I read Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s best-selling novel The Shadow of the Wind last week between vacation and the long trip to Bristol (during which I also watched the first half of season 4 of The Wire) after a reader recommended it and I discovered my wife wanted to read it as well. It’s quick-moving with some interesting subtexts, but with a lot of silly, predictable plot elements and some least-common-denominator writing that drags the book down to a pulpier level.
The novel starts promisingly enough as the narrator/protagonist, Daniel, is introduced by his bookseller father to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, a slightly mystical edifice in Barcelona where the keepers attempt to obtain a copy of every book ever written so that they may never be permanently forgotten. Daniel’s father tells him to find one book and become its champion, of sorts, and Daniel is drawn to a book called Shadow of the Wind, by an unknown author named Julián Carax. Daniel’s attempts to learn more about the book and Carax then drive the remainder of the novel’s plot, which has almost nothing to do with books or literature but instead revolves more around the history of Spain from its civil war forward, and around the city of Barcelona itself, which is the book’s real center and its main character.
It turns out that some madman is running around burning every copy of Carax’s books that he can find, and when that madman finds Daniel as a result of the boy’s inquiries about the book and its author, it plunges Daniel into the story he’s chasing, one that dates back to Carax’s boyhood and features a doomed romance and childhood grudges that have become deadly in time, while paralleling developments in Daniel’s own life, including a forbidden romance of his own that almost (but, fortunately, not completely) mirrors Julián’s.
Ruiz Zafón’s best passages have little to do with the plot, or with dialogue (it may be the translation, which was done by Lucia Graves, the daughter of I, Claudius author Robert Graves, but Zafón’s language comes off as stilted), but with Barcelona itself. His prose is most evocative when he’s describing street scenes from what is a very scenic, memorable city, a city that mixes architectural styles and landscapes and features the kind of old buildings required for the novel’s gothic-horror-lite elements.
Unfortunately, I could never fully buy into the story’s plot, not the madman’s actions, not the acts of the violent policeman who also stalks Daniel, not the romance between Julián and his intended, nor her father’s actions when their affair is discovered. The madman’s identity was easy to figure out, and while I didn’t see the twist with Julián and Penelope coming, it’s not remotely original and I thought it was played more for shock value than anything else, a trick Ruiz Zafón also uses when Daniel pronounces, American Beauty-style, that in seven days, he will be dead. (Spoiler, which I think anyone could guess, but you should avert your eyes if you really don’t want to know: He ends up dead for a few seconds before he’s revived. Cheap.) I kept looking for a deeper meaning in the book relating to the dark period of fascism in Spain that lasted four decades, but either I’m not familiar enough with Spanish history to find it, or it just wasn’t there.
If you want a real page-turner with gothic horror elements, go for the longer but far more enjoyable Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. If you like the idea of a novel revolving around books, I’d recommend the tremendously fun The Eyre Affair (which I recommend all the time) or the clever if not entirely plot-driven City of Dreaming Books.
I should also mention Dorothy Sayers’ mystery Whose Body?, which introduced the amateur detective Lord Peter Wimsey with a clever device involving the discovery of an unknown victim’s naked body in the tub of a working-class house in London. I like a good mystery, having read twenty-odd Agatha Christie novels, but Sayers’ writing and the resolution of the story both left me cold, particularly since the killer’s identity is revealed with about ten percent of the novel remaining, after which we get a long, drawn-out monologue (in epistolary form) from him explaining why he did what he did. Sayers also has Lord Wimsey speaking a very common vernacular that doesn’t gel with what we learn of his upbringing and seems like affect, and not the charming affect of, say, M. Poirot. The series has a devoted following but I don’t feel any need to go on to the next title.
Next up: Graham Greene’s Travels with My Aunt.