When The Shadow of the Wind by Spanish writer Carlos Ruiz Zafón was first translated into English in 2004 the critics raved about this new writing talent, prompting comparisons with highly acclaimed writers such as Gabriel García Márquez and Umberto Eco. It is true that like those writers, Zafón delights in a kind of magic realism and has an obvious ability to create not just a narrative, but an epic based on a multitude of small, interconnection of layers of characters and themes that merge together in an almost seamless manner.
Akin to a Russian doll, this novel is made up of stories, hidden within stories, hidden within stories. The perfect premise for a mystery, the novel begins with ten year old Daniel Sempere’s initiation into the “Cemetery of Books” – a secret place his father takes him to, where a large mansion built like a maze takes in all the forgotten and abandoned books. Daniel’s father – a widowed bookshop owner – tells Daniel that “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 dreamed with it. Every time a book changes hands, every time someone runs his eyes down its pages, its spirit strengthens.” Charged with the task of finding one book and “keeping it alive” Daniel chooses a book called “The Shadow of the Wind”, by an unknown author, Julián Carax, and finds that this first book – akin to a first lover – remains unforgettably and forever etched in his memory.
Daniel sets out to find out more about the mysterious author – when he learns that Carax seems to have disappeared without a trace, and that all copies of his books have been systematically destroyed, he realises that he himself may own the very last book in existence. When a hooded figure starts showing up on the corner of Daniel’s street in the middle of the night, the chilling parallels between the novel and Daniel’s life start to become obvious to the curious young boy, who will stop at nothing to get to the truth behind Carax and his novels.
While Zafón’s The Shadow of the Wind is a mystery in its truest sense, the novel is also a cross-breed between noir fiction, the detective story, the traditional coming-of-age story and good old fashioned romance. Although there are hints at influences from writers like Charles Dickens, or Victor Hugo, the novel very much stays grounded in its own style, sustained by beautifully flowing and composed prose.
The issue of love – doomed love in particular – drives many of the plotlines, and echoes a poetically rendered “Romeo and Juliet-esque” sentimentality, while also being underpinned by a stark and harrowing “reality” of love – and women’s place – in civil war and post-war Spain. If one must make the comparison between Carlos Ruiz Zafón and Gabriel García Márquez (and there is no reason that one must, other than that some critics have suggested one should), then it ought to be said that one major difference between these two writers is that Zafón has not quite the same grasp or understanding of his female characters than the formidable Márquez, who was a master of representing the subtleties in his female characters. While Zafón’s women characters are important catalysts to much of the plotline they seem to be encumbered by a certain slightness and sense of playing out typecast roles. The character of Daniel, on the other hand, is a careful construction of the mystery hero whose role of ascertaining the truth in a society where the truth comes at a high price is synonymous with his journey of becoming a man, and getting a crash-course in all the brutalities this entails.
Moreover, The Shadow of the Wind is a story about books, literature and reading – and while Carax’s “Shadow of the Wind” has taken possession of Daniel’s soul, Zafón’s The Shadow of the Wind aims to capture the reader in very much the same way. Literature, the book seems to say, has to be able to sneak its way into the very soul of the reader, and – just like The Shadow of the Wind – needs to be able to raise more questions than it ultimately answers.