The Shadow of the Wind
by Carlos Ruiz Zafón, translated by Lucia Graves
416pp, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £12.99
In an age of unrelenting austerity, any touch of luxury can stir the soul; a brandname has a poetry all its own. And when a society is, like Franco's Spain, imprisoned in stultifying economic and imaginative autarchy, any hint of imported glamour represents an escape. Hence the care invested by a character in The Shadow of the Wind in his choice of taxi for a trip across town: "He wanted to get into a Studebaker at the very least."
The 1940s Barcelona of Carlos Ruiz Zafón's new novel is by no means the trendy tourist destination of today; rather, it's a city shut down for the duration in death and fear. Its buildings pockmarked by gunfire or abandoned by bankrupt dynasties, it is a place in material and metaphorical ruins. Survivors of civil war, its people hang on grimly, with no apparent expectation of better times. Stalked by secret police, with only a kitsch and collaborationist Catholicism for spiritual comfort, they lead lives of unrelieved monotony and hardship. Yet such people will snatch at scraps - and, as Zafón shows, find real sustenance in a city streetscape whose every corner tells a story. Many of its secrets may be sinister, but we have a sense too of a realm of mystery the regime can't reach, a place in which a taxi ride can become a romantic quest.
Narrator Daniel Sempere is seeking some conclusion to the story of 30s novelist Julián Carax, a "remarkably unsuccessful" writer whose book The Shadow of the Wind has taken a hold over his life. The son of a secondhand bookseller, Daniel found this volume in the city's "Cemetery of Forgotten Books", a labyrinthine library in the oldest part of town in which the works of authors immortal yet unread are assembled in their thousands. It seemed to call to him from the shelf, and when he read it, it took possession of him; yet this novel has a history as well as a plot. It is not merely neglected, it turns out: a menacing and faceless figure has been implacably hunting down every available copy and burning it - that individual, it becomes clear, is now hunting Daniel too.
His situation, Daniel sees, bears uncanny resemblances to that of the protagonist in The Shadow of the Wind, but it's to Carax's biography that he'll have to turn if he's to find his pursuer's motive. The more he finds out about his subject, the more he learns of lives affected (or more often afflicted) by their contact with the writer, burned by the artist's all-consuming egotism. Just to make things more complicated - and a great deal darker - Daniel finds his researches have attracted the interest of the thuggish and vindictive city police chief, Ignacio Fumero.
Novels constructed like Russian dolls, stories within stories, with terraced layers of surveillance and interpretation embedded in texts which advertise their own artificiality: this is the standard stuff of doctrinaire postmodernism. That this elaborate nest of narratives stacks together so neatly is impressive; that the cogs which drive the action whir quite so swiftly and smoothly is little short of miraculous. Zafón's real virtues are more old-fashioned ones, though: what makes this novel so irresistibly readable is the emotional energy generated by the ups and downs of a big and varied cast of memorable characters. Daniel's ingenuous ardour makes him the perfect narrator for a journey of discovery; his friend Fermín is an engagingly eccentric guide to the secret history of his beloved Barcelona. The ancestral tribulations of Carax's adoptive Aldaya family are genuinely heartrending, for all their gothic extrava gance; the menace of Fumero transcends his unmistakable aura of grand guignol.
In short, all the characters live. Literary ingenuity isn't something Zafón wants to indulge in for its own sake; neither are his efforts geared towards some wholesale deconstruction of "reality". The undoubted flaws in The Shadow of the Wind do, ironically, stem from an overvaluing of words at the expense of things. A trivial yet revealing mannerism is the frequency with which a character reads some book or other deep into the night, enthralled, only for the sun to come up on cue as the last page is reached: the whole universe, it seems, is at the service of the act of reading.
More problematic is a tendency to daub on description without too much thought for either precision or consistency. Scarcely have we been told that the early-morning city is awakening "like a watercolour slowly coming to life" than we're being conducted via "a vault of blue haze" and then a narrow alley that is "more of a scar than a street" to "what seemed the carcass of a palace". From painting through architecture to anatomy in a matter of moments: so rich a metaphor mix may be heady stuff line by line, but its effect is fairly quickly to befuddle the reader. The habit of allusiveness also inclines Zafón towards indulgence in his attitude to cliché: there are too many enigmatic smiles and impenetrable gazes here by half.
Overall, however, he does not come across as a writer wrapped up in literary theory: his conviction of the importance of literature in real life comes shining through. If the career of Julián Carax illustrates the destructive effects of the artistic personality, his story exemplifies, too, the liberating power of the imagination. Walk down any street in Zafón's Barcelona and you'll glimpse the shades of the past and the secrets of the present, inscribed alike in the city's material fabric and the lives of its citizens. Exuberant, larger than life in their tragedies as in their joys and desires, they are irrepressible: no dictatorship can keep them down.
Michael Kerrigan's Voices from the Trail: The Lewis and Clark Expedition is published by Saraband this autumn.
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Published onMarch 11, 2018
Picking depression for my health research paper was probably a bad decision, reading about all of this is so... depressing. #gofigure haha
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