Mystery and thrills in Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s Barcelona

Continuing with the Spanish theme of the last three posts on my blog, The Shadow of the Wind is a novel set in mid-twentieth century Barcelona. In the middle of the old city of Barcelona is a ‘Cemetery of Forgotten Books’, a library with winding passages and corridors so hard to find again that you must leave a trail as though journeying into the heart of the Minotaur’s den.

The Shadow of the Wind book

When Daniel is ten years old, his father takes him to choose one book from this mysterious labyrinth of a library. He picks an obscure title, La Sombra del Viento (The Shadow of the Wind) by Julián Carax. As Daniel grows up, he tries to find more titles by Carax, but he cannot find a single one. There are reports of a strange man who calls himself Lain Coubert — the name of the devil in Carax’s novel — who is going around the city asking for Carax’s books to burn.

Julián Carax cannot be traced, even through his publisher, and Daniel soon becomes entangled in a hunt to find out the truth behind this elusive author. What happened to him? Who is the mysterious stranger who is trying to destroy every last copy of Carax’s work?

Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s novel is a literary thriller. It’s not a genre that I usually read, but the drama, pace and enigma in this book made it great fun to read. Ruiz Zafón’s descriptions of Barcelona are wonderfully atmospheric, with the old streets in the heart of the historic city glistening with rain and the lamps glowing bright. The historical setting of Spain during Franco’s dictatorship and the references to the 1936-39 Spanish Civil War add to the darkness of this story.

Barcelona Ramblas

View across Las Ramblas in Barcelona. Photo by Bert Kaufmann used under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license

However, this darkness is tempered with humour, namely the lovable rogue Fermín Romero de Torres, whom Daniel finds begging on the streets and who ends up working for Daniel and his father in their bookshop. The Shadow of the Wind is a book filled with memorable characters and a thrilling plot. I was lazy and read it in English, but I’m sure it’s even better in the original, untranslated version. I would like to develop my Spanish level well enough so I can easily read a whole novel without stopping to look words up, but that takes a very high degree of fluency.

I picked out several quotes that I especially liked in the book:

I still remember the day my father took me to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books for the first time. It was the early summer of 1945, and we walked through the streets of a Barcelona trapped beneath ashen skies as dawn poured over Rambla de Santa Monica in a wreath of liquid copper.”

Once, in my father’s bookshop, I heard a regular customer say that few things leave a deeper mark on a reader than the first book that finds its way into his heart. Those first images, the echo of words we think we have left behind, accompany us throughout our lives and sculpt a palace in our memory to which, sooner or later—no matter how many books we read, how many worlds we discover, or how much we learn or forget—we will return.”

The lamps along the Ramblas marked out an avenue in the early morning haze as the city awoke, like a watercolour slowly coming to life.

There’s no such thing as dead languages, only dormant minds.”

Have you read The Shadow of the Wind? I’m interested in exploring more Spanish literature — are there any titles (Spanish or Latin American) that you would recommend?

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