The Shadow of the Wind
If it is said that readers live a thousand lives before dying, how about authors? Telling the life story of Julian Carax, a mysterious writer, and that of Daniel Sempere, the 11 years old boy who picks, from the labyrinthine shelves of a forgotten library exactly the last volume written by Carax, The Shadow of the Wind is a book about the art of reading and writing.
When Daniel Sempere is led by his father to an enigmatic place in the historical heart of Barcelona, called “The Cemetery of Forgotten Books”, he has the difficult task of deciding, of the thousands of lost volumes before him, which would be the one that, in the words of his father, he should guard and take care for the rest of his life. “The Shadow of the Wind”, by Julian Carax, is the book he chooses. However, Daniel does not only start to lose himself inside the story of the novel, but also inside that of its author: it’s the secret behind Carax’s complete lack of notoriety the mystery that fascinates him and moves his difficult journey.
Daniel’s search for the story behind the novel and the process of its creation, alongside the history of the author, do not take long to create problems and cause dire consequences to the people that surround him. But, indifferent to the maxim that some things are better forgotten, the young man does not reduce the scope of his research and ends up connecting to Julian Carax in an extremely personal and almost self-destructive way.
The story of The Shadow of the Wind can easily be considered gothic in its nature, with the past constantly coming back to haunt its characters. The plot, narrated in first person, is structured according to the findings that Daniel makes about Julian’s life, alternating between flashbacks and Daniel’s advance through his adolescence. It does not take long, then, for passions and disappointments to start to emerge and take the form of the great focus of the book: the doomed love story of Julian Carax.
This forbidden romance, whose tragic outlines are readily exposed to the reader, gains strength with time and becomes the great event that links most of the subplots of the story. Mixing typical elements of tragic romances – such as the family that forbids the relationship and the plan to run away together – it creates a parallel to the love relationship that Daniel starts to build with another character, making it easier for the reader to root for its success: after all, at least one of these relationships must end positively.
Carlos Ruiz Zafón excels in the construction of the narrative. Always succeeding in punctuating the main events in the lives of both Julian and Daniel with revelations and twists that change the general overview of the events, Zafón manages to control brilliantly the pacing of the book during all of its pages. And by also spreading elements of mystery, typical of Gothic novels – like the dark figure in a black jacket that begins to observe and follow Daniel, whose description corresponds exactly to the character of the Devil in the novel’s book, as well as the recurring presence of mist-covered streets and large abandoned mansions reputed to be haunted – the author is effective in constantly stirring up the reader’s curiosity.
Not only that, but his prose is also formidable. Aiming to turn all of his most virtuous characters into poets, Zafón creates a book in which most dialogues have some profound and reflective sentence. The author uses this style to enrich the characterization of his characters. It’s enough to notice, for example, the moment when Daniel describes the watchmaker of his neighborhood as the most educated man in the world, with a reputation for skill and a one even more peculiar, “this one of a less salubrious nature, related to his erotic proclivity for muscular young men from the more virile ranks of the proletariat, and to a certain penchant for dressing up like the music-hall star Estrellita Castro” and compare this description with the one a villain makes of the same character to notice the latter’s brutality.
Zafón also sets his story in a place that modifies and magnifies it strongly, locating it in two distinct Barcelonas: one before World War II, in which, dominated by families of great renown, the right surname already means a future of fortune and success; and the other during the post-war period, where the remnants of prejudice still remains, but the large families no longer exists, leaving only a few abandoned mansions. Thus, by making a counterpoint between these two realities, the author pushes the reader to reflect on whether the fate of its main characters, Daniel and Julián, is determined also by the period in which they live, or if it is only their actions that condemn or save them.
It is also efficient the device that Zafón uses to correspond thematically the historical period of the Barcelonas with the tone and tension of their story. The youth of Julián Carax, who goes through the period of the Spanish Civil War, for example, is filled with an atmosphere of dread and urgency, with his forbidden love gradually creating the sensation that everything is about to fall apart. Meanwhile, the story of Daniel, which begins in 1945, follows a time, if still traumatized, full of discoveries and opportunities, in which even a beggar can be a poet and still manage to get back on top in life.
Talking of beggars, Fermín Romero de Torres is one of the most memorable characters in the book. His sentences are always so full wit (“Destiny is usually just around the corner. Like a thief, a hooker, or a lottery vendor: its three most common personifications. But what destiny does not do is home visits”) that astute readers will probably try to memorize them to tell to their partners, pretending to be that smart. Other characters, such as Nuria Monfort, the hatter and Inspector Fumero, are also very well developed following a pattern common to all characterizations in the novel: anyone can be good or bad depending on the point of view we are following. In this sense, the hatter, Julián’s father, gains prominence because he is the character with the most discrepant descriptions about his motivations, helping develop a complex personality.
Zafón, however, eventually makes small slips and one of the most significant happens near the end of the book, in a chapter of gigantic exposition, narrated from the point of view of the character of Nuria Monfort. In this chapter, Zafón is so excited by the tragic lyricism and romanticism of the story of Julián Carax, that he makes Nuria describe situations, dialogues and actions that she never saw or could have known, especially with that level of detail. However, since the author makes this chapter one of the most emotional and rewarding of the novel, which would certainly be lost if Nuria did not exacerbate her narration, this carelessness does not diminish the strength of the work.
The Shadow of the Wind, by working the parallel between the stories of Daniel and Julian, shows that, in the end, author and reader can live a similar journey through the same book. And if Zafón seems to be pessimistic about the future of the art (“Bea says that the art of reading is slowly dying, that it’s an intimate ritual, that a book is a mirror that offers us only what we already carry inside us, that when we read, we do it with all our heart and mind, and great readers are becoming more scarce by the day.”), the excellent reception and success that the novel had in the countries in which it was released may, perhaps, constitute a proof of the contrary.
December 04, 2018.
Originally published in Portuguese on March 11, 2015.
--- BUY IT ON AMAZON
Carlos Ruiz Zafón
January 25th 2005 by Penguin Books