The Shadow of the Wind

Carlos Ruiz Zafon's The Shadow of the Wind (or La Sombra del Viento in Spanish) has become required reading for Barcelona's bibliophiles, ever since the novel about a novel stormed the bestseller charts in 2001, first in Spain and then later - following Lucia Graves superb translation - in the US, UK and beyond.

The novel starts like it means to go on, with a slice of fantasy as enticing as it is improbable. Daniel Sempere, the book's narrator and protagonist, recounts how, as a young boy, his father woke him early one summer morning in 1945 and led him through the streets of Barcelona as 'dawn poured over Rambla Santa Monica in a wreath of liquid copper' to a top secret location in Raval. Not an after-hours fetish joint, sadly, but the whimsically named 'Cemetery of Forgotten Books'. The role of this immense and dusty archive, maintained in secret for centuries by the city's most studious souls, Daniel's father informs us is to prevent any book from being lost in the sands of history. "When a library disappears or a bookshop closes down, when a book is consigned to oblivion, those of us who know this place, its guardians, make sure it gets here. In this place books no longer remembered by anyone, books that are lost in time live forever, waiting for the day when they will reach a new reader's hands."

At this point the reader has a choice. They can either sarcastically demand to see the sustainable financial model behind this extravagant book-vault and contemptuously throw Carlos Ruiz Zafon's work in the rubbish bin; or they can allow themselves to be swept along, like a cigarette end caught in the firing line of a BCNeta hose, headlong into one of the grandest adventures ever recounted about the capital of Catalonia. Naturally we chose the latter, which is why we can tell you what happens next: the young Daniel, browsing the moldy tomes of these sanctuary-giving shelves, is helplessly drawn to a mysterious-looking volume with wine-coloured leather binding and golden lettering. Removing it from its place he reads the title:

The Shadow of the Wind by Julian Carax

When Daniel sits down to read the book he is so entranced with its contents that he sets out to read all of the works by Carax, only to discover his father - a bookshop owner by trade - knows nothing of either author or novel. How queer! When next he takes the volume to the flamboyant art dealer Don Gustavo, who lives on Plaza Real, not only does the poor lad fall in love with the Don's blind and beautiful daughter Clara, but he is offered a princely sum to part with what is obviously a rare copy indeed of La Sombra del Viento.

Naturally young Daniel is a born romantic and is not at all tempted to make a quick buck on his book, but things soon take a more sinister turn, over and beyond Don Gustavo's purely pecuniary proposition. On the day of his 16th birthday, after his attempts to woo Clara are dealt a cruel blow, Daniel goes for a tour by the old harbour. He is just by the Columbus Statue when a shadowy figure, smelling of burnt leather - has he been followed? - mixes offers to buy the book (he claims to be a Carax specialist) with threats of what might happen if he doesn't sell...

The appearance of this new character naturally ups the ante somewhat, as the case of the missing author - and his fast-disappearing back catalogue - suddenly becomes a life-threatening issue for our hero. And so the scene is set for an epic detective story, which will take in the length and breadth of Barcelona's cityscape as Daniel (aided by his garrulous companion and ageing Casanova, Fermín Romero de Torres) sets out to answer the questions posed by his discovery of what must be the last copy of The Shadow of the Wind. Whatever happened to Carax? Who is this skinless fiend and book-burner who seems determined to wipe all memory of Carax's existence from the Earth? And what about the dastardedly Inspector Fumero, a back-stabbing and power-hungry police chief who soon takes an interest in the affair and seems even more determined to get to Carax than Daniel is? Naturally you'll have to lay your hands on a copy to find out...

As novels go, The Shadow of the Wind is one of those books that is as easy to fault as it is hard to put down. Always cheesy, at times it descends into cliche, with a seemingly endless supply of mysterious figures lurking in the shadows, tragic lovers with stories to tell and certainly no shortage of overly-talkative housekeepers, gardeners and old biddies who happily regale Daniel with all the clues he needs to move the plot along, at the first hint of smile or one of Fermin's famous toffees (which he regularly uses to bribe the easily pleased). On the other hand there's some truly masterful use of language, descriptions and scene-setting - who'd have thought any author could write so diversely about the usually relentlessly sunny Barcelona weather! - and enough action, suspense and femmes fatales for a sixth season of Footballers' Wives. And in the washed-up spy and roguishly charming Fermin Romero de Torres, Zafon has created a character who can fill any pause with a witticism and imbue any scene with a touch of magic. Indeed many of the book's highlights come from this cumudgeonly old codger's digressions on the fairer sex or musings on life itself, and the book contains more than a few observations that make you stop and think. One that stuck out came from the mouth of the character Miquel Molinar, an impoverished journalist who complains: "Making money isn't hard in itself. What's hard is to earn it doing something worth devoting one's life to." (Stick that to your accountant buddies next time they pull up in a flash new automobile).

Overall it's well worth forgiving the book's excesses, and rather revel in them instead. The beautiful evocations of Barcelona, the larger-than-life characters and those sultry senoritas that lie at the back of all this mystery and intrigue, inspiring the male protagonists to both folly and heroics: all essential ingredients in this deliciously entertaining read.

The Shadow of the Wind Tours

If you fancy inhabiting the roles of Daniel Sempere and co. for an afternoon of adventure, then look up our friends at Icono Serveis who offer The Shadow of the Wind tours where you visit the 'sets' of the book. Just one of many of the cool things to do in Barcelona which we recommend!

add your comments

Absolutely disgusting that a book that could have been a masterpiece is flawed by the use of a narrator who takes us to places and minds it couldn't possibly be. Imaginative credibility is destroyed by such distractions that remind us we are reading and not in the fictive dream.

reviewed by Frank Green from United States on May.15.2011

This is the most correct review I've read (and the funniest). I totally agree!

reviewed by Lizzard from Romania on Jan.20.2011