Whispers From the Past: Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s The Shadow of the Wind

Ruiz Zafón, Carlos. The Shadow of the Wind. 2001. Trans. Lucia Graves. Penguin, 2004.

Ruiz Zafón’s novel is possibly the work I’ve enjoyed most so far this year, though I’m not exactly sure that “enjoy” is quite the appropriate verb. Appreciate might be a better term but has connotations of distance and reserve. The Shadow of the Wind wholly engaged me. I didn’t want to put the book down. It holds the attention in the same way a well plotted thriller refuses to let one go. The Shadow of the Wind is way more than a simple mystery story, however. It’s a multi-layered declaration of faith in the power of the imagination and in the strength of love.

In 1945 Barcelona, the narrator Daniel Sempere is taken by his father, an antiquarian bookseller, to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books. There, he chooses a book The Shadow of the Wind by Julián Carax; it’s a choice that will change his life forever, for he discovers that all of Carax’s other books have disappeared. In fact, it appears that someone is actually systematically attempting to destroy all of Carax’s work. Daniel’s attempts to discover Carax’s history lead him into danger and into discoveries about his city’s past.

Barcelona itself is almost a character in this novel. Ruiz Zafón does for the city what Emily Brontë does for the Yorkshire moors or Dickens for parts of London. His evocation of Barcelona with its majestic buildings and its narrow alleys reveals a place of shadows both literal and metaphorical. This is the heart of Catalonia in the years immediately subsequent to the Spanish Civil War. In Franco’s Spain, speech may be dangerous; the truth may be dangerous. Barcelona is a city of closed doors and shuttered windows: a city of hidden, untold stories, a labyrinth of dead ends and deception. Against this background of unspoken fears and closely guarded secrets, Daniel moves from late childhood to early adulthood, finding as time passes that his own life bears parallels with Julian Carax’s.

It is in this parallel that the reader first notices just how beautifully intricate the plot lines of the story are in their interweaving and correspondence. Nothing is actually co-incidence. Everything fits, as well designed and inherently coherent as the Gaudi mosaics for which the city is famed. I might further argue that Ruiz Zafón carries this motif even into the variations in his own prose, sometimes lyrical and sometimes almost pedestrian in rhythm and tone. Some of this variety also has its roots in the fact that at Daniel must at times rely on the narrations of others to tell him of the past. He must listen to others record their memories. As the voice changes, so does the tone, and so does the typeface of the novel.

What is evident throughout this book is its meticulous craftsmanship. Perhaps some of the characters are a little flat, but then I’m not so sure. They resemble more the archetypes of epic and fairy tale, for we find here the mentor, the evil villain, the cruel parents, young lovers, the confidant, the buffoon, and so on, and there are certainly times when I am tempted to classify the novel as epic, for surely it begins in medias res. Daniel’s journey takes him back to the past and into a future. There is even the suggestion of the hero’s magic talisman in the pen reputed to have belonged to Victor Hugo.

For me, the most compelling aspect of the novel is the metafictive. The Shadow of the Wind is a novel about a novel; it begins with Daniel’s discovery of Carfax’s novel hidden in the cemetery of other forgotten books. It’s a story about people who live with books and appreciate their power. Ruiz Zafón is on record for referring to this novel as one of “a cycle of novels about the written word and what it means to live among books” (http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/news/writer-carlos-ruiz-zafon-says-technophile-society-will-stunt-young-minds-9774957.html). The Shadow of the Wind is a story about a story, and it is a story that depends upon other stories to tell its own tale. I found myself making connections with Cervantes, Apuleius, and Potocki, let alone Borges, Murakami, Eco, and Calvino, especially when I thought about Daniel’s search for the truth about Carfax. However, the macabre elements in The Shadow of the Wind are fantastic only in the sense that any fiction is the result of imagination. What Ruiz Zafón captures is that brooding atmosphere of a place where there is fear, where one is unsure of whom one can trust.

More important, even as it highlights the horrors of repression whether familial or societal and underscores Ruiz Zafón’s mastery of form, The Shadow of the Wind also affirms his belief in the power of fiction to illuminate and liberate.


It seems appropriate to take a moment here to commend the continuing resilience of the people of Barcelona and to remember those injured and gone because of the recent terror attack. 


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