Carlos Ruiz Zafón's novel The Shadow of the Wind (Penguin, paper, $15) will feel hauntingly familiar to anyone who's ever fallen in love with a book. Published in Spain in 2001, Zafón's novel has sold two million copies and been translated into almost 40 languages. In the process, the author—a former screenwriter born and raised in Barcelona, Spain—has unwittingly developed an almost cult-like following. It isn't hard to see why. The Shadow of the Wind is the kind of book its followers carry around with them wherever they go, giving away copies to strangers in the street in the same way aspiring preachers might give away copies of the New Testament.
Essentially, The Shadow of the Wind is a kind of popcorn book for bibliophiles, a novel that swims in the mystique of books, combining many of the elements that lured so many of us into loving the written word in the first place. It's got a fabulously inventive plot, a wide cast of sympathetic and villainous characters, truckloads of mystery, lots of humor and a fair amount of good old-fashioned sex.
As translated by Lucia Graves, Zafón's language occasionally takes on a purple tint, but in a story about the sheer joy of literature, this excess is easily excused. Likewise, readers might occasionally feel manipulated by some of the narrative tricks Zafón pulls, but no honest person will complain.
This Thursday, Feb. 10, at 7 p.m., he'll be at Bookworks (4022 Rio Grande NW, 344-8139) to promote the new paperback edition of his novel. The Alibi recently chatted by phone with him about The Shadow of the Wind, his love of books, his music and his plans for the future.
"As a kid, I read almost anything," Zafón says, "from Thomas Mann to comic books. A lot of the books that really had a big influence on me were the 19th century novelists, Dickens and company. But I've always gone through different phases. To this day, I read widely and don't pay much attention to highbrow, middlebrow or whatever. From Conrad to crime fiction to anything, all of these things are important and have their place. In The Shadow of the Wind, I've tried to reflect a love for all these books. After all, the classics were nothing but the popular fiction of their day. We seem to have forgotten that somehow."
Zafón's hero in The Shadow of the Wind is Daniel Sempere. Daniel's father is a kindly man who ekes out a living as owner of a used bookstore in Barcelona just after the Second World War. His mother died during a cholera outbreak shortly after the Spanish Civil War. The novel opens with Daniel's father escorting him to a sprawling secret library called the Cemetery of Lost Books. Inside, Daniel stumbles across a novel called The Shadow of the Wind by an obscure author called Julián Carax.
Daniel immediately falls head over heels in love with the book. Yet when he tries to find other novels by Carax, he learns that someone has been systematically destroying every book the author ever wrote. As Daniel begins a quest to uncover the secrets of Carax' past, he gradually learns that his life and that of the mysterious author are cryptically intertwined.
Zafón says that the Cemetery of Lost Books was the seed from which the rest of his novel grew. "For me," he says, "stories always tend to begin with an image. In this case, it was an image of this fantastic library. For a few days, I thought about this place and began to think there was a story behind it. It meant something to me. It became a metaphor, not just for forgotten books, but also for forgotten people and ideas, and for the destruction of memory. All these things crystallized into this image of a place filled with wonders that nobody cares about, wonders that are in danger of being lost. I connected that with my love of books, of course, because that's my world."
Novelists use different methods to inspire their fictional creations. In Zafon's case, his method of choice centers around music. "If there's one thing I love as much as books," he says, "it's music. From early on, I taught myself to play piano, to write music. Eventually, I developed this habit of composing music around the stories I was working on, sort of like sketches. I write them for myself, and I have fun doing it. For me, it's part of the process."
When his American publishers decided to make the audio book for The Shadow of the Wind, they asked him what kind of music he wanted to accompany it. Zafón told them that he'd already composed some music to go with the book.
"They wanted to hear it, but I told them to listen carefully. I mean, for me there's no vanity involved in that. They didn't have to use it, but apparently they liked it."
Zafón's music was soon transformed into a kind of limited edition soundtrack. "I never wanted it commercialized, so it's not actually being sold. I don't want it to be a product. It wasn't conceived like that."
The Shadow of the Wind is a very novelish novel. Zafón has concocted a huge, colorful cast of quirky characters and a complex, fast-paced plot that borders on absurdity. The book is also a kind of metafiction, a novel about novels, a book about books. More than half of it is exposition, characters explaining what has already occurred. In the most extreme case, Zafón reproduces a letter from a key character that stretches to almost 90 pages.
Under ordinary circumstances, this tell-don't-show strategy of storytelling would result in disaster. Thankfully, these aren't ordinary circumstances. Zafón's sense of pacing and narrative invention always keep the story exciting.
Another of the book's great pleasures is its setting. In many ways, Zafón has done for his hometown of Barcelona what Dickens did for London, transforming it from a familiar urban environment into a mystical cosmopolis that takes on a distinctive personality of its own.
Zafón plans to write three more novels set in Barcelona incorporating some of the same characters and themes. "When I began working on this novel, I had an idea for three other stories set in a similar setting. Some of the same characters will appear again viewed from a different perspective. I hope to write four stand-alone books that create a sort of Chinese box that you can read in any order you want, an organic universe with interlinked parts."
Unfortunately, Zafón won't reveal anything specific about these upcoming books. "Even my editor doesn't know anything more than what I've just told you," he laughs.
If his next book is half as good as The Shadow of the Wind, his eager fans won't mind the wait.