There is a moment, rather more than three-quarters of the way through this novel, when a woman buys a man a pen that is purported to have belonged to Victor Hugo. At that moment I recognised that this is a work of skilful control rather than good fortune. For Victor Hugo’s pen had appeared earlier, bought by a doting father for the boy who is our narrator of this charmingly complex literary mystery. Up to that moment I had not been sure that the parallels that were becoming more and more obvious as the novel progressed were fully intentional or simply a sign that the author had only a limited number of tricks to play. Characters seemed to keep filling exactly the same niche within the ecology of the story: we get, for instance, two or more often three versions of the good father figure, the cruel father figure, the mysterious beauty, the devoted and self-sacrificing nurse/maid. It was only with the reappearance of the pen that I felt I could be confident that this was done knowingly, and that therefore I was reading a work of clever artifice rather than the sort of lucky success of an author not really aware of what he was doing, which is more usual.
The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon (trans Lucia Graves, 2001, Phoenix 2004) opens with the sort of conceit that is certain to appeal to bibliophiles, just as Borges’s infinite libraries or the library of unwritten books in Millhauser’s In the Realm of Morpheus: the Cemetery of Forgotten Books. It is a sort of shrine for secondhand booksellers, where all the unwanted stock from closed bookstores is going to end up. It is here that ten-year-old Daniel is taken by his father. All visitors are allowed to choose just one book, and Daniel picks up a novel, The Shadow of the Wind by Julian Carax. Daniel loves the book and wants to find out more. It turns out that The Shadow of the Wind was the last novel written by Carax, who wrote a handful of books in the years before the Spanish Civil War, none of which sold more than about 100 copies, but now a mysterious stranger whose face has been burned away is going around Barcelona buying up every copy of Carax’s work and destroying it.
Daniel’s quest to find out more starts to become something far more serious and threatening. As he grows up, during the late 40s and early 50s, Daniel finds his own life more and more paralleling the curious haunting existence of Carax. Did Carax really die in the early days of the Civil War? Who is the faceless stranger? Why is the brutal secret policeman showing a dangerous interest in Daniel and his friends? Zafon teases out the quest beautifully, each answer only revealing yet more questions, and more dangers. And as we journey about a vividly realised Barcelona, we also discover how much of this quest is linked to the Civil War and to the world that created that war.
It is not a perfect novel, there is a moment of grand guignol that is overdone and not really in keeping with the rest of the book, and there are moments when the too-carefully-structured plot seems schematic rather than dramatic (hence my relief at realising Zafon knew what he was doing). But it is a mystery that flatters the intellect, delights the senses and turns so significantly upon the world of books that it could not help but work for me.
First published at Livejournal, 22 January 2005.