What to do when books that are virtually unputdownable finally end on a false note? It happened with Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger and now it has happened with Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s The Shadow of the Wind, a novel which according to the blurb is second only to Don Quixote in terms of sale in Spanish publishing history. For long the novel had been on my wish-list. This month, I read it as part of the Spanish Literature Month.
Ten-year old Daniel Sempere is taken by his father, one early morning, to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books: a sanctuary for forgotten, abandoned, discarded books. Daniel is asked to choose a book and safe-guard it for life. His choice is a book called The Shadow of the Wind by one Julian Carax. Right from the opening of the book where the protagonist is told by his dying mother the truth about his parentage, and who subsequently undertakes a journey to find his real father, young Sempere is hooked.
So much so in fact, that he starts starts finding his own father – the staid, ordinary, solidly middle-class bookseller – boring. How nice it would be to have another father. Perhaps someone like Julian Carax!. So Daniel too embarks on a quest to find out about the unknown mysterious author. As he dwells further into Carax’s past – a journey that brings him in contact with (among others) a woman working at the publishing house which had published Carax’s books, a priest who turns out to be a classmate of Carax, and a policeman who had been befriended by Carax. Slowly the search starts turning sinister and much like the book written by Carax, the narrative splits into a thousand stories…
The problem that I had with The Shadow of the Wind was not its plot which was gripping but rather with its characterisation. Three people, we are told, invoke complete devotion from others: Penelope, Beatrice, and Julian Carax. Unfortunately, the writer fails to show as to why this is to be so. They are hardly exceptional characters. Penelope is the poor little rich girl, a princess who could not get her prince. As for Beatrice, after years of disliking each other, we are told that Daniel’s and Beatrice’s antipathy was due to mutual attraction and sexual tension. So suddenly the spunky Beatrice becomes the second Penelope who has to be sheltered and protected. As for Julian, I saw him only as using people whether it is Don Ricardo or Nuria Monfort. Indeed, the only selfless thing he does in his life is to befriend Francisco Javier Fumero (and how that turns out!).
Instead of these one-dimensional characters, I’d have liked to know more of Sempere senior. How did the quiet, selfless man cope with his son slipping away from him? What was the book that he chose from the Cemetry? Now that would be wonderful to read.
I’d have also liked to know more about Tomas Aguilar. How did a man who could not speak without stammering, express his love for his wife and daughter? What were his inventions like?
It is sad that the book ended on such a whimper for me because I really liked the description of civil-war ravaged Spain. Also there is genuine humour whenever the story becomes too heavy-duty. Here’s an excerpt from a conversation between a taxi-driver, who is a devout Stalinist and the irrepressible Fermin, Daniel’s comrade-in-arms:
“I’ve heard he’s been suffering badly from prostate trouble ever since he swallowed the pip of a loquat, and now he can only pee if someone hums “The Internationale” for him…
‘Fascist propaganda, ‘ the taxi-driver explained, more devout than ever. ‘The comrade pisses like a bull. The Volga might envy such a flow.’
First Line: I still remember the day my father took me to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books for the first time.
Title: The Shadow of the Wind
Author: Carlos Ruiz Zafon
Original Title: La Sombra del Viento
Translator: Lucia Graves
Publishing Details: London: Phoenix, 2009
First Published: 2002 (Spanish); 2004 (English)
Pages: 514 + 18
Other books read of the Same Author: None
Being a huge bestseller, the book is easily available in book shops. I borrowed it from the college library. [823 Z 23 S]
Read as part of the Spanish Literature Month
Submitted for the following challenges: AZRC, Books in Translation, Chunkster, European Reading, Mystery and Suspense, New Authors, Smooth Criminals, and Wishlist.