21st July 2014
“It’s a story of love, of hatred, and of the dreams that live in the shadow of the wind.”
Admittedly, I am arriving late to the game; the English translation of this book in fact is now 10 years old, the novel itself being published first in 2001 in Spain to critical acclaim. I am glad I finally arrived, as Zafón has created a brilliant work of gothic fiction, ticking all the boxes which have always attracted me to the mystery genre. The book is set in the old streets and crumbling buildings of post-war Barcelona, shrouded in shadows and secrets, as well as ample quantities of rain and fog.
Our hero is Daniel Sempere, the 10-year old son of a second-hand bookseller in Barcelona, and his father takes him one day to the mysterious Cemetery of Lost Books. Every kid who, like me, ever loved exploring old buildings such as libraries or colleges, will be equally hooked to the story by the time Daniel leaves here.
“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.”
The place serves literally as a vault for those books which are no longer in print, and would otherwise be forgotten by time and memory. His father, as a local bookseller, is therefore entrusted along with his peers in the book trade right of access to the library, and tells Daniel he is allowed to take one book with him, free of charge. Zafón wonderfully describes the library, thereby allowing you to mentally walk the dusty dimly-lit aisles, tunnels and passageways with Daniel, as he looks for a tome to take home.
“Few things leave a deeper mark on the reader, than the first book that finds its way to his heart.”
He chooses a book – or rather the book chooses him… – called The Shadow of the Wind, by Julián Carax. The book voraciously grips the attention of Daniel, and as any young reader does, upon finishing he wants to read more works by the deceased Carax. However Daniel learns that his book is the only copy of the book anywhere, due to the shady actions of a character called Laín Coubert, who has burned all copies of Carax’s other works in existence.
Adding to the intrigue, Laín Coubert is the name of a character in the book he has just read; and it is the name of the Devil himself! Smelling of smoke, and with a burned face; has the character walked straight out of the book? Daniel seems to think so, after he is stalked from a distance and then approached by Coubert who wishes to buy the book. Of course Daniel refuses, and Daniel receives an ominous warning from Coubert.
“A secret's worth depends on the people from whom it must be kept.”
The story follows Daniel on a ten-year journey from his childhood to being a young man, as Daniel makes on-off enquires into the life of Carax and those he left behind. The story takes Daniel across Barcelona, into ghostly mansions, creepy sanatoriums and gloomy back-streets. It seems there are many secrets surrounding Carax’s life in Barcelona, his stay in Paris where he wrote most of his novels, and his untimely death on his return to Spain. In uncovering the true story of Carax, Daniel may well go on to endanger his own life, as well as those of his friends and family.
“People tend to complicate their own lives, as if living weren't already complicated enough.”
I really bonded with Daniel as he moved through adolescence, with all the awkwardness of failed romances and silly boyhood decisions. Early on we encounter Daniel’s almost humorous and ultimately doomed romantic aspirations with the much older Clara Barceló, the daughter of another bookseller with a level of interest in the Carax novel, Gustavo Barceló.
This leads to a more meaningful romantic and reciprocated relationship with the provocative Beatriz “Bea” Aguilar. Bea is engaged to marry a soldier, and is also the sister of Daniel’s childhood friend and amateur inventor Tomás, who displays a level of brotherly protection as expected. It is with this relationship that Daniel’s life eerily appears to mirror that of some aspects of the story he is uncovering of Carax’s own life, as Daniel and Bea try their upmost to keep the romance secret.
The colourful supporting cast are equally endearing, amusing and in contrasts at times, truly frightening. They include Isaac, the cranky keeper of the Cemetery of Forgotten Books; the lust-inducing Nuria Monfort, estranged daughter of Isaac, who knew and loved Carax; Bernarda, the maid of the Barceló household who finds love with Fermín, and Don Federico, the local eccentric clockmaker who enjoys cross-dressing in his spare-time.
One of the main characters is Fermín, a former beggar who is pulled from the streets by Daniel and employed by his father in the bookstore, becomes Daniel’s best friend and advisor. Fermín happens to be a former Republican spy fallen on hard times, but with a lot of worldly experience, which he often tries to pass on to Daniel, especially in the ways of women.
“Wars have no memory, and nobody has the courage to understand them until there are no voices left to tell what happened”
Fermín, and to some extent Daniel, is hounded relentlessly throughout the novel by Inspector Fumero, a violent fascist policeman who seems to have some secrets of his own, and a troubled history with Fermín to say the least. As his backstory begins to emerge, it brings to mind all the worst tales you ever heard about the horrors of the war in Spain.
The book truly hooks you from the first pages until the breath-taking finale, where we finally learn the true story of the elusive Julián Carax. As each layer of the mystery is peeled away onion-like, you hope that any loose ends are tied up neatly, and those you have become attached to survive the tale.
It makes me want to visit Barcelona again, to explore the streets of Daniel’s journey and find out if there really is a Cemetery of Forgotten Books in which I can lose myself, and maybe find my own Carax. Thankfully I learned that there are two further books in what is a trilogy, so expect to read reviews of The Angel’s Game and The Prisoner of Heaven in the coming months.
Rating: 5/5 stars
About the author:
Carlos Ruiz Zafón is the author of six novels, including the international phenomenon The Shadow of the Wind, and The Angel's Game. His work has been published in more than forty different languages, and honoured with numerous international awards. He divides his time between Barcelona, Spain, and Los Angeles, California..