February has come to a close and the rain has fallen incessantly for what has seemed an eternity. However, as I write this, looking out of my window, there is blossom appearing on the tree. Spring is coming; a time of renewal. But just as I feel excited to see the first blossoms on the tree, I am also questioning how long they will last. In Japanese traditions, Cherry Blossoms represent the fleeting nature of life. Once they have reached their peak, the blossoms then begin to fall. In Chinese traditions the blossom symbolises female beauty, power and sexuality. Blossom seems a suitable writing companion for me as I try to review our latest book, ‘The Shadow of the Wind’ by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. A book full of obsessions. A mystery. A tragic love story that haunts its characters through the decades.
Our narrator, Daniel Sempere, lives with his father in an apartment above a bookshop that his father owns, which specialises in rare editions and second- hand books. Now at the age of ten and approaching his eleventh birthday, Daniel’s father takes him to The Cemetery of Forgotten Books. An immense library full of books that have been forgotten. “…when a book is consigned to oblivion, those of us who know this place, its guardians, make sure that it gets here. In this place, books no longer remembered by anyone, books that are lost in time, live forever, waiting for the day when they will reach a new reader’s hands.“ The books are personified, they are ‘waiting’ to be saved, their secrets to be told. Zafon creates a magical and mysterious atmosphere. He describes ‘frescoes peopled with angels and fabulous creatures.” The cemetery of forgotten books is more like a church than a cemetery. Its guardians do not watch over the dead but protect the silent inhabitants until they are chosen to speak again. Daniel chooses ‘The Shadow of the Wind’ by Julian Carax. He “liberated” it from “it’s prison on the shelf”.
Zafon explores the theme of freedom throughout the novel. Many of the characters are imprisoned, both literally and metaphorically. The novel is set in 1945 Barcelona. In a city ravaged by civil war. The general and dictator Francisco Franco ruled over Spain from 1939 until his death in 1975. The city is neglected and there is a mixture of damaged buildings and gothic architecture, remaining from the nineteenth century. Daniel goes to visit his father’s friend Barcelo to find out more about ‘The Shadow of the Wind.” They meet at The Ateneo, a library that houses books from 1502 until today. “The Ateneo was – and remains – one of the many places in Barcelona, where the nineteenth century has not yet been served its eviction notice.” The network of passageways and reading rooms are described as “ghostly”. This gives the place a supernatural feel, as though the books from the past are alive. There are very obvious comparisons between The Ateneo and The cemetery of forgotten books. Both are places of great importance in the novel, they remain untouched by the civil war; safe havens that connect the present to a past before the blood- shed and violence.
In his quest to find out more about the book, Daniel is drawn into the shady world of Julian Carax. Someone is burning all his books and wants Daniel’s copy. Daniel becomes part of the story and realises that he himself is being hunted by a mysterious figure. Zafon juxtaposes the mystery of Julian Carax and the race to find answers against the turmoil and the violence on the streets of Barcelona. This heightens the feeling of unease and there is a real sense that time is running out for the characters; the plot hurtles forward as the violence escalates and the strands of plot, like a tube map, seem impossibly jumbled.
‘The Shadow of the Wind’ is a book which tells of the importance of books, the importance of the past and the importance of love. But what is love? Is this a love story? On the last page of the novel Daniel asks “So, is this a story of love or war?” and his friend Fermin replies “What’s the difference?”