in Adrià’s life, but it is not the only thing that he inherits from his father (who has his own murky past). With it comes an obsession with owning objects and obtaining precious manuscripts, and anybody who has a love of collecting books or records will understand the excitement of acquisition that the author describes so well.
Whilst the violin is the main MacGuffin, it is not the only one. There is some humour in the form of two toy soldiers (Black Eagle and Sheriff Carson) that Adrià plays with as a child, and they stay with him throughout his life, contributing little fragments to the story. I also appreciated the use of the scrap of cloth that appears several times throughout the novel and the revelation of its heart-wrenching significance adds to the humanity of the tale. I love the fact that the author chooses to highlight the significance of mementoes in people’s lives, how objects can both hold and subsequently trigger our memories, and given the fact that Adrià is so cruelly affected by Alzheimer’s, the approach fits the subject matter perfectly, adding an additional emotional layer to what is already a complex story.
Confessions is not a book for either the faint-hearted or the easily distracted. It requires patience and a willingness to just “go with the flow”, but once you become accustomed to Jaume Cabré’s unique writing style, your efforts will be rewarded in spades. The author never loses sight of the human drama at the heart of the narrative, and he brilliantly balances the revelations with moments of humour and genuine emotion. This is unlike any book I have ever read, and I’m glad that I made the effort. It has a strong emotional core and it’s themes, including what it says about the lengths that we’ll go to in order to satisfy our material needs, will stay with you long after you’ve turned the final page.
Rob Campbell is the author of the Wardens of the Black Heart trilogy (Monkey Arkwright, Black Hearts Rising and The Well of Tears). It’s a mystery series that will appeal to fans of 80s films such as Stand By Me and The Goonies or the TV series Stranger Things, where people stumble across strange things in the woods or uncover dark secrets hidden in the abandoned places around a small town.