Friday, July 22, 2016

The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón, translated by Lucia Graves

The Shadow of the Wind
Carlos Ruiz Zafón
Translated by Lucia Graves (Spanish)
First published 2002, I read 2005 Phoenix paperback
510 pages, gothic romance, mystery, adventure
Found: super cheap at the Kochi Book Fair 2015

A bookseller takes his 11-year-old son Daniel to a very special place: a hidden building in Barcelona where there is a collection of lost, neglected, or forgotten books. As a privilege of visiting for the first time, Daniel is allowed to choose one book to take with him. He chooses The Shadow of the Wind by Julian Carax, which quickly becomes his favorite novel.

But when he tries to find out more about this author, mystery arises. Julian Carax is unknown, and it is believed that he died shortly after the War. And then there is the faceless man who is searching for Daniel’s prized copy with the intention of burning it and any other copy of Carax’s work that appears - and who has taken on the name of a character from The Shadow of the Wind who is the Devil incarnate.

Master storytelling in the vein of nineteenth-century novels

Zafón’s work is quite obviously inspired by the best of 1800s literature. He combines an incredible feel for gothic-style literary tension with a gorgeous, poetic writing style that left me enthralled. While leisurely at first, the pace quickly picks up and drags the reader along, wondering what will happen next.

There is grand adventure around every corner in this novel. Haunted houses, magical libraries of forgotten books, and blind love interests - anyone who loves The Count of Monte Cristo or other large-hearted adventure novels will love this book as well.

Treatment of women

However, this novel was quite problematic in its treatment of women, in which it was inspired a little too much by nineteenth-century novels. As is commonplace in classic works from that period, Zafón treats his female characters as delicate flowers who need to be protected by men. For example, at his first meeting with the blind Clara, Daniel makes the following observations:
I observed her hands spread like wings on her lap, the suggestion of her fragile waist under the alpaca folds, the shape of her shoulders, the extreme paleness of her neck, the line of her lips, which I would have given my soul to stroke with the tip of my fingers. Never before had I had a chance to examine a woman so closely and with such precision, yet without the danger of meeting her eyes. 
Like other heroines of 19th century fiction, Clara can only seem attractive because of her physical fragility and her blindness. The other women in the book suffer from a similar fate: while they may have the potential to be interesting, complex characters, most of their characterization is done through sexual acts or sexual attractiveness. This is especially true in the case of Bea, Daniel's eventual lover, whom he sexualizes from day one.

To be clear, I did enjoy the depiction of sexuality in this book as something that is good and necessary - even for women. However, I was shocked to find that not once, but twice, the young woman immediately falls pregnant after having sex for the first time. While possible, it is unlikely that this would happen to two women in the same way - and it immediately punishes them for their sexual deviation. The punishment meted out upon these women is horrific, and includes social and physical consequences. While the narrator obviously does not agree with these punishments, it was particularly troubling to see these women punished so thoroughly for simple sexual exploration.

In the later part of the book, a large section is told from a woman's perspective, which somewhat mitigates these narratives. However, the overall treatment of women in this novel left a very bad taste in my mouth, and I would warn prospective readers to be prepared for this.

Overall, I loved this novel's beautiful language and enticing adventure, but I did not like the way it depicted women. I am therefore ambivalent about whether I should recommend this book to the readers of this blog. If you do decide to read it, please let me know how you understood these issues in the comments.

Further Reading

"The shadow maker" interview with Carlos Ruiz Zafon by Nigel Farndale (The Telegraph, 2005) 
"Carlos Ruiz Zafon: 'I'm haunted by the history of my city'" by Christian House (Independent, 2012)
"Gender roles in the 19th century" by Kathryn Hughes (British Library) 
"Jane Eyre and the 19th century woman" by Sally Shuttleworth (British Library) 

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  1. It is coincidental that you posted about this book at this time. I was just looking for a book inspired by Spanish culture. This book sounds like a short story that I read a few years back. It also featured a young boy who picks a book out of a library to become its companion for life.

  2. Oh, no! I have wanted to read this book for so long and many people keep recommending it and saying how brilliant it is. But not many people expressed concerns with how it depicts women. I pick up on that kind of stuff immediately and it would turn me off too. :/

    1. I know, right? I was really disappointed. :(