February Book Club: The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón
EPS’ers who will spend their second year in the heart of Catalunya, watch out for this book review of La Sombra del Viento (The Shadow of the Wind) by Carlos Ruiz Zafón. Set in rainy, mysterious Barcelona, this book is a perfect historical walk-through of the city that you will fall in love with during your second year.
‘I still remember the day my father took me to the cemetery of forgotten books for the first time’, is the first line of The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón, published in 2001. This first sentence, a variation on the opening sentence of Cien años de soledad (One Hundred Years of Solitude) by García Márquez, promises the reader a postmodern novel, a labyrinth where fiction and reality tumble over one another.
One morning in 1945, bookseller Sempere takes his son Daniel to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, a mysterious place in Barcelona's Gothic Quarter. The ancient building is guarded by gentle but grim giant Isaac, who makes sure that the labyrinth can only be entered by a select group. The few who are allowed to see this labyrinth of books must each adopt a book and take care of it for life. Little Daniel chooses The Shadow of the Wind by Julián Carax and reads it in one sitting at night.
The next day, his father takes him to a literary meeting in 'Els quatre gats', the café where artists such as Picasso and Gaudí used to meet. One of the meeting’s attendants, the dandy señor Gustavo Barceló, says that Daniel's copy is unique: all other copies were bought and then burned by a mysterious figure with a deformed face.
What follows is a boy's determined search for the identity of his favourite writer and during his quest, much of his own life increasingly becomes intertwined with that of Carax. After a mysterious tip and a ride on a rusty tram, Daniel ends up on Tibidabo Hill, west of Barcelona. Avenida Tibidabo is to this day the location of luxurious mansions of wealthy people. At that time, industrial development in Catalonia was in full swing, and industrialists and bankers settled on Avenida Tibidabo to invest their newly acquired capital in modernist houses.
Daniel soon discovers that the young Julián Carax entered this luxurious world around 1917 and fell in love with Penélope Aldaya. As a poor milliner's son, he incurred the vengeance of her father, the billionaire Ricardo Aldaya, and had to flee to Paris. To earn money, he started to write novels, one of which was ‘The Shadow of the Wind'.
Carlos Ruiz Zafón is a master at devising ingenious intrigues, making sidesteps and introducing secondary characters, strategies and prompts that he borrows from the genre of the popular thriller. Nevertheless, to label it a thriller would be a gross misstep: Ruiz Zafón’s writing style is as baroque as the garlands and frills of the Tibidabo. In fact, the genre of the book seems hard to define; it is neither a classic novel that you would find in the late 19th or early 20th century, nor does it adhere to the magic realism that one finds in the work of García Marquez or Patrick Süskind.
In terms of the book's secondary characters, a highlight is the genius former-spy-turned-book-seller Fermín Romero. He accompanies Daniel on his quest, but above all he has something to say about anything and everything. His monologues about the hypocrisy of the Spanish nuns and the cruelty of the Francoist soldiers are a treat for the reader. Through it all, Ruiz Zafón also paints a rich picture of Barcelona during and shortly after the civil war, proving once more that The Shadow of the Wind has more to offer than just tension.
All in all, it is a wonderful read. The intrigues and constant sidesteps made me feel confused and baffled at times which is why I could hardly put it away. The multitude of unique characters that Ruiz Zafón constructs each contribute to the story in a magical way. The scenery of the story, set in the small alleys and misty streets of Francoist Barcelona seamlessly fit the mystery that unravels. Is it the best literature I have read? No. For that, the medley of genres never quite blends together. The full story is revealed rather suddenly in a way that stretches credibility and Zafón does not manage to transport the magic of the first chapters into the rest of the book. Nevertheless, it is a captivating and easy to read saga that is perfect for a long summer holiday.
Once you have fallen in love with The Shadow of the Wind like I did, you can enjoy its three sequels. In 2008, Ruiz Zafón published El Juego del Angel (The Game of the Angel), followed by El prisionero del Cielo (The Prisoner of Heaven) in 2011 and El Laberinto de los Espíritus (The Labyrinth of the Spirits) in 2017.
About the author
Carlos Ruiz Zafón, born in Barcelona in 1964, died of cancer in 2020 at the age of 55. Ruiz Zafón's works have been published in 45 countries and have been translated into more than 40 languages. The Shadow of the Wind is the second most popular Spanish book worldwide, after Don Quichot.