A tumultuous story of intrigue, The Shadow of the Wind leads us on an ever-deepening mystery much like the unpacking of Russian stacking dolls. At times, the novel feels like a gothic thriller, at others like magic realism. Like Gabriel García Márques’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, in Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s novel we find the fabulous mixed with the mundane of everyday. In some ways, the story’s twists and turns reminds me of A.S. Byatt’s Possession (previously reviewed). Zafón reveals Barcelona as Charles Dickens reveals London. His labyrinthine plot winds through the post-war city and through a boy’s curiosity over a writer whose work is systematically being destroyed. The story unfolds in often surreal and soul-wrenching ways.
On Daniel’s fourth birthday, his mother is buried, a victim of cholera. At ten, he still misses her but cannot remember her face. Perhaps to distract him or simply to celebrate the first double-digit birthday, his father (a bookseller himself) takes Daniel to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books:
“This is a place of mystery, Daniel, a sanctuary. Every book, every volume you see here, has a soul. The soul of the person who wrote it and of those who read it and lived d dreamed with it. Every time a book changes hands, every time someone runs his eyes down its pages, its spirit grows and strengthens….In this place, books no longer remembered by anyone, books that are lost in time, live forever, waiting for the day when they will reach a new reader’s hands. In the shop we buy and sell them, but in truth books have no owner. Every book you see here has been somebody’s best friend. Now they have only us, Daniel. Do you think you’ll be able to keep such a secret?”
My gaze was lost in the immensity of the place and its sorcery of light. I nodded, and my father smiled.
Daniel chooses a book, The Shadow of the Wind by Julián Carax, a book and its author cloaked in mystery.
As Daniel grows up he is surrounded by books in his father’s bookshop, but obsessed by one. He meets Bea and is smitten. He wants her to understand that Carax’s book is a true story and to know what it means to him:
I began my story with that distant dawn when I awoke and could not remember my mother’s face, and I didn’t stop until I paused to recall the world of shadows…. I told her about my first visit to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books and about the night I spend reading The Shadow of the Wind. I told her about my meeting with the faceless man and about the letter signed by Penélope Aldaya that I always carried with me without knowing why…. I told her how…this was a story about lonely people, about absence and loss, and that that was why I had taken refuge in it until it became confused with my own life, like someone who has escaped into the pages of a novel because those whom he needs to love seem nothing more than ghosts inhabiting the mind of a stranger.
The Shadow of the Wind weaves through Barcelona to Paris and back to Barcelona. It is a detective story: Daniel in search of Carax; Daniel in search of ghosts. But it is far more than mystery; Zafón takes us into the heart of yearning where Daniel eventually becomes aware that “In Carax’s lost footsteps, I now recognized my own, irretrievable.” This is a story of love and betrayal, of despair and hope.
This is the first book I’ve read by Carlos Ruiz Zafón and loved this post-war glimpse into Barcelona, magic realism, and of course the ode to literature and writers that runs throughout. I echo Entertainment Weekly’s claim that the novel “is ultimately a love letter to literature, intended for readers as passionate about storytelling as its young hero.” It is a book to become lost in and ultimately to come away from enriched.
Available through your local bookstore or online: The Shadow of the Wind