When I was 15 years old, J.D. Salinger introduced me to Holden Caulfield, who was to become my best friend for about three years. I have never really lost my fondness for Holden, even though I outgrew his and my adolescent anxieties years ago. The type of gift I was given between the pages of “The Catcher in the Rye” is one of the themes of Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s “The Shadow of the Wind”: a novel is a gift that allows us to inhabit a world quite different from the one in which we actually live.
Some critics have compared Zafon to Charles Dickens due to his penchant for ornery characters. They inhabit Barcelona, Spain, after WWII rather than Dickens’ London, but they are just as memorable and finely drawn. But one of the most vivid characters in this book is Barcelona itself.
Not the sunny, bright city of movies and postcards, but Barcelona in the wind and the rain and a blizzard. Barcelona becomes the ancient city by the docks in the deepest part of night, when every shadow is dampened with the smell of evil. Barcelona breathes when you are cold, alone and frightened and when you are sure that your life is doomed if you are even allowed to live it. Barcelona is the dwelling which houses criminals that are saints and law enforcers that are devils and common people inhabiting the space between the two. What is intriguing about this Barcelona is that it is no less appealing than the one shown on the postcards. But here everything is in the shadows, nothing shouts: it is an impression dangling in the wind, giving off the slightest whiff, then disappearing. As Zafon writes, “The city is a sorceress….It gets under your skin and steals your soul without you knowing it.”
Zafon has such a gift for description that every scene in this book is palpable. As I read it, I had an uneasy feeling that my world was not what it seemed—a feeling which stayed with me long after I had finished reading. An example of how the author evoked this uneasiness can be found in this passage, “The stranger turned around and walked off towards the docks, a shape melting into the shadows, cocooned in his hollow laughter”.
Another interesting occurrence is that within the narrative there is a photograph of a young girl, on the back of which is written, “Penelope, who loves you.” It is no exaggeration to say that after I read this book, I combed through it again believing that there was actually a facsimile of this photograph in the book. There was not, but it was so real to me I thought I had seen it. It is extremely powerful and slightly upsetting to believe you saw something that was not there. I’m convinced that is powerful writing.
The bookshop owned by the protagonist’s family, which serves as the setting of the novel’s initial chapters, is described as “an enchanted bazaar,” a description which also applies to the novel. But at its heart, it is a story of an adolescent boy, Daniel Sempere, experiencing what he believes is love, living through an ultimate betrayal, and then finally growing to find true love.
Within the pages he makes the mistakes we all make, not trusting a true friend, believing in the wrong truth, and taking family for granted. He maneuvers through the romantic labyrinth, thinking that love and its joys and miseries are unique to him. He learns that love and disappointments are universal to the human condition. He triumphs when he understands that all lives are enveloped in mysteries, not just his life or the lives of the characters springing from books, and that the task of unraveling these mysteries is what life is.
It is very hard to summarize this book because of the many layers that are thinly spread to make the whole. But I can describe it quoting the protagonist Daniel:
“This is a story about books, 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.”
I think Daniel’s girlfriend has the real essence of the book when she says, “Don’t you see? It feels as if it’s been waiting for me. As if it has been hiding here for me since before I was born.” I concur—that is the exact feeling I had about this book, a gift that was waiting for me, and now it is one of my treasures.
Please join in the discussion about “The Shadow of the Wind” either by answering these questions or adding your own comments.
1. Did you find the concept of a story about a book within a book interesting or confusing?
2. Was this a believable tale or just an enjoyable read?
3. Who was your favorite character and why?
Our next novel is “I, Claudius” by Robert Graves. In an interesting connection, Robert Graves’ daughter Lucia did the English translation for “The Shadow of the Wind.”
Bel Air Barnes & Noble Classics Book Club
May 16 “And Then There Were None” by Agatha Christie
June 20 “Emilio’s Carnival” by Italo Suevo
Everyone is Welcome!
Tune into WAMD 970AM Friday between 7 and 9:30 a.m. to hear Dagger book columnist Susan Kelly discuss “The Shadow of the Wind” live.