I first read Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s ‘The Shadow of the Wind’ years back when it first came out. When my book club decided that this would be the May read, I was quite excited. Because I rarely re-read books and so I was interested in finding out how the experience would be. I remembered liking very much the start of the book. But I also couldn’t remember the rest of the book except for one of the surprises revealed in the end. However hard I tried, I couldn’t remember a single event in the story or any of the characters (except for the few who came in the events I remembered). So, it was really like reading a new book. I finished reading it yesterday. Here is what I think..
‘The Shadow of the Wind’ starts with a scene, which book lovers will love and hold close to their heart. A father takes his young son to a place called ‘The Cemetery of Forgotten Books’. The keeper of this ‘cemetery’ lets them in. The father asks the boy to choose one book from there and then read it, treasure it and save it and celebrate that book and the writer. He tells the boy that that book would belong only to him and it is his job to take care of it. The boy picks a book called ‘The Shadow of the Wind’ by Julian Carax. After they reach home, he starts reading the book, and before he knows he is deep into it and when he crosses the last page, he discovers that the sun is rising and he has been reading for the whole night. He asks his father about Julian Carax, but his father hasn’t heard of him. When his father takes him to talk to one his friends who is knowledgeable about these things, this friend tries to buy off the book from the boy. The boy remembers what his father said and refuses to part with the book. And thus starts his lifelong adventure – his search for more information on the writer of the book, the people whom he meets who might have been part of Julian Carax’ life, the surprises that are revealed, the pandora’s box he opens which lets loose evil which camps on his doorstep and those of others who are part of Julian’s life, and how in the midst of all this excitement, our hero, the boy Daniel Sempere, grows up into a young man, falls in love, gets his heart broken, falls in love again, and then has to go through an ordeal to ensure that his heart is not broken again.
So, did I like the book? I have good news and bad news.
The good news first. The start of the book is very wonderful. It is every book lover’s dream. The story takes off from there and it is enjoyable to read. There is a section which describes how we can get obsessed with beautiful pens which is very beautiful. The story of Daniel’s first love and how his heart gets broken and how he falls in love again are all beautifully told. Most of the good characters are fascinating, kind and likeable. It continues like this till around three-fourths of the book. I also liked the way in which the author takes a particular plot archetype (young boy falls in love with a girl, girl’s father is a rich and powerful man and doesn’t like it, girl has a brother / another suitor who hates the young boy) and introduces it into the lives of two of the main characters and steps back and let us see how the concerned character handles the situation. It was fascinating to watch.
Now the bad news. After three-fourths of the book, there is a ninety-page section, in which all the surprises are revealed. That section is structured in the form of a letter by one of the characters. I like surprises being revealed slowly and naturally. Big bang revelations are not my thing. That is one of the reasons I had a problem with Harry Potter 6 (‘The Half Blood Prince’). That is one of the problems I had with that long letter in this book. Another problem I had was in the depiction of the villain character. When he was a boy, it is shown that he is sensitive, carves beautiful things with wood and is shy and an outsider whom other students at school keep bullying. When he is grown up, he is shown as a bad guy, with a black heart. It is difficult to believe that. It would have been more convincing to believe that he had a mix of good and bad within him and the bad came more because of the bullying and the social circumstances that he grew up in. But that is not how he is. And, I don’t know how else to articulate this, but after a spectacular beginning, at some point the book loses that magic and feels underwhelming. I don’t know where that happens, but it does. I actually liked the ending and so I don’t know why I felt that way.
I asked myself what I felt about the book when I first read it. Did I like it? Was it one of my favourite books? Though it wouldn’t make sense to compare it with my favourite books now (because I have changed a lot as a reader and as a person since then), I asked myself how it compared to some of the books which I read at around the same time and liked. I remember liking the book when I first read it (as I read the same copy I found it interesting to read the lines I had highlighted earlier and see whether I still liked them. Though some of them weren’t as appealing now, I liked most of those lines that I had highlighted years back) but I don’t think it was a favourite. I remember reading Elizabeth Kostova’s ‘The Historian’, Donna Tartt’s ‘The Secret History’ and Iain Pears’ ‘An Instance of the Fingerpost’ at around that time. I remember liking them very much, and I think I liked parts of ‘The Historian’ more than ‘The Shadow of the Wind’ and I liked ‘An Instance of the Fingerpost’ very, very much. But still ‘The Shadow of the Wind’ left positive impressions on my mind when I read it the first time, but I have mixed feelings about it now. As the book got raving reviews when it was published, I checked with friends and other readers, who had read it, on what they thought of it. Some of them had read it when it first came out and others had read it more recently. Those who had read it when it first came out still raved about it. Those who read it more recently had mixed feelings about it, like I do now. It made me think whether this book touched readers’ hearts in some important and contemporary way when it first came out and whether for some reason it hasn’t stood the test of time. It is an interesting point to ponder on.
I will leave you with some of my favourite lines from the book
Paris is the only city in the world where starving to death is still considered an art.
Presents are made for the pleasure of the one who gives them, not for the merits of those who receive them.
You only got a pittance for translating literature, though a bit more than for writing it, it’s true.
Sometimes we think people are like lottery tickets, that they’re there to make our most absurd dreams come true.
My voice, rather stiff at first, slowly became more relaxed, and soon I forgot myself and was submerged once more into the narrative, discovering cadences and turns of phrase that flowed like musical motifs, riddles made of timbre and pauses I had not noticed during my first reading. New details, strands of images and fantasy appeared between the lines, and new shapes revealed themselves, like the structure of a building looked at from different angles.
We went into Father Fernando’s office, where he summoned up his memories, adopting the tone of a sermon. He sculpted his sentences neatly, measuring them out with a cadence that seemed to promise an ultimate moral that never came. Years of teaching had left him with that firm and didactic tone of someone used to being heard, but not certain of being listened to
Have you read ‘The Shadow of the Wind’? What do you think about it?