“Books are Mirrors”: The Power of Literature in Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s The Shadow of the Wind – Somrita Misra

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Stephen King once said that “Books are a uniquely portable magic”. In The Shadow of the Wind the power of the written word and books reigns supreme. The novel begins with Daniel, the protagonist, visiting the Cemetery of Forgotten Books with his father for the first time. The reader learns that the cemetery is a rare library of old and little remembered books which is a secret amongst a few select people of Barcelona. Daniel is asked to choose one book from this treasure trove, a book he will have to protect and cherish forever. He chooses The Shadow of the Wind, an unknown novel by an author named Julian Carax. So captivated is Daniel by the book that he determines to discover all he can about Carax. Thus begins Daniel’s adventures and troubles.

     Throughout the novel books and literature connect and intertwine the characters. Daniel and Julian’s lives are connected from the day Daniel finds The Shadow of the Wind in the Cemetery of Forgotten Books. There are also the relationships between Clara and Daniel, Penelope and Julian and Daniel and Beatrice, all of which develop because of their common love for books. Literature has the unique power of helping readers overcome loss, loneliness and grief. The Shadow of the Wind portrays this power through Daniel’s journey through his adolescence. Fitzgerald has famously said: “That is part of the beauty of all literature. You discover that your longings are universal longings, you’re not lonely and isolated from anyone. You belong”. Zafón understands this beauty all too well: we see how Daniel escapes the angst of growing up through books. Julian too finds respite from the brutal horrors of his childhood in the pages of his favorite novels.

     Julian tells his friend in the novel that “Books are mirrors: you only see in them what you already have inside you”. For each of the characters their favorite books are indeed mirrors, a gateway to their deepest fears and desires. Penelope finds her longing for Julian reflected in the passionate lovers of her romantic novels; Daniel discovers that other teenage boys can be as lonely and isolated as he is when he reads The Shadow of the Wind. The reviewer of The Daily Telegraph hailed The Shadow of the Wind as “A triumph of the storyteller’s art”. In many ways, the novel is about the power of the storyteller and stories.

     Zafón’s Barcelona is full of fragmented stories about broken people in the harsh regime of Franco: as readers walk through the many alleyways and streets of 1940s Barcelona, they meet characters like Fermin, an intelligent, energetic man whose spirit has been crushed under the weight of Fascism. Then there is the sinister policeman, Fumero whose cruelty chills the readers’ spine and who represents the arbitrary violence of a dictatorial state. The novel traverses a panorama of savage yet alluring characters and their individual stories. Like all powerful historical novels, The Shadow of the Wind spends very little time on factual history; the novel is set in 1945 Barcelona, right after the Spanish civil war has ended. Without any reference to the history of the war, Zafón conveys the horrors of it; his medium is stories and narratives of individual characters who have suffered the trauma of the times.

     The novel is a collage of not just varied characters but diverse genres: Zafón intermingles gothic melodrama, adolescent coming-of age story, historical thriller and whodunnit. The plot flows smoothly and is fast paced while there is a healthy dose of the melodrama and mystery that creates bestsellers. Yet, the novel never degenerates into the banal or the tawdry. The minute subplots and the diverse cast of characters ensure that the literary touchstone remains a high one. The two major protagonists, Julian and Daniel, are separated by many years yet connected through Julian’s novel. Julian guides Daniel through his journey, helping him overcome his obstacles in uniting with the love of his life, Beatrice. Daniel helps Julian heal and overcome the grief of Penelope’s death. At the end of the novel Daniel finds happiness and fulfilment in his union with Beatrice while Julian starts to write again, regaining his ability to tell stories.

     In Zafón’s novel Barcelona becomes a character. Especially significant are the bookshops where the forgotten stories are stored. Daniel himself is brought up in the bookshop his father runs where he nurtures his love for reading. Nuria, Miquel, Fermin all find their lives changed through the books they come across. For Zaf’on books become instruments to forge bonds between his characters and to change their lives. Books do not always impart positive perceptions for the characters: for many like Daniel, Nuria, Fermin, books become a reflection of the tragedy and trauma they see around them. Through his identification with Carax’s novel, Daniel realizes the truths of life: the beauty of love, the tragedy of fate, the universality of suffering. At the end of the novel, Daniel confronts his fears and chooses to commit himself to Beatrice, fully aware of the trials and tribulations of love. Daniel understands that life, like literature, cannot always be beautiful, it can also be dark and frightening. But just as his favorite book cannot be left unfinished, life too needs to be lived to the fullest, a cup that one needs to drink to its brim.

     For Aristotle, literature was a reflection of life. True art tries to achieve this reflection. Zafón’s The Shadow of the Wind is a testament to the power and the value of literature. It illustrates the significance of stories and their role in healing a traumatized and torn city and people. Literature and art ultimately are non-utilitarian; they are not “needed”, not like one needs water to drink, food to eat, medicine to survive an illness. Perhaps that is why the Sciences as a field are viewed so much as a priority, not just in India but across the world. Perhaps the concrete nature of scientific fields seems more essential than the abstractions of a literary thesis or study. One can never quantify feeling or emotions and our world values only that which it can measure. However, as Christ famously dictated, “Man cannot live by bread alone”, man has spiritual needs and needs over and above the physical, the concrete.

     Literature provides, in many ways, food for the soul. It nourishes not man’s body but his spirit. In that lies its power and its value, a value that the greatest of scientists have recognized and appreciated. Zafón’s novel is a celebration of this value and this power of books, stories and literature. In the words of the reviewer of Entertainment Weekly: The Shadow of the Wind “is ultimately a love letter to literature, intended for readers as passionate about storytelling as its young hero”.

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