I don’t know about you but when a novelist is compared to Umberto Eco, Charles Dickens, Jorges Luis Borges, Charles Palliser, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Arturo Perez-Reverte, A. S. Byatt , Victor Hugo (I could go on), I can’t resist giving it a go. The Shadow of the Wind is the first in a trilogy by Zafon who, on his website, is committed to telling stories readers want. I suppose it’s because he’s committed to keeping himself housed and fed.
I can’t be bothered to summarize the plot because I want to get on with what interested me about it , so here’s a quick tagline: In post-WWII Barcelona, a young man, Daniel Sempere, seeks to restore the memory of his mother by tracking down the author of a novel in his safekeeping. I didn’t buy into Sempere’s line of reasoning; it’s like scouring the pope’s speeches for instructions on condom use. No matter: the how more than covered for the why. Zafon takes a twisted shadowy journey among crumbling mansions and cracked souls in his tale of remembrance and redemption. There are other big thematic words I could unroll but, because of my current writerly obsessions, I’ve settled on sacrifice and her dark twin, self-destruction. I was also distracted by Daniel Sempere, who is fictional proof for why narrators make poor heroes; and Fermin Romero de Torres who—bless you, Carlos Ruiz Zafon—gets his own book in The Prisoner of Heaven and is proof-fictional and otherwise—that good looks are over-rated.
Fermin is a secondary character, and as such, ought to know his place. It is for him to support the hero’s journey, to deliver a few zingers that speak to the hero’s plight or to the controlling themes, and perhaps to spin out a thin subplot of his own. Fermin does all that, and is one thing more: butt-ugly. It’s hard to feel attached to, as Daniel puts it, “the little man with scruffy looks and the tongue of a barker.” He steps into the story when Daniel is left bloodied on the street.
“Are you all right?” asked a voice in the shadow. It was the beggar I had refused to help a short time before. Feeling ashamed, I nodded, avoiding his eyes. I started to walk away. “Wait a minute, at least until the rain eases off,” the beggar suggested. He took me by the arm and led me to a corner under the arches where he kept a bundle of possessions and a bag with old, dirty clothes. “I have a bit of wine. It’s not too bad. Drink a little. It will help you warm up….”
By offering what little he has to one who has scorned him, Fermin becomes a hero in a shabby suit. Again and again, he’s larger-than-life by way of the small gesture: he consoles a dying woman, keeps vigil over a tortured neighbor, rustles up leads when all others have failed, and appears when needed.
Now that doesn’t make for a character hero. That honor goes to the one who achieves the greatest arc or greatest change in their character, and Fermin remains steadfast and big-nosed to the end. By rights, it’s Daniel Sempere, then. He’s the one with the journey to find the story of Julian Carax, thereby catching up himself and others in his haphazard investigations.
The problem is Daniel ends up telling the stories of people more interesting than him. By doing so he’s practically admitting that whatever was happening to him isn’t nearly as fascinating as what happened to someone else. Three-quarters of the way through the story, Zafon has Daniel lay out the full contents of a long letter (written in an unbelievable 24 hours) by the reclusive Nuria Montfort, a letter which lifts the veil on much of the mystery. Daniel goes from narrator to reader; he essentially walks off the stage and joins the audience. Does he still have a character arc? Yes, he takes a bullet for the man he believes in. But so does Daniel’s elusive author, Julian Carax. And so does Nuria Montfort (actually she takes another deadly instrument). And no, I’ve spoiled nothing. Trust me.
It is Nuria that I found the most haunting because of her fifteen years of sacrifice for a man who didn’t try to return her love. Part of me shrieks, “Forget him! Move on!” Yet haven’t we all had situations and people we couldn’t walk away from? So she accepted the sacrifice and its dark twin, self-destruction.
Self-destruction ends in death or, if intervention occurs , resurrection. You’d have to be illiterate not to pick up on the allusions to death, more populous than headstones in a cemetery, the most obvious one being the library called The Cemetery of Forgotten Books. Apparently books, like people, are only dead if forgotten. This whole thing about memories supporting life is a well-worn Homeric sentiment, one that I wish Zafon hadn’t felt the need to push into the mouths of his characters. Fortunately, it didn’t matter: I’ll remember the novel more for its scruffy virtues than any good-hearted flaws.
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