Guest Post: The Evocative and Layered The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon
1945 Barcelona is still coming to grips with the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War and Daniel Sempere, our main narrator and hero, is the son of a book-dealer. The narrative starts when a young Daniel is taken by his father to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books where he is allowed to pick only one book to take out with him. His father explains that once Daniel makes his choice, he must be the book’s caretaker, guardian and protector.
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 and dreamed with it. Every time a book changes hands, every time someone runs his eyes down its pages, its spirit grows and strengthens.
The mysterious The Shadow of the Wind by one Julian Carax is the one that speaks out to Daniel, and later the very book that offers him solace from the loss of his mother. Curious about Carax’s other writing, Daniel stumbles upon a startling discovery – a shadowy figure who calls himself Lain Coubert (the name of the devil in The Shadow of the Wind book) has been systematically destroying every copy Carax has ever written; making Daniel’s copy potentially the only surviving. Over the span of a decade, Daniel unwittingly falls headfirst into his very own gothic mystery as he unravels the life of Julian Carax and gets much more than he ever bargained for.
One of Carax’s quotations (Books are mirrors: you only see in them what you already have inside of you.) is deftly maneuvered by Zafon as a narrative device.
As Daniel learns more about Carax and all the people who made up his past, he understands just how similar their lives are and why he was drawn to The Shadow of the Wind in the first place. Similarly, as we peel back layer after layer of Zafon’s narrative, we are faced with hidden connections that echo on a universal level – the themes of identity, of sacrifice, of a sense of community and solidarity against the tyranny of the government and of small triumphs in an unjust world.
All of this is held together by a tightly-plotted narrative, exciting and fast-paced, yet one that pauses to pay homage to the tradition of books, to the power of words, to quiet contemplation about life, love, memories, hate, and revenge, of dreams that lived in the shadows of the wind. It is about the impact of stories, of first words and moments that have found their way into our hearts, of the lives of strangers and the lingering traces of everything that has gone on before us, that has unknowingly shaped our destinies and will soon irrevocably change us and transform our futures.
"Few things leave a deeper mark on a reader than the first book that finds its way into his heart. Those first images, the echo of words we think we have left behind, accompany us throughout our lives and sculpt a palace in our memory to which, sooner or later – no matter how many books we read, how many worlds we discover, or how much we learn to forget – we will return."
Daniel’s character doesn’t have the strongest of voices and is yet an endearing one, one that slowly grows on you as you see him grow up, make mistakes, learn from them, fall in love and follow his heart.
There are many in the supporting cast, none more fascinating than the incorrigible, constantly chattering and unapologetic anti-government leftist (in Fascist Spain nonetheless) Fermin Romero de Torres. Daniel and his father help him out with an apartment and a permanent job in the bookstore, and he becomes the young boy’s mentor and friend. Fermin also fancies himself as quite the ladies man and adds a much needed levity and humour to the otherwise dark and broody gothic feel of the story. But even here, there is much more than meets the eye, the heart of gold covering up a very steely resolve and grit, a will to survive even after torture for being on the wrong side of the war.
We also have Daniel’s love interest, Beatriz Aguilar (sister of his best friend, Tomas), Daniel’s gentle, wise father, and more sympathetic, relatable main characters who are offset by the deliciously corrupt and murderous Francisco Javier Fumero, a cop with a link to Carax’s past and a surprisingly well-sketched out villainous character.
As these things do tend to happen, I ended up finishing this book about 15 minutes before my plane touched down in Barcelona where I was visiting a friend back in 2010.
It was one of those quirks of fate that allowed me to walk the same streets that Daniel does in the narrative, to see with my own eyes the pull of the past, of history, of the haunting beauty of monuments that have seen far more than we can even begin to comprehend. And it made me realise just how effective Zafon was in terms of his fluid, delicate descriptions about the city, words that vividly brought to life the Barcelona of long ago.
Night watchmen still lingered in the misty streets when we stepped out of the front door. The lamps along the Ramblas marked out an avenue in the early morning haze as the city awoke, like a watercolour slowly coming to life. When we reached Calle Arco del Teatro, we continued through its arch toward the Raval quarter, entering a vault of blue haze. I followed my father through that narrow lane, more of a scar than a street, until the glimmer of the Ramblas faded behind us.
All of this is more than enough to compensate for the few point-of-view inconsistencies, for Zafon’s tendency to overindulge the ethereal, beautiful prose and for a deux ex machina involving a letter that stretches believability. I’ve been really hoping that it gets made into a film one day; the narrative is just begging to be recreated onto the screen in all its gothic splendour. Until then, I’m happy enough to re-immerse myself into the special blend of magic that only words can build.
I couldn't help thinking that if I, by pure chance, had found a whole universe in a single unknown book, buried in that endless necropolis, tens of thousands more would remain unexplored, forgotten forever. I felt myself surrounded by millions of abandoned pages, by worlds and souls without an owner sinking in an ocean of darkness, while the world that throbbed outside the library seemed to be losing its memory, day after day, unknowingly, feeling all the wiser the more it forgot.
Note: The translation from Spanish by Lucia Graves, daughter of poet Robert Graves is inspired and only adds to the beauty of Zafon's prose.
Anushree Nande has Creative Writing Bachelors and Masters from Edge Hill University. Born and brought up in Mumbai, India, she is an eternally optimistic and fiercely loyal Gooner Girl. She freelances for various magazines, blogs, literary websites on books, writing, football, film, TV and has had short stories and poems published. She is also a freelance editor and proofreader. Anushree is working on her first novel and her Facebook writing page can be found here.