Tuesday, July 04, 2006

"I had grown up convinced that the slow procession of the postwar years, a world of stillness, poverty, and hidden resentment, was as natural as tap water, that the mute sadness that seeped from the walls of the wounded city was the real face of its soul," remembers Daniel Sempere of his native Barcelona in 1945, when he turned 11. That's the year his widowed bookseller father takes him to an ancient repository called the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, where he is allowed to choose one volume from the shelves to own and protect. The book Daniel picks is "The Shadow of the Wind," a novel written in 1935 by Julian Carax.
Little is known of Carax, whose few novels never sold many copies but who seems to have stirred up enough anger in at least one reader to make him or her intent on acquiring and burning every last copy. Over the next 20 years, Daniel's fate will be linked with Carax's in many ways--some obviously melodramatic, in the best tradition of writers like Dickens and Dumas, such as the stranger with the burned face who tries to buy or steal Daniel's copy of the book, or the vicious police inspector who dogs everyone's heels; others more subtle, including the way the book teaches Daniel about sex, trust and life in a repressive country.
Small wonder that The Shadow of the Wind has already been a huge best seller in Spain and other European countries. Ruiz Zafon has captured the magic of books as objects of love and as cultural icons, and has managed to combine our fascination with them (Why else are we writing and reading this?) with a story of tremendous scope and precise focus.