Tuesday, 3 July 2012

The Shadow of the Wind

The Shadow of the Wind - Carlos Ruiz Zafón
(Translated by Lucia Graves)

 Daniel, our hero, is nine. He is taken by his father, an antiquarian bookseller, to a very secret place. He cannot even tell his best friend. "I followed my father through that narrow lane, more of a scar than a street, until the glimmer of the Ramblas faded behind us. The brightness of dawn filtered down from balconies and cornices in streaks of slanting light that dissolved before touching the ground. At last my father stopped in front of a large door of carved wood, blackened by time and humidity. Before us loomed what to my eyes seemed the carcass of a palace, a place of echoes and shadows."

It is as if he is entering a body rather than a place.  The place is the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, a labyrinth of books, with 'avenues of exposed spines' and a doorkeeper "somewhere between Charon and the librarian of Alexandria". It is a place where "books no longer remembered by anyone, books that are lost in time, live forever." As this is Daniel's first visit he must adopt one book and do everything to ensure that it is remembered. As he wanders around, "breathing in the small of old paper and dust" he begins to be aware of the treasure within books - "After a while it occurred to me that between the covers of each of these books lay a boundless universe waiting to be discovered, while beyond those walls, in the outside world, people allowed life to pass by in afternoons of football and radio soaps, content to do little more than gaze at their navels."

The book he chooses (or which chooses him) is Shadow of the Wind, by Julián Carax and soon afterwards the book is weaving an enchantment over Daniel, one which will change his life. Soon characters will seem to emerge from the book into the world, particularly a strange, faceless man called Laín Coubert: "In Carax's novel, that figure was the devil." Carax is almost unknown, and there is someone trying to ensure that he becomes completely unknown by burning all remaining copies of his books. All signs point towards Laín Coubert.

Cyril Cusack prepares to burn Don Quixote in
the film adaptation of Fahrenheit 451
Later, when he encounters Coubert, he is described thus: "The stranger remained silent and motionless, enveloped in the blue smoke of a cigarette that never seemed to go out. I realized he didn't smell of tobacco, but of burned paper. Good paper, the sort used for books." Like a figure out of the fascist nightmare, played by Cyril Cusack? We discover that he is tracking down and burning every Carax book in existence.

The book is tightly plotted, gradually revealing more and more as Daniel tries to find out Carax's story. As he described the novel within a novel so might you describe this book itself - "the structure of the story began to remind me of one of those Russian dolls that contain innumerable diminishing replicas of itself inside. 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."

Initially he is led to the older, blind and beautiful daughter of another (more successful) bookseller. She has also discovered Carax and Daniel reads to her, and while doing so falls deeper and deeper in love with her, a loved which is not fated to end happily. daniel knows this but "I adored her all the more, because of the eternal human stupidity of pursuing those who hurt us the most." When he starts to feel that she is falling for her music teacher he describes him as only the jealous can: "He was a smooth talker, a rich kid from the snobby San Gervasio district, who, despite the Mozartian airs he affected, reminded me more of a tango singer, slick with brilliantine. The only talent I recognized in him was a badly disguised mean streak."

The developments in Daniels life, which become more extreme as the story progress, are paralleled  by events in the story of Carax that he unearths. He picks up an assistant in his detecting when he convinces his father to take on Fermín Romero de Torres, a man who has been reduced to vagrant penury by the attentions of  Francisco Javier Fumero, a notorious Inspector in the police force who rose to prominence through his ruthless services provided to many sides during the civil war. ("Something about him reminded me of one of those figures from old-fashioned playing cards or the sort used by fortune tellers, a print straight from the pages of an incunabulum: his presence was both funereal and incandescent, like a curse dressed in its Sunday best.")

There are psychodramas going on beneath the search for the truth about Carax. Daniel's mother died years before the story began and it is "'For years now I haven't been able to remember my mother. I can't remember what her face was like, or her voice or her smell. I lost them all the day I discovered Julián Carax, and they haven't come back.'" This loss will be mirrored later on in descriptions of one of Carax's schoolfriends, Miquel.  His mother committed suicide and his father burnt her suicide note without even reading it.: "Miquel Moliner saw death everywhere - in fallen leaves, in birds that had dropped out of their nests, in old people, and in the rain, which swept everything away."

There are also historical undercurrents, with the civil war playing a large part in the story and the brutality of the fascist police. Carax returned to Barcelona at the beginning of the Civil War and was killed. Fermin was tortured and the many bodies of those who disappeared at the time are mentioned.

Ruiz Zafon has great talent, he coins aphorism after aphorism and can turn a phrase on a tuppence:
 - "Paris is the only city in the world where starving to death is still considered an art."
 - "Money is like any other virus: once it has rotted the soul of the person who houses it, it sets off in search of new blood."
 - "he felt sure that, during the twentieth century, moving pictures would supplant organized religion."
 - "People talk too much. Humans aren't descended from monkeys. They come from parrots."
 - "Television, my dear Daniel, is the Antichrist, and I can assure you that after only three or four generations people will no longer even know how to fart on their own."
 - "a prosperous manufacturer of textile machinery who had built up his fortune from nothing, by dint of great effort and sacrifices, although mostly other people's."

He describes the landscape of Barcelona and the characters vividly and economically, and in this, as in the quotes above and the book as a whole, he is served by a wonderful translation, (which doesn't read like one), by Lucia Graves, daughter of Robert Graves. The atmosphere is very like that of a Guillermo Del Toro film, particularly The Devil's Backbone and Pan's Labyrinth. I enjoyed reading it immensely. And yet...

Early in the book we get this information about another Carax novel.  "The blurb, written in the pompous, mouldy style of the age, proclaimed that this was the first work of dazzling courage, the mark of a protean and trailblazing talent, and a milestone for the entire future of European letters. In spite of such solemn claims, the synopsis that followed suggested that the story contained some vaguely sinister elements slowly marinated in saucy melodrama.."

It almost seems like Zafon is criticizing himself here. Is the book really about anything other than itself? Does it need to be? What is it that inspires him to write? There is a nagging sense that something is missing that would lift this into the realm of a classic. Zafon has Carax say that 'Books are mirrors: you only see in them what you already have inside you.' Maybe this is the reason that I see a mile wide seam of cynicism running through this book. Not always a bad thing, and as a sometime cynic myself I can't really talk. I always feel cynicism arises from a soured idealism. It can often be a defense from the pain of this lost sense of purpose. And it's capital must be Los Angeles, home of the writer trying to exercise their cynicism in the pursuit of fame and money. As Fermin says - "Between you and me, this business of the seventh art leaves me cold. As far as I can see, it's only a way of feeding the mindless and making them even more stupid. Worse than football or bullfights."

Zafon, I believe, lives in L.A. and has written screenplays. He has a page on his website called "Why I write" which seems to teeter between saying it is just a profession and that it is something he had to do or "otherwise I would have died, or worse".  He writes then to entertain us readers who have invested our money and time in his creations. But at the same time can he help but write his own psychodrama. No more than readers can only discover in a book what's already in them, writers cannot but write their own psychodramas.

"'His (Carax's) soul is in his stories. I once asked him who inspired him to create his characters, and his answer was no one. That all of his characters were himself.'
'So if somebody wanted to destroy him, he'd have to destroy those stories and those characters, isn't that right?'
The dispirited smile returned, a tired gesture of defeat. 'You remind me of Julián,' she said. 'Before he lost his faith.'
'His faith in what?'
'In everything.'"

Is this Gothic melodrama all that is left after faith in humanity disappears? Is there anything left to believe in? Plenty of the characters don't seem to believe there is. "Like all old cities, Barcelona is a sum of its ruins. The great glories so many people are proud of - palaces, factories, and monuments, the emblems with which we identify - are nothing more than relics of an extinguished civilization." This makes this a post apocalyptic book, after all meaning has been destroyed.

Evolution is called into question - "'Darwin was a dreamer, I can assure you. No evolution or anything of that sort. For every one who can reason, I have to battle with nine orangutans.'" It is not the knowledge in books that excites the characters here, or the struggles of people in the real world but the opportunity to escape.

The only thing left is to escape from this malign world: "fugitives riding on the spine of a book, eager to escape into worlds of fiction and secondhand dreams." It reminds me of Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose,  except that the lost books here signify nothing other than escapism.

We follow Daniel every escapist step, down the hallway to the door, where the caretaker, deliberately tempted by the knowledge of what might lie behind, calls our narrator 'the devil'. They use her key: "The door gave way like a tombstone, with a sudden groan, exhaling dank, foul smelling air. I pushed the front door inwards, discovering a corridor that sank into darkness. The place was stuffy and reeked of damp. " In the dim half light all types of explanations whirl around your head, you are there with them, carried away.

And in another house, one which will prove central to penetrating the wall of secrecy around the story of Carax there have been ghostly sounds - "'It must have been the wind', I suggested. 'It must have, but I was scared shitless.'"

If you like escapism this is a masterful example. One day I hope Ruiz Zafon will move beyond escapism and write something more personal and raw. And the film should be great...

I would love to hear other opinions on this. Hopefully some more will read it during Spanish Lit Month, hosted by Richard @ Caravana De Recuerdos and Stu @ Winstonsdad's Blog


  1. Hi
    I agree I also felt there was something missing. I remember at the time it was a real word of mouth hit and a perm fixture in Waterstone's 3 for 2 promotions. I caved in eventually and bought it. It started really well with a sense of mood and time and place perfectly captured. I was hooked but the balance between the suggested , themes and questions with the literal , the linear and answers wasnt quite right for me. Overall it felt to me like a great bit of story telling without a killer story. He has just published a sequel but it says it all that I've no desire to read it even though I did enjoy Shadow of the Wind

    1. The funny thing is, I enjoyed reading it (and would probably enjoy reading the sequel) but it doesn't seem to have left anything much behind.

  2. Despite your reservations, it still sounds like it's worth a read - a comment I can see myself making several times a day for the next month...

    1. I think the end of the month will be the time to decide what to add to those tottering TBR lists. My reservations didn't stop me enjoying this.

  3. You captured this really well as far as I can remember the book, Séamus. I agree that the novel is great escapist/summer reading fare, and yet the more I think about it the more I think I might find it lacking today. Have heard some horrible things about the quality of the follow-up The Angel's Game and the idea of a "Why I Write" segment on a writer's website sounds ludicrous to me even without the content you reveal here. However, I do love that line of Ruiz Zafón's about "pursuing that which hurts us the most." That's pretty brilliant, I think, on account of how often it's true.

    1. I think the Why I write? section is quite interesting seeing how the desire to destroy writing plays such a big part in this book. Indeed, it could be considered to be about a bad case of writer's block.

  4. I loved this too ,strange such a clever book took of not usual book to be a summer run away ,suppose similar thing to elegance of hedgehogs that became popular a year or two after this ,I agree with richard angel games not quite as good ,I hope to read the third in series but not sure I will in time for spanish lit month ,all the best stu

    1. I can see why it is a runaway - the atmosphere is compelling, it's full of good lines and it doesn't fundamentally challenge anyones worldview. Shame the second isn't as good as I like this kind of thing every now and again.
      Have to say I liked it a lot more than ...Hedgehogs which I found really half digested. (It's reviewed somewhere on this blog)

  5. Séamus, I also find it quite engrossing and entertaining. A real crowd-pleaser.

  6. Hi, Great book. I found this song that is based on The Shadow of the Wind, let me know what you think - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WHdQy19nVos&feature=plcp