” ‘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 and dreamed with it. Every time a book changes hands, every time someone runs his eyes down its pages, its spirit grows and strengthens. This place was already ancient when my father brought me here for the first time, many years ago. Perhaps as old as the city itself…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…Every book you see here has been somebody’s best friend. Now they only have us, Daniel. Do you think you’ll be able to keep such a secret?’ “
With these words, the 10 year-old Daniel Mercier is introduced to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books – a library so vast as to have one calling to mind the Minotaur’s labyrinth. And it is into this world that Carlos Ruiz Zafon transports his readers in The Shadow of the Wind. Set in post-Civil War Barcelona, this novel follows Daniel Mercier as he attempts to unravel the mysterious life of the author Julian Carax. After selecting one of Carax’s works from the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, Daniel is visited by an unidentified stranger, a man without a face, on a quest to find and burn all of Carax’s novels. After their meeting, Daniel sets out to discover what he can about Carax, thrusting himself into the middle of a story of love, loss, and seemingly boundless intrigue. Underlying this thriller-like plot, the author weaves in the broader narrative of a country working to come to terms with its recent past. As society remains in the grips of ruthless and brutal authority figures, not least the bestial Inspector Fumero, it becomes apparent that redemption and sacrifice are inextricably connected. As Daniel races to save what remains of Carax’s work and memory, he is simultaneously confronted with a world brutalised through war. Every character wears the scars of history but, in The Shadow of the Wind, it is through Daniel’s uncompromising search for the truth that history and hope are brought into collision.
This book is, quite simply, sublime. Truly epic in scope, The Shadow of the Wind is uncompromising in its attention to detail. Barcelona is brought to the reader with clarity and beauty, as Carlos Ruiz Zafon presents the reader with description that is astonishingly rich in imagery. Even in the simplest of passages, Ruiz Zafon is unfailing in his efforts to transport the reader to his world. And he succeeds with an efficacy unrivalled by any other piece of contemporary fiction that I have read to-date.
“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.”
But The Shadow of the Wind does more than offer the reader an opportunity to explore the Barcelona of our reality. Rather, Ruiz Zafon achieves the truly fantastic feat of creating a Barcelona that is simultaneously familiar and layered with intrigue. This is a Barcelona in which the reality of post-conflict transition and memory is reflected with an acute and painful accuracy, but a Barcelona where an ancient labyrinth of forgotten books remains hidden. This coexistence is created seamlessly, and Ruiz Zafon uses the fantastical nature of the Cemetery of Forgotten Books and Daniel’s attempts to piece together the mystery of Julian Carax, to highlight his broader social message. In particular, Ruiz Zafon uses an unbelievably effective circular narrative to question a country’s capacity to come to terms with its past. As details about Carax’s life come to light, similarities with Daniel’s own situation are brought into focus – Daniel is confronted with choices and conflicts that mirror Carax’s own. Using such a structure (familiar to readers of The House of Spirits by Isabel Allende), Ruiz Zafon uses this circularity to demonstrate the manner in which violence and vengeance are inherited, passed through the generations until some form of intercession interrupts the cycle. In Daniel’s case, it is through an understanding of Carax’s life and decisions that he is able to break the chain.
Beyond the gorgeous and seemingly effortless complexity of the plot, it is the characters that catapult this book into the category of masterpiece. Told in first-person narrative, Daniel Mercier is crafted in a manner that makes his voice and thoughts realistic to a fault. The novel follows Daniel through his adolescence but, at no point, succumbs to caricature. Rather, Daniel is witty and acutely insightful. The Shadow of the Wind also offers up what must be one of the greatest anti-heroes ever created in literature. Bringing to mind Falstaff from Shakespeare’s Henry IV and V, the character of Fermin Romero de Torres is one of this book’s chief highlights. Introduced to the novel as a tramp, Fermin is eventually hired by Daniel’s father to work in his bookshop as something of a ‘literary detective’. Eloquent, always hilarious, and with a commitment to hyperbole that I’ve yet to see elsewhere, Fermin is a perfect demonstration of the attention that Ruiz Zafon pays to developing and detailing each of his characters.
” ‘Television, my dear Daniel, is the Antichrist, and I can assure you that after only three or four generations, people will no longer even know how to fart on their own. Humans will return to living in caves, to medieval savagery, and to the general state of imbecility that slugs overcame back in the Pleistocene era. Our world will not die as a result of the bomb, as the papers say – it will die of laughter, of banality, of making a joke of everything, and a lousy joke at that.’ “
The Shadow of the Wind is a beautiful book and one that I cannot recommend highly enough. It offers complete escapism, throwing you into a world so rich in detail that you will be truly reluctant to leave. One of my favourite lines from the novel is from Daniel, describing himself and his love interest, Clara Barcelo:
“We were always two fugitives riding on the spine of a book, eager to escape into worlds of fiction and secondhand dreams.”
I see myself and those of you reading this blog in a similar light – united in a love of the potential for escapism and vicarious experience that reading brings. The Shadow of the Wind is perhaps the best example of a fictional world into which you will find yourself tumbling head-first, with little effort. And I think I am safe in saying that this novel is one that shall never find itself battling for a reader in The Cemetery of Forgotten Books.