Review: Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafron

This fall I’ve developed an obsession for books about books. I have a stack of them just waiting to be read, and I’ve already finished two of them. First, there was The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, a surprising and fun little book. That one didn’t last long. Next, I picked up Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafron. This was a longer and perhaps slightly denser book.

The book introduces us right away to a young boy who a wise reader is sure will “come of age” by the end of things, but it starts out, charmingly, with a visit to the Museum of Forgotten Books and the opportunity for young boy to pick out any book that he likes to have for his very own. The boy’s fateful choice, of course, directs the action of the rest of the book, which follows his obsessive journey to learn anything and everything he can about the author of his book- Julian Carax.

The book is full of abusive and horrible men, contrasted with a few sad old men, and wily, creative young men. As for the women in the story, they all seem to be willowy, ethereal, sexy in a weird way, and likely to die. The horrible men are so horrible that I was sure that Zafron must be a woman, but the strange and surprising female characters do seem very much written by a man, so I gave upon that theory. Overall, I found the characters believable and compelling, though none of them stood out to me quite like the unfindable author at the center of the text.

As boy searches for information about Julian Carax, I found myself also looking for him– except in Zafron’s own characters. In fact, there is something mirror-like about the storyline. Rather, the story feels a bit like a house of mirrors at times. Certain events and relationship dynamics and feelings repeat themselves in so many different lives that one begins to feel as if these are the ubiquitous human experience. If that’s what Zafron is after, of course, then we are all likely to fall in love with someone who you simply cannot be with, get knocked up, and never really be able to have a relationship with the lover or the child. Perhaps there is something resonant about ill-fated love, but what is interesting is the center from which this sense of humanity emanates is largely absent. Julian Carax: Who is he? Where is he? Is he dead? Is he alive? Perhaps because of his absence, he is the central source of mystery in this magical novel.

At a recent philosophy conference in Liverpool, my friend found himself cornered by an Irish Fisherman who liked to read even more than he liked to fish. He had recently finished Shadow of the Wind, as had Drew, and mentioned that the author at the center of the text, Julian Carax, was based upon a real person: Fernando Pesosa. Talk about a mystery unraveling. If you have ever read this novel, you will not believe what a destabilizing notion this is, but Drew’s conversation with the Irishman seemed to come to the conclusion that this was indeed the case. Pesosa apparently also wrote in many languages, published each book (and critical work) under a different name, and for each novel he wrote, he created an entire universe beyond the pages- author bio, critical analysis, scholarship, etc.– all entirely fabricated by the author.

I can’t decide whether what Pesosa did is better or worse than the work of Julian Carax in this novel, but I’m sure he was having more fun. What an interesting creative writing project that would make, though: write a short story under a pseudonym, and then create a collection of reviews and scholarship that surround the work. Literary virtual reality? Or a good literary swindle? And who doesn’t want a bit of that in their life?

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