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The Shadow of the Wind
A Novel

Carlos Ruiz Zafon

ARJ2 Chapter: Reading for Enjoyment
Published by The Penguin Press/NY in 2001
A Book Review by Bobby Matherne ©2019


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At age 17 I read Dr. Zhivago and was confused by the surnames, place names, and complexities of everything Russian. Sixty years later, I encountered a similar feeling as I wandered through the streets of unfamiliar Barcelona with the characters of this book, many having unpronounceable names. What attracted me to the story was books, in particular, The Shadow of the Wind, a book which a dark stranger was buying up all its copies and burning them, sometimes a whole storeroom full. The theme of shadows appears early and often throughout the novel. Ten-year-old Daniel was awakened at dawn by his father who owns a book shop.

[page 4] "Come, Daniel, get dressed. I want to show you something," he said.
       "Now? At five o'clock in the morning?"
       "Some things can only be seen in the shadows," my father said, flashing a mysterious smile probably borrowed from the pages of one of his worn Alexandre Dumas romances.

Their destination was a great library called the Cemetery of Forgotten Books and his father talked to him in a hushed voice as if it were a dark secret.

[page 5, 6] "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. . . . 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. In the shop we buy and sell them, but in truth books have no owner. Every book you see here has been somebody's best friend. Now they have only us, Daniel. Do you think you'll be able to keep such a secret?"

His father gave Daniel a blessing or a curse which pursued him during the course of this novel.

[page 6] "According to tradition, the first time someone visits this place, he must choose a book, whichever he wants, and adopt it, making sure that it will never disappear, that it will always stay alive. It's a very important promise. For life," explained my father.
        "Today it's your turn."

Daniel began his search and homed in on a book bound in wine-colored leather with gold letters shining in the light from dome high above (portrayed on the book jacket of my hardcover copy). Its title was The Shadow of the Wind and its author was Julian Carax. Daniel grabbed the book and rushed home to read this book about a man searching for his lost father. He read the story straight through until morning unwilling to put it down. He was sure this book had entered his soul.

[page 8] Once, in my father's bookshop, I heard a regular customer say that few things leave a deeper mark on a reader than the first book that finds its way into his heart. Those first images, the echo of words we think we have left behind, accompany us throughout our lives and sculpt a palace in our memory to which, sooner or later — no matter how many books we read, how many worlds we discover, or how much we learn or forget — we will return. For me those enchanted pages will always be the ones I found among the passageways of the Cemetery of Forgotten Books.

In this novel we follow Daniel in his quest for Julian Carax, which began when Daniel's father brought him to meet Barceló. He told Barceló about Daniel's discovery of the book. Barceló immediately challenged Daniel when he answered for his father.

[page 13] "How old is the lad?" inquired Barceló, inspecting me out of the corner of his eye.
       "Almost eleven," I announced.
       Barceló flashed a sly smile.
       "In other words, ten. Don't add on any years, you rascal. Life will see to that without your help."

Later Daniel asked the meaning of Barceló's phrase, quid pro quo and was rebuffed.

[page 15] "Latin, young man. There's no such thing as dead languages, only dormant minds. Paraphrasing, it means that you can't get something for nothing, but since I like you, I'm going to do you a favor"

Clara only read books as assignments from her teachers until she read The Red House by Julian Carax and was entranced by it. She told Daniel how she experienced the power of a book.

[page 27] "Never before had I felt trapped, seduced, and caught up in a story," Clara explained, "the way I did with that book. Until then, reading was just a duty, a sort of fine one had to pay teachers and tutors without quite knowing why. I had never known the pleasure of reading, of exploring the recesses of the soul, of letting myself be carried away by imagination, beauty, and the mystery of fiction and language. For me all those things were born with that novel. Have you ever kissed a girl, Daniel?"
       My brain seized up; my saliva turned to sawdust.
       "Well, you're still very young. But it's that same feeling, that first-time spark that you never forget. This is a world of shadows, Daniel, and magic is a rare asset. That book taught me that by reading, I could live more intensely. It could give me back the sight I had lost. For that reason alone, a book that didn't matter to anyone changed my life. "

Clara searched for other books by Carax and heard about someone going around buying or stealing any copies of Carax's books and burning them. Daniel felt strangely attracted to this woman twice his age. "In my schoolboy reveries, we were always two fugitives riding on the spine of a book, eager to escape into worlds of fiction and secondhand dreams."

Reading each step of Daniel's adventures I recalled a similar progression of my early school years, such as when he wanted an expensive Montblanc fountain pen. For me at twelve it was a Sheaffer fountain pen and I saved money from my newspaper route to buy it. It was a beauty that cost me $15 (about $150 in 2019 money) and I loved it. When I read authors that I liked, I read every copy of their works I could find at our local library. Robert Heinlein and other science fiction authors were my favorite back then. I've explained my obsession to the genre, "By age 15 I had spent more time on the surface of Mars than on Earth." To this day, when I find authors I like, I buy up all their books I can find and read them. Annie Dillard is one of my recent favorite writers. So imagine the horror if I, like Daniel, had found out someone was buying up books by Annie Dillard and burning them!

Daniel met the mysterious book burner one day, a stranger looking for a copy of The Shadow of the Wind. He was willing to pay Daniel thousands of dollars for it. Daniel put him off saying he didn't have it, but became curious as to why he wanted it so much.

[page 56] I shook my head. "I'll speak to Neri, but I don't think he'll give it back to me. Perhaps he doesn't even have it anymore. Anyhow, what do you want the book for? Don't tell me it's to read it."
       "No. I know it by heart."
       "Are you a collector?"
       "Something like that."
       "Do you have other books by Carax?"
       "I've had them at some point. Julian Carax is my specialty, Daniel. I travel the world in search of his books."
       "And what do you do with them if you don't read them?"
       The stranger made a stifled, desperate sound. It took me a while to realize that he was laughing.
       "The only thing that should be done with them, Daniel," he answered.
       He pulled a box of matches out of his pocket. He took one and struck it. The flame showed his face for the first time. My blood froze. He had no nose, lips, or eyelids. His lace was nothing but a mask of black scarred skin, consumed by fire. It was the same dead skin that Clara had touched.
       "Burn them," he whispered, his voice and his eyes poisoned by hate.
       A gust of air blew out the match he held in his fingers, and his face was once again hidden in darkness.

Later Daniel encountered Isaac who was approached by a man who wanted to burn a Carax book. It turned out the name he identified himself as was Lain Coubert, one of the characters from Carax's last novel, The Shadow of the Wind. Imagine that, a fictional character who wants to burn all copies of the one book he appears in. As Dr. Watson might say to Sherlock Holmes, the game was afoot.

Daniel's adventures amazed me but it was the prose of the novel which drew me forward as much as the suspense surrounding Julian Carax. Here's an example of the painter's eye of the author Carlos Ruiz Zafón in the superb writing which fills this novel.

[page 174] Dusk fell almost surreptitiously, with a cold breeze and a mantle of purple light that slid between the gaps in the streets.

Okay, the novel is beautifully written, but what's it all about, anyway? Daniel explains to his girl friend Bea. "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 about love, of hatred, and of the dreams that live in the shadow of the wind." (Page 178) There you have the eponymous title of the book within the book. Bea wanted more details, so Daniel summed it up for her.

[page 179] I began my story with that distant dawn when I awoke and could not remember my mother s face, and I didn't stop until I paused to recall the world of shadows I had sensed that very day in the home of Nuria Monfort. Bea listened quietly, making no judgment, drawing no conclusions. I told her about my first visit to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books and about the night I spent reading The Shadow of the Wind. I told her about my meeting with the faceless man and about the letter signed by Penelope Aldaya that I always carried with me without knowing why. I spoke about how I had never kissed Clara Barceló, or anyone, and of how my hands had trembled when I felt the touch of Nuria Monforts lips on my skin, only a few hours before. I told her how until that moment I had not understood that this was a story about lonely people, about absence and loss, and that that was why I had taken refuge in it until it became confused with my own life, like someone who has escaped into the pages of a novel because those whom he needs to love seem nothing more than ghosts inhabiting the mind of a stranger.

In one of the few passages where Julian Carax spoke, he answered a boy who claimed that books are boring, "Books are mirrors: you only see in them what you already have inside you." (Page 209) Books contain our destiny; even though we are not aware of it, books contain things that are coming towards us; they are like a time-wave from the future. Fermin explains it his streetwise way:

[page 225] "Look, Daniel. 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. You have to go for it."

Daniel asked for help with Nuria's obvious lying. Don Gustavo proposed a plan of action based on a bull-fighting metaphor, drive the spear directly into her and how she reacts will tell you what to do. He told Daniel to confront her, tell her that he knows she's lying.

[page 295] "What for?"
       "To see how he reacts. She won't say anything to you, of course. Or she'll lie to you again. The important thing is to thrust the banderilla into her — forgive the bullfighting image — to see where the bull will lead us or, should I say, the young heifer. And that's where you come in, Fermin. While Daniel is sticking his neck out, you position yourself discreetly where you can keep watch on the suspect and wait for her to take the bait. Once she's done that, you follow her.

Daniel, at the end of the novel, read Nuria's manuscript in which she tells the truth for everyone to hear. We readers are finally able to piece together the jigsaw puzzle of story pieces into one coherent pattern. Is it worth it? Only your individual reading will reveal that to you. I hope I have stuck a banderilla of curiosity into you which will lead you on the shadows of the wind through the dark streets of Barcelona to enjoy how Daniel, Bea, Julian, Nuria, and Fermin deal with their various nemeses.


Any questions about this review, Contact: Bobby Matherne


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