- Mirrors, Merriment and My Favourite Novel:The Imaginings of Literature in Carlos Ruiz Zafón's The Shadow of the Wind
Nobody had expected Carlos Ruiz Zaf n to die. At least, nobody expected it so soon. In the spring of 2020, he was only 55, and had just finished his gargantuan story cycle The Cemetery of Forgotten Books. This four-book series wove a web of intrigue spanning forty years of Spanish history and brought a city long lost in the mists of time to life. It was a beautiful escape into the distant past, perfect for distressing times like a pandemic, and it felt like Ruiz Zafón had more to say in the coming years—then came the news that he had died of colorectal cancer in Los Angeles.1 Perhaps because of this sudden event, I began to reread the first of the series, 2001's The Shadow of the Wind, despite not knowing a word of Spanish, nor having any interest in a city half a world away. Along the way, I realized not only why this was my favourite novel, but also the value behind this sentimental romance. For Carlos Ruiz Zafón's The Shadow of the Wind is not merely a raucous bildungsroman or a Gothic melodrama that uses Francoist Spain to weave its layers of intrigue, but it is also a book that reveals the pleasures of reading, the role of secrets in connecting with the reader, and the way a book imprints itself on its readers.
There is no doubt, of course, that a large part of the book's appeal comes down to its humorous yet absorbing retelling of a bildungsroman. Daniel Sempere's journey to adulthood and romance lies at the heart of The Shadow of the Wind, and this is a journey that is as packed with multiple plot twists as it is with intimate and funny moments. Crucial to engaging the reader is Daniel's narration, which is verbose and evocative. For example, he describes the aftermath of a home visit with the words "I carried the trace of her lips, of her breath on my skin through streets full of faceless people escaping from offices and shops."2 This fleeting moment stays with Daniel as he walks through the streets of 1950s Barcelona, vividly describing his state of inner turmoil and creating a detailed perception of the physical and mental landscape surrounding him. With such intricate descriptions, Ruiz Zafón creates an immersive experience for readers, making us feel as if we were Daniel, giving us an opportunity to embrace the plot. This is actually quite difficult, for [End Page 35] there are many improbable coincidences and tragic events in the book, and Daniel's dark yet intimate words make his storytelling sound "like the jacket blurb of a Victorian novel."3 However, other critics such as writer Stephen King have asserted that this book is a "true Gothic novel" similar to those written two centuries ago.4 And therein lies the first key to this book's success—it is an escapist tale of darkness and intrigue that effectively captivates readers like me. Gothic novels are famously set in dangerous bygone periods, and with their promise of exploration and suspense, as well as their quasi-supernatural elements, they provide an alternative to the mundane realities of the real world. With Ruiz Zafón's novel, readers are thrust into times, places and events they can only imagine in reality. Combined with the rich and suspenseful prose, this becomes a dramatic adventure that allows them to take both delight and refuge in this alternative world.
Some critics frown upon the novel's tendency to rely on melodrama and imaginary construct: Glennis Byron notes that tourists are unlikely to see Barcelona as Daniel describes it, and decries its "fabricated imported tradition of Victorian gothic."5 Yet the ability to explore intense feelings of love and horror is precisely what has drawn in over fifteen million readers,6 and such a detailed depiction of an imaginary world, one that somewhat resembles the historical Barcelona we know yet still...