shadow of the wind by carlos ruiz zafon

Posted on February 21, 2010

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This book hit all the right nerves: murder mystery, historical epic, romance, and tragedy. It’s even got a ghost.

Toxic from work issues, I barely noticed that I was walking on old familiar roads, until the church bells started pealing, and I looked up to see myself walking though girls in shiny satin dresses, all dolled up in groups with friends, streaming out from the church plaza, which sheltered the entrance to the neighbourhood Catholic school.

The colors were vivid, the red on their lips, the pink on their cheek and gown, the black on their hair, curled and coiffed. And the music swept past me, made up of the notes of their chatter, and the rustling of their whispered plans. It was Prom night, which isn’t over with the party in any country. I had almost forgotten how hopeful the youth could be, poised on triumph or disaster, their future.

This was two weeks ago. The memory stood out as I was reading The Shadow of the Wind, a story about loneliness but also about hope and redemption. In those few moments with 16-year olds around me, I realized, I had glimpsed that absolute stillness between now and tomorrow, where everything is possible. As 10-year old Daniel Sempere, son of a bookseller, pulls out a book from the dusty shelves of the Cemetery of Lost Books in Barcelona in 1945, he himself stepped into this magical place. He becomes obsessed about the truth behind the life and death of Julian Carax, the author.

But as he got pulled into the quest for Carax, he may also have stepped into a mirror that reflects bliss only for a moment and tears until death. Over the next eight years, he discovers that someone had been systematically burning each copy of Carax’s books. In his search, he found stories within stories that flowed from the lives of those who touched  Carax’s.

“Books are mirrors: you only see in them what you already have inside you.” — Carlos Ruiz Zafón (The Shadow of the Wind)

Gothic, melodramatic, cheesy, maybe, the book nevertheless touches me on so many levels. Maybe it is the Spanish in me, that appreciated the passion the characters invested in everything, big and small. In the hours I crammed reading to beat a book club deadline, I was never more invested myself, grateful, knowing I have recaptured that stillness. A book has captured it, and given it back.

Sure, there were inconsistencies in the narrative, but they don’t bother me much. How could a certain sweet something have said she talked to a certain best friend when, supposedly, no one beside her family and maids saw her while she was a prisoner? How could this other woman have known so much about a letter that she had never read nor been told about?

I think that much of life is relative, anyway: lived vicariously, influenced by stories many times removed from the original source, and smothered by a million, million exhalations, turning the moon blue—once in a while.

Would this story have worked if it wasn’t set in post-Spanish Civil War Barcelona? I’m not sure. Take a walk in this remarkable city and tell me.

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Posted in: japanese, mysterious