Carlos Ruiz Zafón is a contemporary Spanish writer who, before this book, had written several acclaimed young adult novels. The Shadow of the Wind was his first adult novel. It was translated, (as were his other works) by Lucia Graves, who is the daughter of the poet Robert Graves. Small literary world, right? His books have been published in 45 countries and have been translated into more than 40 different languages. Zafón is the most widely published contemporary Spanish writer today.
And I never heard of him.
Isn’t that embarrassing when an internationally published writer has never made it onto your radar? I make excuses like, “Well, you can’t know EVERY author, yada yada yada.”, but sheesh, the man has won awards, for Pedro’s sake.
We first meet our narrator, ten-year-old Daniel Sempere, in post-civil war Barcelona, when his father, proprietor of a small used book store, takes him to a secret place called The Cemetery of Forgotten Books. It is a depository of maybe thousands of books which are no longer in print, and their authors forgotten. He is told he may take one book, any one he chooses. Young Daniel selects a book called The Shadow of the Wind, which he later finds is the last extant copy of any of the works of that author. Daniel stays up all night reading it, and it goes to his heart. He then vows to find out all he can about the author, one Julián Carax, and to obtain more of the author’s books.
Thus begins what can only be described as a literary soap opera as we meet a homeless man who comes to work for the Semperes, a violent, evil cop, Fumero, who is after the homeless guy, a rich bookseller friend who desperately wants to buy the book from Daniel, wealthy industrialists, family of school boy friends, friends with secrets, and so, little by little, we learn the life of Carax. It is a matryoshka doll of a book, with story within story, and secrets within secrets. No wonder it won awards.
And, as I have found with all Hispanic writings I have read, it has a touch of the surreal to it, not a lot, but just that soupçon of the unreal, to give it flavor.
I, who am so parochial and who knows almost nothing of Spain and its history, other than Queen Isabella and Columbus, (which I think is apocryphal anyway), was intrigued by the glimpses of life during and after “the War”, by which was meant the Spanish Civil War, widely known in Spain simply as the Civil War or The War. This was a civil war fought from 1936 to 1939 between the Republicans, who were loyal to the democratic Spanish Republic, and the Nationalists, a rebel group led by General Francisco Franco. It was brutal, and there were atrocities on both sides. One of the prominent characters in the book, the Evil Fumero, an odd schoolboy friend of Julián Carax who grows up to be a corrupt and murderous police inspector who changed allegiances as the situations dictated. If you so choose, you can see the principle actors as representational of the politics of Spain, with Fumero representing the vicious Nationalists of Franco, Daniel and his father as symbols of the beset average populace, at the mercy of the rampaging civil war factions, and the wealthy persons as those who benefit no matter who wins. You will probably see more, these are just ideas which occurred to me after I read the book and then did a little studying up on the Spanish Civil War.
As the story moved into later times, we had a look at life after The War, this time meaning WWII.
It is above all a love story and a mystery. And I loved it.