Boyd Tonkin: A literary wind blowing in from the continent

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The Independent Online

If the Europe-wide sensation of Carlos Ruiz Zafon, The Shadow of the Wind, does become Britain's cult novel of choice this Christmas, it will confirm a fascinating trend.

If the Europe-wide sensation of Carlos Ruiz Zafon, The Shadow of the Wind, does become Britain's cult novel of choice this Christmas, it will confirm a fascinating trend.

These days, fictional winds from the Continent seldom blow with much force through the bestseller lists of mainstream Britain. But when they do, they often tend to deliver a book about the unique power and value of reading itself.

Think of Bernard Schlink's The Reader and of W G Sebald's literature-haunted Austerlitz. In the children's sector we have seen the success of Cornelia Funke's Inkheart and, in the "crossover" market, of Jostein Gaarder's Sophie's World. In the early 1980s, it was Umberto Eco's medieval blockbuster The Name of the Rose that fixed the mould for a new type of intelligent European bestseller. Again, this was a sophisticated but readable thriller which turned on the civilising qualities of stories themselves.

So it is with The Shadow of the Wind. From the moment the young hero, Daniel, uncovers the Cemetery of Forgotten Books in dour 1940s Barcelona, we know that the plot will celebrate the special alchemy of the printed word. His quest for the mysterious author Julian Carax, with its bookish labyrinth of digressions and excursions, returns time and time again to the liberating role of the literary imagination.

If his sales continue to soar, Zafon will join a select and peculiarly consistent company of recent continental authors who have reached the mass market here. It's almost as if in Britain we won't allow our leading adult novelists to speak up for the magic of the book. They might end up in Pseuds' Corner. So we leave the joys of text to foreigners. Instead, our home-grown champions of storytelling come from a part of the literary scene not yet crippled by Philistine irony: much-loved children's authors such as Philip Pullman and Michael Morpurgo.

Boyd Tonkin is literary editor of 'The Independent' and a judge of 'The Independent' Foreign Fiction Prize

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