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Review-a-Day
Salon.com
Friday, June 18th, 2004


 

The Shadow of the Wind

by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

A review by Laura Miller

The cover of Carlos Ruiz Zafón's Shadow of the Wind sports an atmospheric photograph of a foggy European street at night, and the spine is made to suggest a leather-bound, gold-stamped volume from some venerable library. So you might reasonably guess that this novel is either 1) an evocation of Casablanca-style intrigue à la Alan Furst or 2) a bookish thriller in the mode of Arturo Pérez-Reverte. (Ruiz Zafón is Spanish, like Pérez-Reverte, and The Shadow of the Wind was a bestseller in his homeland.) It's neither; Ruiz Zafón has revived the kind of full-blooded story of romance and mystery perfected by Victor Hugo.

The Shadow of the Wind has an innocence that doesn't prevent it from being thoroughly enthralling; at heart, the novel is a story of star-crossed lovers, bold young heroes, their lovably eccentric sidekicks and a cruel, dastardly villain. There are no fiendishly clever twists or secret codes, but Ruiz Zafón doesn't need them. He sweeps you along with the sheer riverine force of his sincerity and passion.

It's 1945 in Barcelona, and the brutality of Spain's recent civil war dominates everyone's mood. (It's fascinating to read a European novel in which World War II is a relatively distant conflagration.) The city hasn't lost its beauty and charm — at least a dozen scenes take place in its famous cafes — but everyone is a little wobbly on their feet. "Wars have no memory and nobody has the courage to understand them until there are no voices left to tell what happened," as one character puts it. A young boy, Daniel Sempere, is taken by his widower father, a book dealer, to a secret library called the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, and allowed to select one title to adopt and preserve. Daniel picks The Shadow of the Wind, by Julian Carax, and falls in love with the novel. He decides to find out more about its obscure author, and thereby hangs the tale.

Despite this bibliographic premise, The Shadow of the Wind isn't really about books. Yes, Daniel does fend off a sinister disfigured man who covets his copy of the Carax novel, and later learns that someone using the name of a character in the book — an alias, in fact, of the devil — has been systematically burning Carax's books. But we learn next to nothing about novel's plot or about any of Carax's other works. The secrets that Daniel seeks as he grows to adolescence all concern Carax himself, a dashing, handsome and intelligent young man whose history includes murky parentage, a generous patron, a doomed love affair, a flight to Paris, an artist's garret and an ignominious death in a Barcelona alleyway. A sociopathic police inspector hovers over the proceedings, threatening the usual dire consequences for lads who stick their noses where they don't belong.

The past tugs obscurely at the fabric of Daniel's life; the further he immerses himself in Carax's story, the more his own experiences seem to follow a similar pattern. Ruiz Zafón's novel is elegantly constructed, but not self-consciously so, and there isn't a speck of real cynicism in it, a refreshing change from the average thriller's knee-jerk attempts at worldliness. The Shadow of the Wind believes in the power of youth to rebuild hope on the bitter, ash-strewn ground of history, and so powerful is the sway of this author's storytelling, that, for 550 pages at least, he makes you believe it, too.


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