The Cemetery of Forgotten Books
“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.” ~
Originally published in Spanish as La sombra del viento in 2001, The Shadow of the Wind was Spanish author Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s first venture into adult fiction; he previously published four young adult novels. In his powerful adult fiction debut, he introduces to the world of literature the fictional Cemetery of Forgotten Books, a complex labyrinth hidden in the bedlam of post-World War II Barcelona. Shrouded in enigma, it houses some of the rarest books there are. Only a select few, however, can access this collection.
The story commences with a bookshop owner accompanying his son, Daniel Sempere to the subterranean library. To celebrate his tenth birthday, his father asked Daniel to choose a book which he must vow to guard and take care with all of his heart. From the heaps of unfamiliar and curious titles, an eccentric title written by a perplexing name – Julián Carax’s The Shadow of the Wind – immediately captured Daniel’s attention. Just like how the wand chose Harry Potter, it can be surmised that the book also chose Daniel, and not the other way around.
An invisible thread connected Daniel to the book. Soon enough, The Shadow of the Wind unexpectedly aroused Daniel’s desire for literature. As he digs deeper into the book, he became more enamored with its enigmatic author. Despite his undeniable and captivating writing, there is very little of his books in print. Daniel soon learns that someone is seeking all copies of Carax’s works to burn them. As he set out to solve the mystery, Daniel becomes unsure who to trust. The day Daniel entered the Cemetery of Forgotten Books was also the day that transformed his mundane existence. He has irreversibly entered a world a maze that only he can exit and set into motion a chain of events that only he can complete.
“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.” ~
The Shadow of the Wind was fashioned out of the “story within a story” trope. A book about books, this Spanish tale is more than your hackneyed story line. Ruiz Zafón takes the readers on a compelling roller coaster ride is fraught with several thrilling and heart stopping moments. In merging Daniel and Julián’s stories, he concocted a potent storytelling potion that transports the readers to a fascinating world. The Cemetery of Forgotten Books is certainly one of Ruiz Zafón’s most fascinating creations.
At the novel’s onset, two parallel stories emerge – the unraveling of the mysteries behind Julián’s life and his disappearing works and the coming-of-age story of Daniel. As their individual stories slowly entangle, various themes and subjects surface; a new and intriguing plot also surfaces. As the story progresses, various trap doors, secret doors and back doors open. What was seemingly a straightforward story slowly diverges. Subplots branches out to more subplots. The story line, once finely defined, blasted to all directions.
With its Gothic atmosphere, dark themes such as betrayal, vengeance and death are prevalent. Rape, prostitution, incest and abuse of power are some of the other dark themes that the novel dealt with. On a lighter note, the novel explored themes of love-at-first sight; the perplexities and complications of romance; and the diverse definitions and complexities of loyalty and friendships.
The concept of black and white was thoroughly depicted through the different characters. Women were generally described as angels whilst the men were represented as devils but most characters hold all shades in between black and white Some characters have also dynamically transformed from one end of the spectrum to the other. The inspired Julián used to write about love but, due to the bitter turn of events, became a vengeful angel of destruction and fear.
The titular shadow is the greatest and most ominous allegory in the novel. It represents death, evil, and destruction. We, humans, were programmed to fear darkness, to be afraid of what lurks underneath the shadows. We also have our own demons and shadows that we must overcome. Each character in The Shadow of the Wind has shadows they run away from. Each was given the opportunity to overcome these shadows or be completely engulfed by them. We were reminded how choices and decisions govern our lives.
“After a while it occurred to me that between the covers of each of those books lay a boundless universe waiting to be discovered while beyond those walls, in the outside world, people allowed life to pass by in afternoons of football and radio soaps, content to do little more than gaze at their navels.” ~
Beyond the dark alleys of Barcelona and the trapdoors of haunted mansions rays of hope beacon. From the bitter backstories, great things flourished. Fermin’s story and growth is a great subplot that complimented the two major story lines. Once a binge drinking beggar, he lived underneath the shadows of the street to overcome his personal demons. Rather than scampering down the path destiny paved for him, he created his own path that diverged from the shadows. Unlike some characters who chose to stay in the shadows, Fermin took rein of his destiny, finding reasons to step on the light and keep on living.
Ruiz Zafón, with acuity, used his native city as a major protagonist. His writing made Barcelona come alive before the readers’ very eyes. A breathing and interesting character, distinct from the primary characters, was drawn. With every turn of the page, an image of Barcelona unfolds; its nooks and crannies, its Spanish houses, its dark alleys, its backstreets all vividly came alive. Ruiz Zafón’s Barcelona went beyond the aesthetic. The Gothic atmosphere is a stark dichotomy from the typical sunny Barcelona advertised in tourism posters. He eloquently captured the soul and the spirit of the city with his astute storytelling.
The book was a slow burner. It took some time to develop solid connections between the readers and the characters. As the story moves forward and the characters grow and mature, connection and fascination is slowly but surely established. Despite Daniel and Julián being the centrifugal points of the novel, it was Fermin, Daniel’s proverbial sidekick, who was riveting. His development through the story, his personality and his dialogues draw curious onlookers in. He is the life of the party. The friendship he and Daniel develop is one of the novel’s more heartwarming facets.
One of the greater accomplishments of the novel is Ruiz Zafón’s writing. Under the shadows of the eerie atmosphere, the storytelling was sublime. The narrative was verbose, rich in descriptions and intricate details. Ruiz Zafón’s stylistic writing gave life to the setting, and the story. His artistic writing is an ode to literature, a blatant reminder to readers on the reasons why they read. The novel was sprinkled with several great and memorable quotes.
“The female heart is a labyrinth of subtleties, too challenging for the uncouth mind of the male racketeer. If you really want to possess a woman, you must think like her, and the first thing to do is to win over her soul. The rest, that sweet, soft wrapping that steals away your senses and your virtue, is a bonus.” ~
It took some time before flaws started to surface but they minimally distracted the flow of the narrative. The Shadow of the Wind is a beautifully sculpted masterpiece. It is a collection of stories within a story, a novel within a novel that were skillfully stitched together by Ruiz Zafón’s dexterous hands and imaginative storytelling. The way he captured the heart and soul of Barcelona was astounding, as riveting as the story itself. The mystery, the coming-of-age, and the transformations were vividly captured in a magnificent literary tour de force.
Characters (30%) – 27%
Plot (30%) – 29%
Writing (25%) – 25%
Overall Impact (15%) – 14%
I’ve always been skeptical about this book. When I bought it way back in 2017, I made it sit in my bookshelf because my interest wasn’t piqued enough to make me read it. Things changed in 2019 when I came across several positive recommendations for the book. It made me reconsider my initial skepticism. Thankfully I listened to this fellow bookworms for The Shadow of the Wind is one of the best books I’ve read this year, if not all time. It had all the elements – the suspenseful air, an amazing sidekick, and descriptive but not overpowering writing. Yes, the story did drag a bit but it was all good. It made me consider reading the entire quartet of books that belong to the series.
Author: Carlos Ruiz Zafón
Translator: Lucia Graves
Publisher: Penguin Books
Publishing Date: 2005
Number of Pages: 487
Genre: Mystery Fiction, Gothic Fiction
Barcelona, 1945: A city slowly heals from its war wounds, and Daniel, an antiquarian book dealer’s son who mourns the loss of his mother, finds solace in a mysterious book entitled The Shadow of the Wind, by one Julian Carax. But when he sets out to find the author’s other works, he makes a shocking discovery: someone has been systematically destroying every copy of every book Carax has written. In fact, Daniel may have the last of Carax’s books in existence. Soon Daniel’s seemingly innocent quest opens a door into one of Barcelona’s darkest secrets – an epic story of murder, madness and doomed love.
About the Author
Carlos Ruiz Zafón was born on September 25, 1964 in Barcelona, Spain.
Before taking on full time writing as a career, Ruiz Zafón used to work in advertising. In 1993, his first novel El Príncipe de la Niebla was published. It won the Edebé literary prize for young adult fiction and was published in English as The Prince of Mist in 2010. Following the success of his debut work, he wrote three more young adult novels – El palacio de la medianoche (1994), Las luces de septiembre (1995) and Marina (1999).
In 2001, Ruiz Zafón published his first adult novel – La sombra del viento (The Shadow of the Wind). It was an instant hit and a global sensation, selling millions of copies globally. It was also a critical success as it won several international literary awards. El juego del ángel (The Angel’s Game), published in April 2008, was a prequel to The Shadow of the Wind. It was the second book in what would later be collective called as the El cementerio de los libros olvidados (The Cemetery of Forgotten Books) series. The succeeding books are El prisionero del cielo (The Prisoner of Heaven, 2011 in Spanish and 2012 in English) and El laberinto de los espíritus (The Labyrinth of Spirits, 2016 in Spanish, and 2018 in English).
Ruiz Zafón is currently the most widely published contemporary Spanish writer, with his works published in 45 countries, and translated in over 40 languages. He currently divides his time between his native Barcelona and Los Angeles.