Whether it's a book or a play or a restaurant, it's always nice to get a personal recommendation. So when a friend urged me to try The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón, describing it as a great summer read, I decided to check it out, despite the misgivings I often have about reading translations.
The book is set in Barcelona in 1945, shortly after the end of the Spanish Civil War. In the first chapter ten-year-old Daniel Sempere is taken by his father, a widowed bookshop owner, to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, a labyrinthine place where, as the proprietor explains, “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”. Isn't that a great concept? Daniel is permitted to select one book, which he chooses mainly because he likes the binding. His choice is “The Shadow of the Wind” by Julián Carax, an obscure Spanish writer who was mysteriously killed in 1936. Julian becomes obsessed with finding out more about Carax, especially when he discovers that for years a mysterious figure, who calls himself by the name of a character in “The Shadow of the Wind” and whose face is horribly disfigured by burns, has been methodically burning all copies of Carax's books.
What follows is a sprawling, rambling story that stretches backward, as Daniel learns about Julián's childhood in pre-war Barcelona and his creative years in Paris, and forward into the 50's as Daniel grows to adulthood and belatedly realizes that his own life is inextricably linked to the mystery of Julián Carax. The plot twists and turns as Carax's childhood friends all play important roles in his fate. Like all good escapist literature, the story is laden with romance, betrayal, terror, heartbreak, humor. There's a deliciously evil villain, several beautiful women, and a loyal but comical sidekick who accompanies Daniel in his search through the narrow, winding streets of Barcelona. The writing is ...I guess I'd call it florid. Is that the translator's doing, or does Zafón just get a little carried away with his metaphors? Never mind – it's still a fun escape, and a tribute to the joy of books and reading.