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Wednesday, April 14, 2010

THE SHADOW OF THE WIND by Carlos Ruiz Zafon - reviewed by Gary Carden


The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon
New York: Penguin Books
$25.00 - 487 pages

“As far as I can see, it (cinema) is only a way of feeding the mindless
and making them even more stupid. Worse than football or bullfights.
The cinema began as an invention for entertaining the illiterate masses.
Fifty years on, it is much the same.”

Fermin Ramero De Torres - The Shadow of the Wind, p. 89

Let’s begin with a marvelous story - one of those timeless fables that is charged with mystery and magic - the kind that provides the basis for great novels. Somewhere on a dark and lonely street in Barcelona, there is an ancient, locked building called the Cemetery of Forgotten Books. If you know the password, or if you have a friend who is willing to take you as his “guest,” you may gain entrance and wander through a labyrinth of echoing corridors of abandoned books until you become lost like the legendary Theseus. When you are finally rescued (if you are!), then you will be allowed to select a single volume with the understanding that you will return it some day - perhaps, after it has altered your life in significant ways. When Daniel Sempere, the protagonist of The Shadow of the Wind, comes to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books with his father, the ten-year-old boy takes a book entitled ... The Shadow of the Wind.

So begins an incredible journey that carries Daniel through a strange city filled with abandoned mansions, exotic cafes, fantastic bookstores, spirit-haunted graveyards and sinister prisons from which no inmate ever returns. Zafon’s novel is populated with a cast of characters that resemble the tortured, guilt-ridden lovers of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the obsessed killers of Jorge Luis Borges and the doomed and solitary eccentrics of Charles Dickens. The Shadow of the Wind is an epic tale that alternately reads like Dante’s nightmarish descent into the underworld and Candide’s trek through a venal, corrupt and cruel world. In short, this is a hell of a book!

Daniel’s most memorable encounters include an infatuation with Clara Barcelo, a beautiful blind girl who plays the piano ineptly (her rendition of Mozart sounds like a macaw randomly pecking piano keys); Don Federico, a watchmaker with a penchant for dressing like female opera stars; Javier Francisco Fumero,a deranged policeman, who in addition to murdering his own mother, has devoted his life to tracking down Julian Carax, the author of The Shadow of the Wind - a mission that amounts to a terrifying obsession (much like another “relentless policeman,” Javert in Les Miserables). Lain Courbert, a ghostly figure with a leather mask that hides a face burned beyond recognition, proves to be another deranged creature. Courbert has devoted his life to finding ... and burning every existing copy of The Shadow of the Wind. (Is it possible that he might really be the Julian Corax? If so, why?)In addition, there are multitudes of minor characters, including “La Pepita,” an elderly matron with a gift for pistol-shot flatulence that is rumored to be so deadly, it stuns sparrows on her balcony and sends them plummeting, senseless, to the pavement below; a horny, dying octogenarian who bargains with Daniel for one last lusty encounter, and a host of saintly nuns who devote their lives to protecting Zafon’s most foolish and/or helpless characters, including Bea Aguiler, the love of Daniel’s life.

The most remarkable character in the book, Fermin Romero de Torres, embodies the traits of both Cyrano de Bergerac (romantic and linguistic excesses), and Don Quixote ( the man with the “impossible dream”). Saved from poverty and almost certain death by Daniel Sempere, Fermin becomes Daniel’s protector, advisor and confidante. In addition, much of The Shadow of the Wind’s wit and charm is the result of Fermin’s outrageous pronouncements on art, human frailty and sex. Fermin’s enthusiasm for American movies and stars such as Cary Grant, Veronica Lake and Carol Lombard, prompts him to mimic the “noir” movies that he adores. Each time that he appears, he assumes a different guise: detective, priest, lover, etc. In fact, the irrepressible Fermin sometimes comes dangerously close to dominating this novel!

Beneath the novel’s colorful facade is a touching story of Daniel’s relationship with his father, the proprietor of a highly respected bookstore that is barely surviving in a world where readers are decreasing at an alarming rate. When Daniel finds a copy of The Shadow of the Wind, he becomes fascinated by the book’s mysterious author, Julian Carax. Daniel begins a search to find Carax only to make the disquieting discovery that the author’s life bears an eerie resemblance to his own. In addition, as he meets Carax’s former lovers, enemies and acquaintances, he also encounters not only a marked resistance to his search, but a growing hostility. Time and time again, he is told to abandon his search or he may uncover a truth that he cannot bear.

An increasing amount of evidence indicates that Carax is dead but Daniel comes to believe that the author has achieved a kind of immortality in his novels. When the warehouse in which the remaindered copies of The Shadow of the Wind are stored mysteriously burns, Daniel suspects that someone is determined to extinguish this last vestige of Corax’s memory. Is it possible that Corax is not truly dead as long as a copies of his novels exist? Could it be that Lain Courbert, the man who has devoted his life to burning all of Corax’s novels, believes that he is carrying out a kind of “cleansing”? What is the basis for Javert Francisco Fumero’s hatred of Corax? Why is that hatred eventually transferred to Daniel Sempere?

Before all of these questions are answered Daniel will learn the truth about Corax’s love with a young woman named Penelope Aldaya and when The Shadow of the Wind begins a descent into madness, vengeance and murder, all of the disparate pieces of this epic (and highly sensual) novel converge into a thundering, blood-drenched denouement. This is a marvelous book that will provide fodder for your fantasies for months to come.

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