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Barcelona, 1945-just after the war, a great world city lies in shadow, nursing its wounds, and a boy named Daniel awakes on his eleventh birthday to find that he can no longer remember his mother's face. To console his only child, Daniel's widowed father, an antiquarian book dealer, initiates him into the secret of the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, a library tended by Barcelona's guild of rare-book dealers as a repository for books forgotten by the world, waiting for someone who will care about them again. Daniel's father coaxes him to choose a volume from the spiraling labyrinth of shelves, one that, it is said, will have a special meaning for him. And Daniel so loves the novel he selects, The Shadow of the Wind by one Julian Carax, that he sets out to find the rest of Carax's work. To his shock, he discovers that someone has been systematically destroying every copy of every book this author has written. In fact, he may have the last one in existence. Before Daniel knows it his seemingly innocent quest has opened a door into one of Barcelona's darkest secrets, an epic story of murder, magic, madness and doomed love. And before long he realizes that if he doesn't find out the truth about Julian Carax, he and those closest to him will suffer horribly.
As with all astounding novels, The Shadow of the Wind sends the mind groping for comparisons-The Crimson Petal and the White? The novels of Arturo Pérez-Reverte? Of Victor Hugo? Love in the Time of Cholera?-but in the end, as with all astounding novels, no comparison can suffice. As one leading Spanish reviewer wrote, "The originality of Ruiz Zafón's voice is bombproof and displays a diabolical talent. The Shadow of the Wind announces a phenomenon in Spanish literature." An uncannily absorbing historical mystery, a heart-piercing romance, and a moving homage to the mystical power of books, The Shadow of the Wind is a triumph of the storyteller's art.
Finding echoes of the past in forgotten books
Recent reports indicate that very few foreign language books are being translated into English. This is mostly due to economics, but the upshot is that American readers are missing out on some marvelous books. Fortunately, The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón is not among the casualties. A huge success in Ruiz Zafón's native Spain, where it spent more than a year on bestseller lists, the novel is being published in more than 20 countries. It arrives on our shores with the full force of its publisher's promotional machine behind it.
Happily, The Shadow of the Wind lives up to the advance hype. Formidable in size and scope, it is a literary mystery calculated to appeal to book loversbecause its plot hinges on books. It begins in a marvelous place called the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, a repository for literary works no longer remembered by anyone. A 10-year-old boy named Daniel is taken there by his bookseller father to assuage the lingering pain of his mother's death. The old caretaker tells Daniel to choose one book from the labyrinthian stacks, take it away and make sure it never disappears. Daniel selects The Shadow of the Wind by an all-but-forgotten writer named Julián Carax.
The boy is mesmerized by the book and immediately sets out to read all of Carax's novels, only to discover that they are impossible to find. Carax never reached a wide readership, so very few copies of his work were printed. Yet the real explanation for the shortage, Daniel soon learns, is that a shadowy, disfigured man named Laín Coubert has been methodically hunting down and destroying every extant copy. Intriguingly, Laín Coubert is the name of one of Carax's own characters, a fictional embodiment of Satan.
Over the next few years, Daniel embarks on a mission to figure out who Laín Coubert is and why he is bent on destroying Carax's literary output. As he roots around in the past, Daniel pieces together the fragments of Carax's fascinating story, but soon runs into serious danger as it becomes apparent that more than one person wants to prevent the truth from coming to light. This is Spain circa 1945, and the villain of the piece is an ur-fascist police detective, Fumero. Fumero's connection with Carax dates back to their school days, and the source of his abiding hatred unfolds along with the mystery of Carax's sketchy life story.
Daniel's search for information entangles him with many people from Carax's past, none of whom seems to be telling all. It is this array of colorful characters that brings Ruiz Zafón's novel to life. He creates a gothic Barcelona that borrows not only from the Spanish literary tradition, but from the noir atmosphere of period detective fiction as well. The odd blend worksThe Shadow of the Wind is certainly a tour de force of storytelling.
More than just a well-crafted mystery, though, the novel also provides a deeper look into questions of familial identity and our attachments to the past. Daniel's coming of age is a central component of the story, and his life begins to mirror Julián's in significant ways, not least in his love affair with Bea, the sister of his best friend. This turbulent liaison, as well as Daniel's own childhood heartaches, provide him with insight into Julián's ill-fated life and work.
The Shadow of the Wind is about the way books can tie us to the past and how easyand dangerousit would be to destroy that connection. The English translation is by Lucia Graves, daughter of poet and novelist Robert Graves, and she has rendered Ruiz Zafón's distinctive sensibility with the seamless invisibility of a good translator. Her unsung efforts make it possible for the English-reading world to enjoy this gem of a novel.
Robert Weibezahl's book, A Second Helping of Murder (Poisoned Pen Press), has been nominated for an Agatha Award.