Review: Carlos Ruiz Zafón, The Shadow of the Wind, trans. Lucia Graves (London: Phoenix, 2012) (2002)
The Shadow of the Wind is a bestellar on all counts which gives me hope for the future of books. Not because the book itself is a commercial and critical success, many books are, but rather the fact that a novel which is a love letter to books and reading should be so popular.
It was recommended to me by my brother who has read it several times, along with its sequels. I read most of it during a few days in Barcelona and was able to walk past some of the buildings and squares it features. There’s something magical about discovering a place not with a guidebook but a story; few guidebooks would tell you that:
Like all old cities, Barcelona is the sum of its ruins. p. 207
This is a book about books and readers, who are some of the most vivid characters. It is about books that have been forgotten except by the bibliophiles who keep their memory alive. Surely one of the most arresting beginnings of a story is a boy’s recollection of being initiated into a world of books most people don’t care about, and being allowed to choose one for himself:
I still remember the day my father took me to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books for the first time. p. 1
The library is one of those magical, dusty places many of us would love to visit, wander around, have ready access to, either by the nod of a friendly librarian who knows you, or through the possession of a big iron key. I always wonder why builders of magnificent sleek new libraries forget this element of mystery, of hidden corners, tucked away rooms, desks, easy chairs, places you can get lost in a book and lost in time for a while.
There, inventions such as the telephone, the wristwatch, and haste, seemed futuristic anachronisms. p. 14
A labyrinth of passageways and crammed bookshelves rose from base to pinnacle like a beehive, woven with tunnels, steps, platforms and bridges that presaged an immense library of seemingly impossible geometry. p. 3
The world of books surrounds the boy, literally and emotionally. His father runs a bookshop and it seems an extension of home, not a separate business unit. This atmosphere allows a love of books and reading to develop in him without any inculcation of their value:
I was raised among books, making invisible friends in pages that seemed … from dust and whose smell I carry on my hands to this day. p. 1
In my schoolboy reveries, we were always two fugitives riding on the spine of a book, eager to escape into worlds of fiction and secondhand dreams. p. 27
The story is also about remembering, people, books and things, and ensuring they aren’t forgotten. The Library exists to prevent forgotten books being entirely lost. I think about this when I buy a secondhand book and see it has been ‘culled’ from a library – some are even stamped with ‘culled’. You can sometimes see how many times it was borrowed and how long since the last person took it home with them. At some point, a custodian of books weighs up its popularity and measures it against the available bookshelves and decides it has to go.
But the tricky part is that you can’t measure the popularity of a book solely by how many people have read it (or at least borrowed it from a library), without considering how much it means to a few people. If 1000 people borrow a crummy romance containing ‘scenes of mild emotional involvement’ because it’s easy to read, but it leaves no imprint on their minds or souls, is it more popular than a book that changes the lives of 10 or 15 people?
That book taught me that by reading, I could live more intensely. p. 25
Every book, every volume you see here, has a soul. The soul of the person who wrote it and of those who read it and lived and dreamed with it. Every time a book changes hands, every time someone runs his eyes down its pages, its spirit grows and strengthens… pp. 3-4
The quiet plea for remembering extends beyond books to other things:
At the bottom of the cupboard, I kept an old tin biscuit box, a treasure chest of sorts. There I stored a menagerie of useless bits of rubbish that I couldn’t bring myself to throw away: watches and fountain pens damaged beyond repair, old coins, marbles, wartime bullet cases I’d found in Laberinto Park and fading postcards of Barcelona from the turn of the century. p. 151
And to people:
He used to say that we exist as long as somebody remembers us. p. 176
Which takes us into a plot more labyrinthine than the Library of Forgotten Books. I found myself racing towards the dénouement as it impelled me forward. It is based on secrets long hidden, forgotten, and people tragically effaced by the lies and falsities of others.
A secret’s worth depends on the people from whom it must be kept. p. 9
With writing being the means to rescue them from imposed oblivion and lay spirits to rest, as it were:
‘Write,’ he said.
‘I’ll write to you as soon as I get there,’ answered Julián.
‘No. Not to me. Write books. Not letters. Write them for me, for Penélope.’ p. 290
Yet in the end, the revelation struck me as perhaps a little overwrought and unnecessarily macabre, and the plot became more of a background setting for the real heroes of the novel, namely, books, the love of reading, and the wonderfully depicted strong characters who lead us to the dénouement: the boy, his bookseller father, the bookshop assistant Fermín (my favourite), and others.
I loved the sharp intellects voicing strongly held, vigorously expressed (and often politically incorrect) opinions. These are people whose:
… oratory could kill flies in midair. p. 13
They pass refreshingly peremptory judgement on flabby minds – I invite you to use one of the following lines next time you’re at a literary or other soirée:
There’s no such thing as a dead language, only dormant minds. p. 13
… but he was the sort who can’t even read the size of his underpants. p. 67
Or blithely dismiss an entire medium. I have nothing against television, a marvel of the twentieth century, but if I had to pick a favourite quotation from the whole book, it would be:
Television, my dear Daniel, is the Antichrist, and I can assure you that after only three or four generations, people will no longer even know how to fart on their own. Humans will return to living in caves, to medieval savagery, and to the general state of imbecility that slugs overcame back in the Pleistocene era. pp. 106-7
(My second choice would be the one preceding it about being unable to read the size of your underpants.)
And proof that the art of stereotyping isn’t lost:
Anarchists – those people who rode bicycles and wore darned socks. p. 18
The book is also about writing, including literature and letters:
For months he wrote a letter to his wife and daughter once a week. At first he did it from his office on Calle Diputación, but later his letters had no return address. In the end he wrote secretly, from a cell in Montjuïc Castle, into which no one saw him go and from which, like countless others, he would never come out. p. 19
And as a lover of pens – I too have a place to keep the broken ones – I relished this bejewelled description of the instruments of writing:
The object of my devotion, a plush black pen, adorned with heaven known how many refinements and flourishes, presided over the shop window as if it were the crown jewels. A baroque fantasy magnificently wrought in silver and gold that shone like the lighthouse at Alexandria, the nib was a wonder in its own right.
I was secretly convinced that with such a marvel one would be able to write anything, from novels to encyclopaedias, and letters whose supernatural power would surpass any postal limitations. Written with that pen, they would surely reach the most remote corners of the world. p. 28
Ruiz Zafón himself writes with exuberance and is a fount of fresh metaphor and simile:
Her features were sharp, sketched with firm strokes and framed by a black head of hair that shone like damp stone. p. 15
When I got up, there was blood in my mouth and a ringing in my left ear that bored through my head like a policeman’s whistle. p. 60
Further fine examples are illustrated below – phrases to savour and roll around your mouth like a warm cognac.
And one of the most powerful metaphors in The Shadow of the Wind concerns books as mirrors:
‘Books are boring.’
‘Books are mirrors: you only see in them what you already have inside you,’ answered Julián. p. 215
I hope this review will encourage even more people to read The Shadow of the Wind and that the book will reinforce a passion for books and reading.
Bea says that the art of reading is slowly dying, that it’s an intimate ritual, that a book is a mirror that offers us only what we already carry inside us, that when we read, we do it with all our heart and mind, and that great readers are becoming more scarce by the day. p. 502
Be a great reader. Buy yourself a great pen. Write a great letter to someone.
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