A fantastical twist on 1930s Barcelona
La sombra del viento by Carlos Ruiz Zafón was published in 2001 and quickly rose to be one of the best-selling novels in Spain. The novel opens with a young Daniel Sempere in 1930s Barcelona, under the dictatorship of Franco. Daniel’s father takes him to a place called the Cemetery of Lost Books – a giant building, guarded by a gruff old man and filled with old out-of-print books. Daniel is told to go choose one, as a sort of initiation into the group of people responsible for taking care of the Cemetery. The novel he chooses is The Shadow of the Wind by Julián Carax.
Zafón’s book really has two plot lines. The first follows Daniel’s life in post-war Barcelona: he works in his father’s bookshop, falls in love, and makes friends with a man called Fermín. The secondary plot is the life of Carax. Over the course of a decade or so, Daniel starts to investigate Carax in an attempt to read this author’s other works. He realises that his copy of The Shadow of the Wind is the last remaining copy in existence, the rest having been destroyed by a man called Laín Coubert . Things start getting strange when he realises that this is also the name of a character in Carax’s novel, and not just any character: it is the name of the Devil.
It’s very difficult to pin down exactly what genre this novel should be placed in. In part a coming of age story, it contains elements of mystery, romance, fantasy novel, and historical fiction. In some ways, this is what makes The Shadow of the Wind so compelling; it seamlessly blends elements from across the spectrum and yet still feels very cohesive and realistic.
Personally, I really enjoyed this book. I read it in Spanish and then again in English, and I’m really impressed with the translator’s work. Aside from a few typographical and odd spelling errors, the English translation keeps true to Zafón’s work and it reads very fluidly, it doesn’t feel stilted or forced. The language and imagery is stunning in parts, the characters are well-written and believable, and the central mystery of the novel is enough to keep the reader gripped until the very last page. The blend of fantasy and reality which is so prevalent in modern Spanish writing works very well in this novel, and it serves a good introduction piece to the genre of magical realism for readers who are not familiar with it.
So whether you read it in Spanish or in English, I would definitely recommend picking up this novel; and if your literary thirst is left unquenched, try The Angel’s Game, Zafón’s recently published prequel to The Shadow of the Wind.