By Casey Wilson
I don’t read enough books in translation. That’s what I realized when I sat down to read The Midnight Palace by Carlos Ruiz Zafón over the weekend. Originally written and published in Spain in 1994, The Midnight Palace was only translated into English and published in the United States in 2011. As terrifying as it is to admit, that makes this book nearly twenty years old, even if it’s brand new to us over here.
And that’s part of what made the novel so interesting to read. It’s a different beast than most young adult novels on the shelf right now, whether due to its age, its original Spanish market, or some combination of the two. It’s a historical fantasy, set in Calcutta in the 1930s, which details a series of four days in which a group of seven sixteen-year-olds experience an astonishing and dangerous series of events.
The plot and characterization are not what I loved most about the novel, admittedly. Although much of the mystery is difficult to guess in advance, its obscurity is in part due to some narrative tricks and adjustments that keep the reader intentionally – and perhaps even unfortunately – in the dark. The characters are sweet but slight, and only a few of them are given room to come into their own in a compelling way.
But what I did love, and what I have loved in Zafón’s work in the past, is the language. It is beautiful and evocative, able to set a mood that will permeate for pages in just a few words. Reading it in English as I am, that’s a quality I cannot just attribute to Zafón. His translator, Lucia Graves, must receive a huge share of the credit for producing a text that retains a sense of lyricism.
And that, in part, is why I want to read more foreign books. The YA market here is so thoroughly dominated by American books that we’re lucky to get a few high-profile British and Australian imports – The Book Thief, for example – but often lose the opportunity to see any real marketing push behind non-American novels. (Even Zafón’s young adult novels were only published in the States after the success of his adult novel The Shadow of the Wind.) Which means that we’re missing out on the work of two kinds of artists: foreign novelists and their translators. I’d love to see both of them given their due within the American YA market, offering us some much-needed diversity in voices on our bookshelves.
Casey is a PhD student.