Zafon’s Barcelona

The Shadow of the Wind

by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

translated by Lucia Graves

I wrote reviews of Zafon’s Barcelona trilogy a few years ago now. However, since the Shadow of the Wind and the other two are among the best novels of the last 50 years and some of my all-time favourites, I thought I’d like to post them again. So here goes with the first:

shadow-of-the-wind

The Shadow of the Wind is literary fiction in the truest sense. It is a novel about books – about one book in particular – and about the power of words to inspire, inflame and ultimately destroy.

10-year-old Daniel Sempere discovers ‘The Shadow of the Wind’ in the Cemetery of Forgotten Books and from that moment his life becomes entwined with, and begins to follow a similar path to that of the book’s author Julian Carax. The drama is played out amid the horrors and uncertainties of Revolutionary and Post-revolutionary Barcelona, where class is everything and yet where power rests not only with rich families but with anyone sufficiently ambitious and unscrupulous to take full advantage of the vacuum that war has left.

Daniel, the novel’s narrator, is none of these things. He is just a normal boy caught up in events beyond his understanding and control, and which threaten to overwhelm him.

Amid the realities of time and place, however, Zafon’s sense of humour shines through. He is able to see comedy in the grimmest settings and situations. Indeed, there are passages where the line between grim drama, comedy and even farce is finely drawn, as in many scenes featuring the novel’s most endearing character, Fermin Romero de Torres, spy turned tramp turned bookshop guru. It is Fermin who shines a light on life’s tragedy and shows us the real meaning of loyalty and friendship.

The Shadow of the Wind has its malevolent villain too, one who evokes shades of Hugo’s Javert, though without Javert’s morality or redeemability. Fumero is corruption and decadence personified, almost to the point of melodrama.

The novel is literary, for sure, but it is also a historical romance with gothic overtones. Julian Carax haunts its pages with an almost but not quite supernatural presence. Yet amid all the horrors and amorality of this war-torn society resides love that defies class and convention.

Daniel, vaguely reminiscent of John Ridd in Lorna Doone, is a self-deprecating hero. He confesses to being a coward yet he seems not enough of a fool to risk his life when the odds are so stacked against him. When it really matters to the story he comes through to his own cost.

Translations are tricky. The translator must not only translate the words but must also capture the mood, the emotion, the sense of time and place and the nuances of language of the original, and present them convincingly as the author’s own. He or she must remove that ‘alien’ feel and render the work as acceptable to the reader as a work in his or her own language.

In this translation, Lucia Graves manages to do just that. By the end, I felt I knew the Barcelona of the nineteen-thirties, -forties and -fifties; in her prose, I could feel the texture of the snow; I could be disgusted by the fetidness of the abandoned garrets and be awed at the ostentatious luxury of the upper-class villas; I could hear the clanking of trams as they made their way along the Avenido del Tibidabo and the peal of church bells across the city.

The Shadow of the Wind has all the elements of an enduring classic. It is a story that sometimes shocks but often makes you laugh. And just once or twice, it makes you shed a tear or two.

***

 

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7 thoughts on “Zafon’s Barcelona

  1. Fantastic review, Andrew! I LOVED Fermin. He’s one of those rare fictional characters that makes me laugh out loud, and as you’ve mentioned, this is not a light-hearted book in general, which made it even better. One of my favourite books as well :).

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