Carlos Ruiz Zafón wrote a dark and shadowy Barcelona, ‘dark’ is not the first word that comes to mind when one thinks of Barcelona but in this book the theme of ‘shadows’ and mystery is a device used to create a modern Gothic narrative. On my copy of the book, this novel is described as a ‘Thriller.’ Which it might be. What it is, in fact, is a fusion of humour, the Gothic/ horror, and according to Zafón himself a “feel-good novel.” Which it is, including the above mentioned things, this really did makes one feel good, after making them feel all sorts of awful it circles back to a whole lot of good.
I devoured all 500+ pages in a matter of days. I’m a slow reader but by abandoning all my responsibilities, showering less, and taking the book with me to the bathroom; I was done reading in less than a week. And I regret nothing! Except that I didn’t read it sooner, thinking it was just another generic work of popular fiction. And someone may disagree, although I don’t know of many who would, but this is anything but generic.
This book is for book lovers. Zafón has already refused offers of adapting this book into a film because its whole purpose is to exist on the page as a piece of writing to look down upon every other literary work as it grows in its superiority over every other modern publication. I’m overexaggerating but this book deserves to be flattered. Just look at how funny it is:
Women have an infallible instinct for knowing when a man has fallen madly in love with them, especially when the male in question is both young and a complete dunce. (p.26-7)
I know quoting things out of context has never made them funny but I hope this at least foreshadows the books sense of humour. I don’t know how to read in Spanish so I have no way of knowing what decisions the translator made when interpreting this work. But I didn’t feel, as I do when I read translations of Russian literature like I’m missing some vital meaning that English takes away from a more complex language. Although I’m sure reading the original would have been rewarding.
There’s plenty of cleverness in this book that is philosophical but not in an intrusive way:
‘People are evil.’
‘Not evil,’ Fermin objected. ‘Moronic, which isn’t quite the same thing. Evil presupposes a moral decision, intention, and some forethought. A moron or a lout, however, doesn’t stop to think or reason. He acts on instinct, like an animal, convinced that he’s doing good, that he’s always right, and sanctimoniously proud to go around fucking up, if you’ll excuse the French, anyone he perceives to be different from himself, be it of skin colour, creed, language, nationality or, as in the case of Don Federico, his leisure pursuits. What the world really needs are more thoroughly evil people and fewer borderline pigheads. (p.158)
In case you were wondering, Don Federico’s ‘leisure pursuits’ are cross-dressing as a fabulous diva. And Fermin is easily the most lovable character I’ve ever encountered. Daniel, the narrator-protagonist, finds Fermin on the streets of Barcelona and helps him get a job, honestly, this book just kept ticking all my boxes and strumming on my heart strings.
(Skip the next paragraph if you don’t like spoilers)
One morning dawn Daniel Sempere wakes up from a nightmare, to make him feel better his father takes him through the empty streets of Barcelona to The Cemetery of Forgotten Books. A beautiful labyrinthine library where one can get lost. Daniel is allowed to take one book to keep. After walking through the labyrinth of shelves, 10year old Daniel Sempere finds a novel by a Julian Carax ‘The Shadow of the Wind.’ He spends the next day and night reading the book. It’s his first love, the book that made him love books. What follows is a search for the truth of what happened to Julian Carax, why can no other books be found? What happened to the man who wrote them, and who is going around burning every copy they can get their hands on?
I know some people felt like the first half of the book is something you have to go through to get rewarded for all the built-up suspense, and the mystery but personally, despite the hefty length, there wasn’t a dull moment. The whole plot felt like it was well thought-out.
The book plays on the phrasing of the title a lot with lots of mention of ‘shadows’ and ‘wind’ throughout the story but, surprisingly enough, that wasn’t annoying. It worked. The only thing left is to ask: what on earth is a shadow of the wind. My personal theory is that the wind is the violence of history which passes through time destroying everything in its wake. And the shadows that the shadows of history on our present, the present is, after all, influenced by past events. So, the Shadow of the Wind becomes the violence of past wars casting an oblique darkness on the present. Zafón mentions in one of his interviews that no one in his family ever spoke about the war or the horrors of what happened, it seems, according to Zafón no one wanted to speak but the walls told stories of the violence and horror of those time…
If you’re interested in what Barcelona would look like through Zafón’s eyes, check out his Instagram. I have a sneaking suspicion he used a lot filter to get rid of all that pesky sunlight but that’s none of my business, the photos are all beautiful. And if you’re in Barcelona, take ‘The Shadow of the Wind’ walking tour around the city.