“Nightmen still lingered in the misty streets when we stepped out of the front door. The lamps along the Ramblas marked out an avenue in the early morning haze as the city awoke, like a watercolour slowly coming to life. When we reached Calle Arco de Teatro, we continued through its arch toward the Raval quarter, entering a vault of blue haze. I followed my father through the narrow lane, more of a scar than a street, until the glimmer of the Ramblas faded behind us. The brightness of dawn filtered down from balconies and cornices in the streaks of slanting light that dissolved before touching the ground.”
Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s bestselling novel The Shadow of the Wind is the perfect example of how an author can utterly immerse their reader in a sense of place. While his characters and plot twist and turn, Zafon constructs the city of his birth, Barcelona, around his reader, mixing the use of gothic descriptions with observations of ordinary city life.
When the protagonist, Daniel, is taken by his father through the back streets of Barcelona to the secret ‘Cemetery of Forgotten Books’, he discovers a book that will alter the course of his life. The book captivates the 10-year-old boy and over the next few years, as he learns more about the author, Julian Carax, Daniel begins to become plagued by a stranger who is the duplicate of a character from the story. This stranger is determined to destroy all of Carax’s books and thus his life’s work.
As we watch Daniel grow from boy to man, post-civil war Barcelona is not merely the backdrop for his story but its creeping calles and casual cafeterias draw us into his world and - as we look back in time - into the life and trails of the mysterious Carax.
It blends traces of the civil war: “The holes left by machine-gun fire during the war pockmark the church walls. That morning a group of children played soldiers, oblivious to the memory of the stones.” There are personal observations: “I will always prefer Barcelona in October. It is when the spirit of the city seems to stroll most profoundly through the streets, and you feel all the wiser after drinking water from the old fountain of Canaletas – which, for once, does not taste of chlorine.”
And then there is the use of place to build character: “From there you could see the cemetery on the slopes of Montjuic, the endless city of the dead. Sometimes I waved, thinking that my mother was still there and could see us going by.” Throughout, Zafon intertwines Barcelona into the essence of the book. The reader experiences a true sense of the city, its people and their way of life.
While Daniel wanders the streets, unravelling the secrets of the past, discovering the truth about Carax and rushing to save those left behind, Zafon never fails to illuminate the picture of everyday life continuing on in a beautiful city ravaged by war but slowly bringing itself back to normality. That in the midst of dilemmas and tribulation Daniel continues to “stop at the bar in Plaza de Sarrià to polish off two well-endowed omelette sandwiches, plus trimmings.” Here highlights the normality of Barcelonan life against the sinister events occurring alongside it in the book.
In the final chapter, there is a sense of positivity and optimism imbued. As Daniel reflects: “The neighbourhood is much the same, and yet there are days when I feel that a certain brightness is tentatively returning to Barcelona, as if between us all we’d driven it out but the city had forgiven us in the end.”
Words: Lucy Slater
Artwork: Hermin Abramovitch