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Unexpurgated Review of Carlos Ruiz Zafon's THE SHADOW OF THE WIND
Special edition cover for "The Shadow of the Wind" by Carlos Ruiz Zafon.

As a writer, it's difficult not to marvel at the skillful way author Carlos Ruiz Zafón blends mystery, romance, and unapologetic bibliophilic passion to create his celebrated novel, The Shadow of the Wind. As a reader, it's all but impossible to avoid falling in love with the streams of lyrical prose that ferry your attention from the first page to the last.


It would be easy to say that The Shadow of the Wind, at its core, is a compelling historical drama that explores the mystery of why someone is making it their business to seek out and destroy the final remaining copies of books by a writer who never achieved much success with them in the first place. But that would be too much of an understatement and far too inaccurate. The story begins when an antiquarian bookseller introduces his ten-year-old son, Daniel Sempere, to "The Cemetery of Forgotten Books," a gargantuan warehouse of seemingly endless shelves of books no longer read and in danger of eternal obscurity. Daniel is allowed to wander through the corridors and choose a book that he must "adopt," and promise "that it will never disappear, that it will always stay alive." He chooses The Shadow of the Wind, written by Julián Carax, and with that one choice his life changes forever.


In addition to falling in love with the novel, Daniel also falls in love with the mystery behind the life of the man who wrote it. Far from being the celebrated author that he presumes Carax is, Daniel learns that despite the brilliance of his work and the fact that he published as least three novels, Carax is about as uncelebrated and obscure as a writer can get. Even Daniel's father, who owns the bookshop where Daniel works with him, knows nothing about the author, despite the fact that he apparently was born in their very own hometown. Daniel's fascination with Carax seems peculiar because he is only ten when he reads The Shadow of the Wind, described as "a ghostly odyssey in which the protagonist struggled to recover his lost youth, and in which the shadow of a cursed love slowly surfaced to haunt him until his last breath." But whether the boy's fascination is weird or not, it develops over the next decade into a full-blown obsession that impacts every aspect of his life, and evolves even beyond that into something more like divine destiny.   


The Shadow of the Wind (Zafón's novel, not Carax's) is set in mid-1900s Barcelona, Spain, with flashbacks to earlier days and visits to Paris as well. With its sometimes brooding dark skies, rich cultural landscape, and classic architecture, the setting includes elements of the Gothic that serve Zafón's story well. In fact, from the moment readers walk with Daniel into the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, we enter a labyrinth, which following pages reveal as a major motif and literary technique applied throughout this absorbing masterwork. Daniel's description of Carax's novel turns out to be an accurate one of Zafón's as well: "Step by step the narrative split into a thousand stories, as if it had entered a gallery of mirrors, its identity fragmented into endless reflections."


With each year that passes as Daniel grows from boyhood into adolescence and young adulthood, he collects an assortment of clues about Carax and meets a number of characters worthy of supporting roles in a novel by Charles Dickens or Ralph Ellison. A beautiful blind woman who breaks his heart, a homeless man who becomes his best friend, a corrupt policeman who becomes his worst enemy, and a reclusive author who takes on the identity of one of his own most terrifying characters: these are just a few of the people who come to play definitive roles in his quest to solve the enigma known as Julián Carax. Each has a story that guides the reader into one branch of the novel's labyrinth even as it leads you into the next. We also begin to see the "endless reflections" hinted at in the above quote as Daniel discovers scenes and developments within his life beginning to mirror those in Carax's.

The author's labyrinth is as much one of structure as it is narrative point of focus. The first person narration shifts from Daniel to different characters as each relates his or her connection to the conundrum of Julián Carax's past and what it possibly has to do with Daniel Sempere's future. Moreover, crucial pieces to the puzzle are revealed through the text of enthralling letters that beautifully employ an expressive form of communication once as common as emails but now rarely practiced with the kind of linguistic finesse demonstrated here.  

Zafón maintains a brisk pace as he weaves his storyteller magic through all of 487 pages. Along the way, he supplies possible clues to some of his literary influences.  Of particular note, perhaps, where his sleight-of hand use of labyrinths inside of labyrinths is concerned, would be the Prague Jewish author Franz Kafka. Allusions, however, to authors like Kafka, Alexandre Dumas, Thomas Hardy, Federico Garcia Lorca, Jules Verne, Voltaire, and Benedict de Spinoza only represent one tiny fragment of what amounts throughout the novel to an extraordinary celebration of literature and literary culture in general.  


Whether as readers, writers, shop owners, journalists, proofreaders, editors, publishers, or philanthropists, most of the principle characters are all immersed in the business of books. You might expect such a description to imply characters that are too thick with intellectual elitism or cultural snobbery to engage a reader's sense of compassion or empathy. But, remarkably, we get the exact opposite with individuals whose lives are indeed shaped by literary values but who also remain scandalously humorous, sensually romantic, enviously adventurous, and beautifully flawed. Mix the comical personalities of some of these charming characters with the murderous escapades of certain others and what we find ourselves enjoying is a first-rate tragicomedy that leaves readers crying in the middle of one chapter and laughing and sighing in the next.


Just as characters in a New Millennium novel might do, those in The Shadows of the Wind sometimes debate the prophesized demise of literature due to the development of technology. In contemporary times, educators and parents debate the popular tendency to access information via the Internet rather than acquire knowledge via the study of books; in the era of Daniel Sempere and Julián Carax, those who took their daily instructions for living from the printed word questioned the impact of such innovations as the radio, movies, and television. When Daniel asks his friend Fermỉn whether he likes the cinema, he describes it as, "...a way of feeding the mindless and making them even more stupid. ...The cinema began as an invention for entertaining the illiterate masses. Fifty years on, it's much the same." Then he experiences a silver-screen epiphany in the form of Hollywood bombshell Carole Lombard and gains a deeper, albeit mostly erotic, appreciation for what he calls "the seventh art." It makes you wonder what Fermỉn might have to say in this day and age when so many classics of literature, in addition to the ultra-modern graphic novel, have been successfully adapted to film.


The theme of technology versus literature may be applicable to either the historic days of Zafón's novel or our more contemporary times but what might be more difficult to apply in a novel of our present era is the pervasive dominant atmosphere of literature itself. Outside of a specific academic setting, or various reading groups, a reverence for authors and books among the general public is not something an individual can take for granted the way one might have in the 1940s or 1950s. On the other hand, considering the number of parents who share quality electronic game time with their children, an awareness of popular games and their characters is something many do take for granted.


The Shadow of the Wind has been called "a triumph of the storyteller's art" with good reason. Connecting the twists and turns in its bold themes, plots, and subplots is a lush narrative voice that ripples with raw poetic power and eloquence. Take for example this philosophical observation of Daniel quoting Julian: "Coincidences are the scars of fate." Or consider Fermỉn's earthy advice to Daniel that "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."


If this novel truly is a triumph of the storyteller's art, then it is also one of the literary translator's art. The original Spanish edition, titled La Sombra del Viento, came out in 2001, and translator Lucia Grave's English version was published in 2004. Since then, Zafón's work in general has been translated into more than forty languages and The Shadow of the Wind in particular has sold 12 million copies plus around the globe. One has to give props to the translators because, experts or not, it had to prove considerably challenging to capture the finer nuances of the author's style, the subtleties of his humor, and the quiet brilliance of his universality.


Daniel Sempere and Julián Carax are in some ways flip sides of the same anti-hero, which makes the true hero of The Shadow of the Wind the book itself. With all due respect to its noble romantic aspects, much of the driving force behind the story is a determination to preserve Carax's published works, the last of which was: The Shadow of the Wind. With its creative daring and admirable craftsmanship, Zafón's novel of the same title has emerged as a world-class champion of the written word. It not only represents a major achievement for the man who wrote it, but a titanic victory on behalf of writing itself, an art form so many continue every day to rediscover, adore, debate, and advance.


by Aberjhani
author of Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance
and ELEMENTAL The Power of Illuminated Love