Carlos Ruiz Zafón, The Shadow of the Wind
(The Penguin Press, 2004; Subterranean Press, 2008)
The Shadow of the Wind is a book about a book. In fact, the title of THIS book is the title of the book IN the book. And the dust jacket for this book is printed to look weathered and creased, with a faux red leather spine apparently intended to resemble the book in the book. Oh, dear, I hope I haven't utterly confused you!
The action takes place in Barcelona, Spain, during the late 1940s and early 1950s, with flashbacks to the early part of the twentieth century. We first encounter the protagonist, Daniel Sempere, as a ten-year old in 1945. His widowed father, a secondhand bookseller, wakes him early one summer morning and takes him to a secret place, the Cemetery of Forgotten Books. Following tradition, Daniel chooses one book to take away with him. That book is, of course, The Shadow of the Wind.
The book, which he reads that first night, completely changes Daniel's life. Although Zafón only gives us a few sentences about the plot of the book within the book, Daniel finds it so fascinating that he decides to track down and read any other works by the author, Julián Carax. When he makes his first innocent inquiries among his father's antiquarian book-selling associates, he quickly discovers that someone has already bought up most of the remaining copies of the few titles that comprise Carax's oeuvre and burned them!
As he plunges deeper and deeper into the mystery surrounding Carax and his writings, Daniel encounters a number of characters whose lives are also shrouded in mystery. These include the blind Clara Barceló, herself a Carax admirer; the beggar Fermín Romero de Torres, who becomes his staunchest ally; Nuria Monfort, daughter of the keeper of the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, who knows more about Julián than anyone else still alive; the relentless and sadistic police officer Francisco Javier Fumero; and a man with a burned face and a limp who tries to get the book from Daniel once he discovers that Daniel has taken it from the Cemetery. Many of these characters and several others warn him to stop his pursuit of Carax. He perseveres.
In fact, Daniel's perseverance is the thread that holds this tale together and does it so well! I could easily call this a coming-of-age novel, for the story follows Daniel from childhood to adulthood, through his first loves and his first sexual experiences. I could call it a suspense novel, because the plot is full of surprises (not all of them pleasant), and Zafón does a splendid job of keeping the reader guessing until the very end. It's dark enough to pass as a gothic novel and very nearly qualifies as an urban fantasy. But The Shadow of the Wind is ultimately a love story, portraying love in numerous manifestations, including animal lust, avarice and envy, as well as protectiveness, generosity, neighborliness, comradeship, self-sacrifice and good old-fashioned romance.
Most of the story is written in the first person, with Daniel as narrator. The narrative hints that Daniel is recounting the story from an adult's perspective after the events of the story occurred. A few segments are told in the third person by characters who share information about Carax's history with Daniel. These segments are easily apparent from the use of italicized type or section headings. It is in these sections that the story moves back in time to Carax's childhood in the early twentieth century.
This is the first book I've read that was set in Barcelona or anywhere else in Spain. Zafón's descriptions of the city are a bit sketchy. I had to look on my map of Europe to place it on the northeast coast of Spain, facing the Mediterranean Sea and with the foothills of the Pyrenees Mountains rising behind it. From the narrative, I surmise that it is a relatively large and sprawling place in order to get to different parts of it, Daniel and Fermín often rely on public transportation. It's apparent that the massive political and economic disruptions of the Spanish Civil War and the Second World War left the city in a state of decay.
This atmosphere is enhanced by Zafón's descriptions of the buildings that Daniel and Fermín frequent. For example, Daniel makes numerous visits to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books. Here is how he first describes it:
A blue-tinted gloom obscured the sinuous contours of a marble staircase and a gallery of frescoes peopled with angels and fabulous creatures. We followed our host through a palatial corridor and arrived at a sprawling round hall, a virtual basilica of shadows spiraling up under a glass dome, its dimness pierced by shafts of light that stabbed from above. A labyrinth of passageways and crammed bookshelves rose from base to pinnacle like a beehive woven with tunnels, steps, platforms, and bridges that presaged an immense library of seemingly impossible geometry.
Zafón provides equally compelling descriptions of the immense apartment Clara occupies with her uncle Gustavo; of the hospice where Daniel and Fermín find old Jacinta, once governess to Penélope Aldaya (another woman linked to Carax); of the deserted house on Avenida del Tibidabo where the Aldayas once lived, and of the dark, damp apartment where Nuria Monfort protected her memories. All the buildings have a haunted, neglected air about them, even those that house the living.
Carlos Ruiz Zafón is a native of Barcelona, although his on-line bio indicates that he has been living in La-La-land for the better part of a decade. His first full-length novel for adult readers, The Shadow of the Wind was initially published in Spain as La Sombra del Viento in 2001 and sold so well that the Spanish Ministry of Education, Culture and Sports provided financial support to enable Lucia Graves, daughter of Robert, to translate it into English.
As I write this review around the 2004 Summer Solstice, hard cover copies of The Shadow of the Wind are easy to find in virtually every bookstore. It's ranked #413 in sales on Amazon.com, which is MUCH higher than most books I've read. Most of the reviews are highly complimentary and deservedly so. Will this one hit the New York Times bestseller list? Move quickly into trade paperback format? Will some smart Hollywood producer cut a deal with Zafón for the film rights? Now THERE'S a movie I'd LOVE to see!!!
A limited edition of this novel is available from Subterranean Press.