Book Review: The Shadow of the Wind

A few nights ago I stayed up until 5 in the morning trying to finish a book that held me enchanted. This book, part mystery, part a book of wisdom, and part a story of growing up, kept me unable to go to sleep without getting to the last page and reaching its satisfying conclusion. The book drew me into its pages in a number of ways, starting in a flash, and then building up steadily until the final burst at the end of the novel. This book, called The Shadow of the Wind, was recommended to me both because of its outstanding story and because it is set in Barcelona. There is no better time to read a book set in Barcelona than when one is actually living here. I read the novel with Google Maps open so that I could see exactly which streets the characters were traversing, but it would be just as thrilling with no knowledge of Barcelona. Though it was originally written in Spanish by Carlos Ruiz Zafon, I read it in English so that I could understand every word.

I was enthralled with the book in its first chapter. It included many things that I love in a novel, a strong beginning, mysterious places, and a love of books. It is only a few pages into the novel when I knew that I would thoroughly enjoy it. Daniel’s father takes him to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, and describes it thus:

“Welcome to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, Daniel” … “This is a place of mystery, Daniel, a sanctuary. Every book, every volume you see here, has a soul. The soul of a 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. This place was already ancient when my father brought me here for the first time, many years ago. Perhaps as old as the city itself. Nobody knows for certain how long it has existed, or who created it. I will tell you what my father told me, though. 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 that 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. In the shop we buy and sell them, but in truth books have no owner. Every book you see here has been somebody’s best friend. Now they have only us, Daniel. Do you think you’ll be able to keep such a secret?”

I love to read stories about people who share my passion for books, as they can understand the wonder that a good story brings. How time can disappear, and how even holding a book in your hand can bring a sense of contentment. They are people who love words for their own sake, who know the knowledge, wisdom, understanding one can glean from a well-written story. This sentence describes accurately the feeling I have when looking for a new book to read:

“I leafed through the pages, inhaling the enchanted scent of promise that comes with all new books, and stopped to read the start of a sentence that caught my eye.”

The instigating factor in the plot of The Shadow of the Wind is a book of the same name, which has a story that draws the protagonist (Daniel) in as I was drawn into the real novel. The description of the fictional novel gives a sense of Ruiz Zafon’s mastery of language and understanding of the power of words:

“My voice, rather stiff at first, slowly became more relaxed, and soon I forgot myself and was submerged once more in the narrative, discovering cadences and turns of phrase that flowed like musical motifs, riddles made of timbre and pauses I had not noticed during my first reading. New details, strands of images, and fantasy appeared between the lines and new shapes revealed themselves, as in the structure of a building looked at from different angles.” P. 41

I was disappointed that no more time was spent describing the plot of fictional novel, written by a secondary protagonist, Julian Carax. It is the mystery of Julian and his novels that drives Daniel throughout the entire book. The pacing of The Shadow of the Wind was perfect. The intense moments were spaced out with more pleasant ones. Fermin Romero de Torres, the older, wiser side-kick of Daniel, provides much wisdom and comedic relief. And about three-fourths of the way through the book, there is a revelation given about the outcome of the novel. Normally, this sort of knowledge would ruin the ending of a book, but this one was so perfectly timed that it only added more suspense and caused me to choose to stay up even later instead of going to bed. The mystery that Daniel uncovers becomes deeper and clearer with each retelling. The truth of what happened and each character’s impact on events is fully understood by the end of the novel. There are no loose ends to drive the reader crazy and no motivations that are left unexplored.

One of my favorite aspects of the novel are the pearls of wisdom that are dropped throughout the book. Fermin tells Daniel some of them and others Daniel discovers for himself. These truths are often ones that require age and a certain amount of perspective to gain, and it pleases me immensely to see them written here. I hope many people will take this advice to heart. Here are a few samples:

“I tried to concentrate on picking up the thread of the story. The hero, a cynical but good-hearted detective, was telling a secondary character why women like Veronica Lake were the ruin of all sensible males and why all one could do was love them desperately and perish, betrayed by their double dealings. Fermin Romero de Torres, who was becoming an adept film scholar, called this genre ‘the praying mantis paradigm.’ According to him, its permutations were nothing but misogynist fantasies for constipated office clerks, for pious women shriveled with boredom who dreamed about turning to a life of vice and unbridled lechery.”

“’A good father?’

‘Yes. Like yours. A man with a head, a heart, and a soul. A man capable of listening, of leading and respecting a child, and not of drowning his own defects in him. Someone whom a child will not only love because he’s his father but will also admire for the person he is. Someone he would want to grow up to resemble.’”

“Nothing feeds forgetfulness better than war, Daniel. We all keep quiet and they try to convince us what we’ve seen, what we’ve done, what we’ve learned about ourselves and about others, is an illusion, a passing nightmare. Wars have no memory, and nobody has the courage to understand them until there are no voices left to tell what happened, until the moment comes when we no longer recognize them and they return, with another face and another name, to devour what they have left behind.”

“But the years went by in peace. Time goes faster the more hollow it is. Lives with no meaning go straight past you, like trains that don’t stop at your station.”

“Look, Daniel. Women, with remarkable exceptions like your neighbor Merceditas, are more intelligent than we are, or at least more honest with themselves about what they want or don’t want. Another question is whether they tell you or the world. You’re facing the enigma of nature, Daniel. Womankind is an indecipherable maze. If you give her time to think, you’re lost. Remember: warm heart, cold mind. The seducer’s code.”

And because I loved them, a few more:

“Without further ado I left the place, finding my route by the marks I had made on the way in. As I walked in the dark through the tunnels and tunnels of books, I could not help being overcome by a sense of sadness. I couldn’t help thinking that if I, by pure chance, had found a whole new universe in a single unknown book, buried in that endless necropolis, tens of thousands more would remain unexplored, forgotten forever. I felt myself surrounded by millions of abandoned pages, by worlds and souls without an owner sinking in an ocean of darkness, while the world that throbbed outside the library seemed to be losing its memory, day after day, unknowingly, feeling all the wiser the more it forgot.”

“’Time is a great healer. I never felt that Julian hated him. Perhaps that would have been better. I got the impression that he lost all respect for the hatter as a result of all those scenes. Julian spoke about all that as if it didn’t matter to him, as if it were a part of a past he had left behind, but these things are never forgotten. The words with which a child’s heart is poisoned, through malice or through ignorance, remain branded in his memory, and sooner or later they burn his soul.”’

“Of all the things that Julian wrote, the one I have always felt closest to my heart is that so long as we are being remembered, we remain alive. As so happened to me with Julian, years before meeting him, I feel that I know you and that if I can trust in someone, that someone is you. Remember me, Daniel, even if it’s only in a corner and secretly. Don’t let me go.”

“Bea says that the art of reading is slowly dying, that it’s an intimate ritual, that a book is a mirror that offers us only what we already carry inside us, that when we read, we do it with all our heart and mind, and great readers are becoming more scare by the day.”

“Fermin seemed to read my mind, and smiled supportively. ‘Don’t let that upset you, then. With women the best part is the discovery, There’s nothing like the first time, nothing. You don’t know what life is until you undress a woman for the first time. A button at a time, like peeling a hot sweet potato on a winter’s night.’”

The themes and messages in The Shadow of the Wind are as strong as the pinches of wisdom scattered throughout the book. Most of these are not overt, but naturally arise as part of the story. It speaks about fate and destiny and the intertwining of people’s lives, of redemption, of action versus running away, of families and the growth of children, of love, both thwarted and complete, of learning to open one’s heart, and of isolation and connection.

All-in-all, one of my favorite books of all time. A must read!

Categories: Barcelona, Books, Interests | Leave a comment

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