Estimated reading time: 8 minutes
Carlos Ruiz Zafon, though he is sadly no longer with us, retains his title of the most successful contemporary Spanish author for good reason, his stories carrying the reader to places few authors could imagine. In The Shadow of the Wind, the first entry in The Cemetery of Forgotten Books series, Zafon tells the story of a young bookshop owner’s son in post-war Barcelona as he tries to unravel the tragic fate of Julian Carax, an author whose works someone has been systematically destroying.
Table of contents
Carlos Ruiz Zafon Opens the Doors to the Cemetery
Despite their best efforts, modern authors haven’t been able to completely stifle the way in which modern technology has been robbing present and future generations from the desire to read; after all, one can hardly compete against a zeitgeist. Nevertheless, books still haven’t lost their place in society, and hold special meanings for those willingly touched by them. In The Shadow of the Wind, Carlos Ruiz Zafon writes an ode to the power of literature, weaving around it an epic tale of intrigue, love, and murder.
The first instalment in The Cemetery of Forgotten Books begins by introducing us to Daniel Sempere, son of a widowed bookkeeper living in 1945 Barcelona, a city still recovering from the tumultuous Spanish Civil War, not to mention the other, much more prominent war which ended that year. Daniel might be young, but he’s about to make a choice which will bind his destiny.
The story kicks off when Daniel’s father brings him to the Cemetery of Forgotten books, a house where works abandoned by the world are being preserved. He’s allowed to pick a single book, and chooses the titular The Shadow of the Wind by Julian Carax, a dead author seemingly nobody has ever heard of. Intrigued, Daniel sets out to find some of the man’s other works, but the task proves a little more complicated than first anticipated.
To begin with, he quickly learns that someone has been hunting down and destroying every single copy of any Julian Carax novel, someone he is bound to meet very soon. His refusal to part with the novel leads Daniel past the point of no return as he feels himself drawn to Carax, trying to reconstruct his fate to find out what really happened to a unique man who brought more mysteries to the world dead than alive.
Though the quest seems innocent enough at the start, it doesn’t take long for Daniel to cross the doors to Barcelona’s darker side, bumping into some truly foul and dangerous individuals along the way. When the despicable act of murder enters the equation, it’s too late for Daniel to turn back: he must find the truth before Julian Carax is completely erased from existence.
Addressing the Claims of Sexism
Before saying anything about the story, I think it’s paramount to address the criticism certain readers have been making of this book, claiming it to be sexist for its depiction of women, with the author often giving detailed physical descriptions rife with sexual details and/or connotations.
While it is true that there is a fair deal of sexuality in this book, it is absolutely imperative to remember one crucial detail: it is told through the eyes of a seventeen-year-old adolescent. Sexuality is something every young man of that age is obsessed with, and in my opinion, Carlos Ruiz Zafon was successful in capturing the inappropriately rabid fascination which comes with the territory.
Additionally, I personally don’t see anything wrong with the author treating his female characters in that way for two reasons. First of all, he doesn’t limit their personality to their beauty (or lack thereof, in some cases), showing it’s clearly a part of the package, rather than the whole package, so-to-speak.
Second of all, just because the author portrays a character as being a certain way or thinking something, it doesn’t mean he advocates for the world to follow and agree with him. He’s not trying to make a statement about women’s place in society, but rather, he’s simply depicting characters in a story which, let’s not forget, is taking place almost a hundred years ago at this point.
Personally, I do not think the claims of The Shadow of the Wind being sexist are warranted. Perhaps some of the characters are, but it doesn’t mean the author promotes or agrees with their point of view; they simply make sense in the story. Anyhow, let us move on to the actual book now.
There are few reasons for telling the truth, but for lying the number is infinite.― Carlos Ruiz Zafon, The Shadow of the Wind
A Journey to the Centre of the Soul in The Shadow of the Wind
Near the end of the story, Carlos Ruiz Zafon talks about books as being mirrors, and in a sense, I think it’s hard to deny. While reading a book we are interpreting it according to our inner world, and to a certain extent, it can show how poor or wealthy it is. While this concept certainly doesn’t apply to every book ever written, I think it’s a rather apt description for The Shadow of the Wind.
While there definitely is a good deal of drama, murder and mystery, it never feels like the author places his focus on merely exciting and entertaining the reader. Instead, he adopts a slower pace in order to ruminate about a number of overarching topics pertaining to life in a more general sense. It’s certainly not a non-stop page-turning thriller, and I think it’s important for the reader to keep that in mind before diving in.
As a matter of fact, I think it’s safe to say there are fairly long passages which don’t exactly advance the story, but rather, help us feel and visualize it. Lengthy descriptions are not everyone’s cup of tea, but with Zafon‘s prose they adopt a certain lightness and make for vivid depictions which, in my opinion, do a great job of actually transporting the reader into the story.
Our protagonist as well as the cast surrounding him often drop pearls of wisdom along the way, with varying degrees of success, and I think this is where some readers are taking things a little too close to heart. They are excellent starting points for further personal reflection, and the way I interpreted it, the author wasn’t trying to make axioms out of them. Rather, they were true to the characters who spoke them, and made sense in their worlds.
So how does this relate to the book being a mirror of sorts? What you, the reader, will get from the various instances when the plot isn’t being advanced largely depends on your inner world, on your personal perspective in regards to literature. Some will be only infuriated and bored by these moments, while others will find in them ideas to mull over and private truths to absorb. The more one is prone to profound thought, the more I believe they’ll get from this book.
People tend to complicate their own lives, as if living weren’t already complicated enough.― Carlos Ruiz Zafon, The Shadow of the Wind
The Chase After Julian Carax
The mystery at the heart of The Shadow of the Wind, while it doesn’t advance at breakneck speed, does benefit from a slow but consistent movement forward, piling one hefty revelation onto the next one. The intrigue itself, surrounding the fate of Julian Carax and one man’s obsession with hunting down any trace of him, is, in my opinion, expertly set up and draws the reader in with its unusual nature, promising equally-unusual answers.
As our narrator Daniel Sempere tries to reconstruct Carax’ fate, he makes the acquaintance of a number of fascinating characters, each one of them playing their role in the intrigue to perfection, offering us little scraps and morsels of information to satiate our curiosity but still keeping us guessing. Slowly but surely, they paint the fascinating portrait of a tortured man whose fate was doomed from the start.
Through this process, Julian Carax becomes a sort of larger-than-life character, his presence constantly felt in the story despite his physical absence, his position made all the more mythological by Daniel’s fascination with the man. I think Carlos Ruiz Zafon achieved something rather interesting here, having managed to make a real main character out of someone barely get to see, and even then, mostly through memories.
Speaking personally, the author successfully managed to put me in the shoes of Daniel Sempere by making me just as intrigued by Julian Carax and his fate. The more I knew about him, the more I was yearning to learn, and despite the man being a fictional character, I felt like I understood the drive being our protagonist, his need to know why the ill-fated author was being erased from history… because ultimately, I shared this need as well.
For those who are planning to read this book for the investigative aspect, rest assured that there are more than enough clever twists and turns to satiate your mystery-solving needs, not to mention a legitimately-satisfying conclusion which wraps everything up in a neat bundle for us to digest. I can hardly remember the last time a book in a running series didn’t end in some form of cliffhanger, so points to Zafon for offering a real sense of closure.
|487||Penguin Books||Feb. 1 2005||978-0143034902|
The Final Verdict
The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon is a magnificently unique and absorbing mystery following in the burnt footsteps of an enigmatic author while taking us on an excursion through post-war Barcelona.
If you’re in search of a powerful novel with the power to enrich your inner world, and a spellbinding mystery centred on the sacred realm of literature sounds like your kind of thing, then I sincerely believe you will fall in love with this book.
Carlos Ruiz Zafon
(September 25, 1964 – June 19, 2020)
Carlos Ruiz Zafon is a Spanish novelist whose first work, The Prince of Mist earned him the Edebe literary prize for young adult fiction. His subsequent novels, which included The Midnight Palace and Marina have eventually earned Zafon the the honor of being the most successful contemporary Spanish author, with his books having been published in over 45 countries and translated in 40 languages.