The description of The Shadow of the Wind reminds me of Foucault’s Pendulum, another literary-themed thriller in which the protagonists find that the events in a conspiracy-theory manuscript they acquire are coming true. When ten-year-old Daniel acquires a book, also called The Shadow of the Wind, he attracts the attention of all manner of mysterious people who want the book—or its author—including a disfigured man going by the name Lain Coubert, the name used in Daniel’s book by the Devil. As Daniel grows into adulthood, he continues to search for more information about the book’s author, Julián Carax. With each step, he becomes drawn a little further in to a decades-old tragic love story worthy of an opera house.
I’m a sucker for books about books, stories about stories. It’s not just the meta-fictional component that gets me, though I do love that. It’s the comfortable celebration of a shared tradition, a reminder that authors too are readers and understand that singular feeling of holding, caressing, opening, a book, of turning its pages and consuming it word for word before reverently replacing it on the shelf to await its next celebrant. Much like Umberto Eco, Carlos Ruiz Zafón gets it, and in nearly as elevated and sublime language.
Daniel finds The Shadow of the Wind in the Cemetery of Forgotten Books. This is a secret library in Barcelona, which preserves books that might otherwise be lost through the ages. Members choose one book that speaks to them, take it from the library, and swear to safeguard it for life. The Cemetery itself does not play a large role in the plot of the story, but it’s the idea that is so potent.
I can remember being a ten-year-old in a library. My public library was fairly well-lit, but the stacks still seemed to loom over me in a foreboding manner. I can remember the intoxicating feeling of rushing through row after row, hunting for that perfect summer read. Libraries are a manifestation of that celebration of reading. I love books in all forms, be they storebought or borrowed, given or received, paper or digital—but there is something almost sacred about the institution of the library. They are a reminder that reading is a shared experience: “in the shop we buy and sell them, but in truth books have no owner”. And though it does not feature heavily in the rest of the story, the Cemetery of Forgotten Books captures this sentiment. Daniel, thanks to his bookstore-owning father, already has a love for reading, but his experience in the Cemetery transforms that into a sense of guardianship over books. And his discovery of Julián Carax provokes a deeply insatiable curiosity that will forever alter his life.
Daniel’s search for Carax forms the backbone of the plot, but it is not centre stage at first. Instead, Ruiz Zafón focuses on Daniel’s adolescence. It’s not until his hopes are dashed and he abandons his first love that he throws himself into finding out more about Carax. From there, he begins picking at the various threads that have a way of surfacing. Alas, much like a ball of yarn, the more he picks at it, the faster it unravels. Soon there are players coming out of the woodwork, and Daniel and his ally Fermin find themselves stranded amidst enemies who all want one thing: Carax.
As the story continues, we become just as obsessed as Daniel in finding out the truth about Carax. Is he alive or dead? In Paris or Barcelona? What happened to Penelope, his own doomed love interest? Ruiz Zafón continually comes up with clever new ways to reveal this backstory, introducing new characters who play a part or hitherto undiscovered documents that provide crucial testimony. Also, some of these characters have ulterior motives that make them less-than-reliable, meaning that Daniel (and the reader) are exposed to multiple versions of a story, none of which might be true. Daniel and Fermin are half-detectives, half-historians as they try to piece together the truth.
There is no magic in this book, yet I cannot shake the feeling I get only when reading magical realism. (It’s almost an itch created by the juxtaposition of so much realistic storytelling with minor assaults on the suspension of disbelief.) The Shadow of the Wind is not fantasy, but it feels magical. It has that whiff of the mythical to it—there isn’t enough ill will in this book for it to work as anything other than fiction. Even the villain, as twisted and sadistic and threatening as he might be, is a melodramatic caricature. The resolution is one of heroism and daring and self-sacrifice. And there is a happy ending, despite all the sinister malevolence that looms over these pages, for that is only appropriate in a book that celebrates the triumph of love and passion over pettiness and revenge.
I don’t consider this a very long novel, but it seems to be longer than it is. It has a meandering, fractal-like structure that will not appeal to some people. Reading The Shadow of the Wind demands both patience and an abundance of stillness; though there is plenty of action and suspense in this story, you have to be willing to immerse yourself in the moment and the richness of Ruiz Zafón’s prose. (As always, I have to praise the translator, Lucia Graves, for deftly rendering that richness in a language I comprehend.) He switches effortlessly between lengthy but captivating descriptions of the Barcelona streets and quick, witty dialogue between his characters. Despite being self-indulgent at times, he never strays to the point of including extraneous exposition: The Shadow of the Wind is one of the most tightly-written meandering books I’ve ever read.
I love books like that. I love books that you can wander around inside, that you can get lost inside, just like a library. The Shadow of the Wind encourages you to experience, to sit and stay for a while, as it dazzles and delights with each chapter.