The Shadow of the Wind is a dream date for those who love books. It starts, in 1945, with the introduction of the young narrator, Daniel, to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books. Daniel’s father, a dealer of used and rare books in Barcelona, tells the young boy, “When a library disappears, or a bookshop closes down, when a book is consigned to oblivion, those of us who know this place, its guardians, make sure that it gets here.” In the Cemetery, “books that are lost in time, live forever…. Every book you see here has been somebody’s best friend.” Mourning the loss of his mother, Daniel befriends a book he finds there, The Shadow of the Wind, written by a certain Julián Carax.
Entranced by the novel, young Daniel sets out to discover who this Carax was, and what else he wrote. Daniel’s father, the book dealer, has never heard of Carax. Together they consult other dealers. One offers Daniel a considerable sum of money for his copy of The Shadow of the Wind—but won’t say why he prizes it so highly. Daniel, though, refuses to sell the book.
Years go by. Daniel hears a story about Carax and his books. Someone is going from town to town, shop to shop, seeking out the works of Julián Carax—and burning them. But who would do such a thing—and why? As Daniel matures, so does the mystery.
Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s novel is a love story of several layers of significance. There’s the adolescent Daniel, coming of age in Franco’s Spain, and doing what young boys do: listlessly lusting after young women. Daniel’s relationships, first with the blind girl, Clara, and later with his best friend’s sister, Bea, are also bonds of literary friendship: books, like beds, allow lovers to share sheets. As Daniel tells Bea one evening over a couple of coffees:
“…this is a story about books.”But is the burner of Carax’s novels really Carax? As Daniel grows—both in life and into the investigation of his beloved The Shadow of the Wind—he discovers that Carax died years ago. It appears that Carax died, as Daniel has felt he surely would, of a broken heart. And yet, what if…?
“About accursed books, about the man who wrote them, about a character who broke out of the pages of a novel so that he could burn it, about a betrayal and a lost friendship. It’s a story of love, of hatred, and of the dreams that live in the shadow of the wind.”
“And yet, what if…?” is, of course, precisely what propels a reader through a great novel like Zafón’s. The wind of speculation keeps blowing shadows of mystery down the side streets, pulling us on into the labyrinth in pursuit of the story of the novel within the novel. Zafón is a great-hearted writer, keenly aware that books are bits of soul-stuff and just as prone to the vicissitudes of time and place as are their human authors and readers. Zafón sketches character and context beautifully, working in the political reality of Franco’s dictatorship with candor and humor, but without ever making a spectacle of life in a totalitarian regime. A bestseller in Spain, The Shadow of the Wind is craftily translated by the daughter of Robert Graves, Lucia Graves. Unfortunately, it hasn’t been very well received in the U.S., where the thriller genre has been stupefied by the likes of ignoramus Michael Crichton. The Shadow of the Wind harks back to an era when characters changed—not by growing an extra arm, but changed psychologically, seeing the world as the dangerous and potentially redemptive place it is. For fans of Jorge Luis Borges, Umberto Eco and other writers who craft twisting and turning plots with complex characterization, The Shadow of the Wind is not to be missed.