“The Brilliant Artistry of Carlos Ruiz Zafon's "The Shadow of the Wing"
It would be easy to say that The Shadow of the Wind, at its core, is a compelling historical drama that explores the mystery of why someone is making it his business to seek out and destroy the final remaining copies of books by a writer who never achieved much success with them in the first place. But that would be too much of an understatement and far too inaccurate. The story begins when an antiquarian bookseller introduces his ten-year-old son, Daniel Sempere, to “The Cemetery of Forgotten Books,” a gargantuan warehouse of seemingly endless shelves of books no longer read and in danger of eternal obscurity. Daniel is allowed to wander through the corridors and choose a book that he must “adopt,” and promise “that it will never disappear, that it will always stay alive.” He chooses The Shadow of the Wind, written by Julián Carax, and with that one choice his life changes forever.
In addition to falling in love with the novel, Daniel also falls in love with the mystery behind the life of the man who wrote it. Far from being the celebrated author that he presumes Carax is, Daniel learns that despite the brilliance of his work and the fact that he published as least three novels, Carax is about as uncelebrated and obscure as a writer can get. Even Daniel’s father, who owns the bookshop where Daniel works with him, knows nothing about the author, despite the fact that he apparently was born in their very own hometown. Daniel’s fascination with Carax seems peculiar because he is only ten when he reads The Shadow of the Wind, described as “a ghostly odyssey in which the protagonist struggled to recover his lost youth, and in which the shadow of a cursed love slowly surfaced to haunt him until his last breath.” But whether the boy’s fascination is weird or not, it develops over the next decade into a full-blown obsession that impacts every aspect of his life, and evolves even beyond that into something more like divine destiny.
The Shadow of the Wind (Zafón’s novel, not Carax’s) is set in mid-1900s Barcelona, Spain, with flashbacks to earlier days and visits to Paris as well. With its sometimes brooding dark skies, rich cultural landscape, and classic architecture, the setting includes elements of the Gothic that serve Zafón’s story well. In fact, from the moment readers walk with Daniel into the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, we enter a labyrinth, which following pages reveal as a major motif and literary technique applied throughout this absorbing masterwork. Daniel’s description of Carax’s novel turns out to be an accurate one of Zafón’s as well: “Step by step the narrative split into a thousand stories, as if it had entered a gallery of mirrors, its identity fragmented into endless reflections.”
With each year that passes as Daniel grows from boyhood into adolescence and young adulthood, he collects an assortment of clues about Carax and meets a number of characters worthy of supporting roles in a novel by Charles Dickens or Ralph Ellison. A beautiful blind woman who breaks his heart, a homeless man who becomes his best friend, a corrupt policeman who becomes his worst enemy, and a reclusive author who takes on the identity of one of his own most terrifying characters: these are just a few of the people who come to play definitive roles in his quest to solve the enigma known as Julián Carax. Each has a story that guides the reader into one branch of the novel’s labyrinth even as it leads you into the next. We also begin to see the “endless reflections” hinted at in the above quote as Daniel discovers scenes and developments within his life beginning to mirror those in Carax’s.
Just as characters in a New Millennium novel might do, those in The Shadows of the Wind sometimes debate the prophesized demise of literature due to the development of technology. In contemporary times, educators and parents debate the popular tendency to access information via the Internet rather than acquire knowledge via the study of books; in the era of Daniel Sempere and Julián Carax, those who took their daily instructions for living from the printed word questioned the impact of such innovations as the radio, movies, and television. When Daniel asks his friend Fermỉn whether he likes the cinema, he describes it as, “…a way of feeding the mindless and making them even more stupid. …The cinema began as an invention for entertaining the illiterate masses. Fifty years on, it’s much the same.” Then he experiences a silver-screen epiphany in the form of Hollywood bombshell Carole Lombard and gains a deeper, albeit mostly erotic, appreciation for what he calls “the seventh art.” It makes you wonder what Fermỉn might have to say in this day and age when so many classics of literature, in addition to the ultra-modern graphic novel, have been successfully adapted to film.
If this novel truly is a triumph of the storyteller’s art as many have described it, then it is also one of the literary translator’s art. The original Spanish edition, titled La Sombra del Viento, came out in 2001, and translator Lucia Grave’s English version was published in 2004. Since then, Zafón’s work in general has been translated into more than forty languages and The Shadow of the Wind in particular has sold 12 million copies plus around the globe. One has to give props to the translators because, experts or not, it had to prove considerably challenging to capture the finer nuances of the author’s style, the subtleties of his humor, and the quiet brilliance of his universality.
author of The Bridge of Silver Wings 2009
and ELEMENTAL, The Power of Illuminated Love