[diary] 5 – spain

¡Hola everyone !

This week and for the first time since this project began, I’ve read a book from an author I already knew – Carlos Ruiz Zafón, who I discovered some years ago with The Prince of Mist. I didn’t really like it at the time, so it was a real challenge for me to re-discover this emblematic author of Spanish contemporary literature : that’s why I picked up The Shadow of the Wind, a very thick book recommended by a lovely person on Facebook.

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[The novel takes place in Barcelona after the end of the Spanish Civil War, and tells the story of young Daniel Sempere. Some time after the war, his father takes him to the secret Cemetery of Forgotten Books, a gigantic library of forsaken titles carefully preserved by a select few initiates. According to tradition, Daniel is allowed to choose one book from it, and he must then protect it. But when he selects The Shadow of the Wind, by Julián Carax, his life completely changes…]

Just by reading the back cover, I was almost reconciled with Carlos Ruiz Zafón : a story about reading and books, what could be better ? The beginning of the novel was totally congruous with what I had imagined. Immediately, we discover with Daniel – and with wonder – a place that would amaze any book lover : a huge and enigmatic building, dedicated to books, with wandering alleys and infinite shelves… What I liked in the first place in The Shadow of the Wind, is that it is a genuine ode to literature and its powers : the mise en abyme of the title, the truly beautiful tributes to reading that are scattered through the text, or even the daily life of the narrator – who lives in a library – participate in the fact that this text could only reach for my literary sensibility.

Once past this introduction, I was carried away in a story that was absolutely different from what I was expecting. Indeed, beyond the beauty of the writing style, we face a very dark narrative, that is led like a police investigation, unfolding piece by piece with absolutely no downtime. We follow Daniel in a quest that becomes more and more difficult, more and more noxious : in order to solve the mystery about the author of The Shadow of the Wind (the fictional one) who has disappeared long ago, he will have to dive into the darkest aspects of his town and co-inhabitants. The more we progress in this murky story, the more the ambiance gets heavy, the descriptions dark, and the revelations disastrous. This downfall in the depths of Barcelona makes The Shadow of the Wind (the real one) fascinating ; even if my reading was sometimes strenuous, I never wanted to give up this book, thanks to its always more unpredictable plot-twists.

The oppressive inquiry of Daniel, led in secret and stirring up the hatred of the grim inspector Fumero, forces him to grow up, and gradually transforms into a quest for identity(ies) : who is Carax ? but, and more important, who is, who will become Daniel ? From 10 to 30 years old, we follow that boy who becomes a man, discovers love and hate, guilt and despair. Daniel makes mistakes, he sometimes acts cowardly, or has difficulty to assume his responsibilities, or acts without thinking. He is human, he learns, and that is troubling to read. Never moralizing, Carlos Ruiz Zafón depicts complex, flawed characters, with multiple motives and painful backgrounds. They have difficult pasts, linked with wartime and always coming back in the foreground, constantly mixing up with their presents. That even appears in the structure of the book. Indeed, there are two interwoven stories unfolding here : Daniel’s and Carax’s, that are incredibly comparable, overlapping and echoing each other all the way through the novel.

Among the variety of characters who appear in these two entwined narratives, two particularly impressed me – without of course willing to forget the provocative Clara, the touching Beatriz or the mysterious Isaac, keeper of the Cemetery of Forgotten Books (with an honourable mention for the neighbour Anacleto, a character at the back of the background, but who stayed in my mind for his incredible wordiness !). The first character who truly moved me is Fermín – but how can I describe him ? Fanciful but wise, with a super-enjoyable glibness and a terrible past, he is a vagabond when Daniel first meets him. Later, he becomes an employee of the Sempere library, and a remarkably judicious confidant/companion/protector. He is so dynamic, so positive, that we can only feel empathy for him, whatever happens : I wished him the best and shivered for him when he was in danger. At the opposite of this singular and endearing man, I was also charmed – more subtly – by the father of Daniel, M. Sempere. He is a very lonely character, a bit pathetic, always stepping back away from the plot : even if he is always there, he is being pushed aside from the investigation by Daniel, and stays a simple observer… A position that makes him even more upsetting, because he is so powerless. From afar, he can only watch his son grow up, get hurt (literally and figuratively) and discover life. If Fermín represents the future, Sempere is the past : widowed, pathologically nostalgic, he is almost a ghost, here without really being present. And although, the author’s words reveal the deep love of this man for his child, an unconditional love that distends with time but never breaks. We can’t prevent from feeling respect for Sempere, because he is such a discreet but good model for his son, because he is so sincerely kind – well, and also because he his a librarian of course ! These two men are two immovable references in the world of Daniel : they take care of him, support him and help him grow up, and for that they won a special place in my memory of this book.

The Shadow of the Wind was a satisfying read, with an interesting post-wartime(s) historical background and a captivating plot ; and though, I struggled to read through it all – even by diving into it anytime I could, I sometimes felt like I wasn’t getting closer to the end. The writing style is often a bit convoluted and made it a bit harder – but the poetic touch of it made up for this “flaw”. This book patched things up between Zafón and me, I admit, and even I don’t know if I want to read the rest of his bibliography, I can say that I appreciated this title.

> The next review will be about The Dark Child, by Camara Laye.

> ZAFÓN , Carlos Ruiz – L’Ombre du vent, éditions Grasset – translated from Spanish by François Maspero.
> written listening to “La Marcha Real” .

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