Book review: The shadow of the wind

I make no secret of being a fan of Katherine Neville‘s books. Her novels, content-heavy but still spiced with oodles of fun historical trivia and cool ideas and explorations, are always a delight for me to read. The only drawback is that she has only written four books, and I have already read them all. The paucity of her novels, therefore, forces me to seek out others to fill the time before her next one appears.

So, when Facebook told me that many people who enjoyed The eight also liked Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s The shadow of the wind, I considered that a strong recommendation. Finding this book on the BBC’s recent list of the top 100 novels, however, made me slightly more hesitant to read it. Due to my contrarian nature, I generally prefer to read books that are slightly off the well-traveled path. I shouldn’t have been so quick to judge.

Set in the author’s native Barcelona in the middle of the 20th century, The shadow of the wind begins in the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, where ten-year-old Daniel Sempere is taken by his father. According to ancient legend, such a visit entails a heavy duty: to guard one book from being entirely forgotten and destroyed. More or less at random, he chooses Julián Carax’s The shadow of the wind.

Carax’s novels, written a couple decades earlier, had sold very poorly, although they had attracted something of a cult following among the few people who happened to read them. Later, though, someone had decided to destroy all copies of Carax’s works, with the intent of making the world forget about Carax’s existence.

That was an interesting idea to me: How can we destroy information? How can we arrange for the world to forget about a person? In time, if that person didn’t do anything particularly remarkable, it’s possible that this process will occur naturally. In a few centuries, will there be anyone in the world who has heard of me? (If so, it’ll probably be due to a simple trick for solving math contest problems that has been put into print, courtesy of several people at Art of Problem Solving.)

But what if we want to do so quickly? That’s harder. In some cases, it may be possible: if the person has led a reclusive and boring life, perhaps everyone who knew em will die, and all memories will have been broken. Still, it’s hard to orchestrate this process with any reasonable expectation of success.

The person in the novel trying to do this is ultimately unsuccessful, due to Daniel’s commitment to his childhood promise. In part, this is a tale of honor and duty, of (almost) unwavering commitment to a childhood promise.

Perhaps another question we can ask is why anyone would want to do such a thing. People sometimes have strong desires for revenge, but wishing for a person to be entirely forgotten by all of humanity does seem just a tad extreme to me. I don’t think the book really helped me to understand this entirely, but there are some planned follow-up books to look forward to.

I don’t wish to give too much away in this review, since reading this book with as little foreshadowing as possible is such a pleasurable thing to do, but I am proud to say that I correctly guessed the point of the book only 1/4 the way through it. I didn’t quite believe it, but it seemed like such a neat idea that I had to wish for Ruiz Zafón to explore it. He didn’t disappoint.

I know it’s only January and hence too early to say how much I’ll enjoy various books throughout the year, or which ones I’ll end up reading, but I am rather confident in making the following assertion: This is the best novel I will read in 2011. I don’t generally write about fiction, since I’m not particularly interested in writing about sentence structure or the quality of prose, and I don’t wish to disclose plot outlines (summaries can easily be found elsewhere). But I think it’s a good idea for me to write about this book just so that I can alert other people of its existence. I recommend this book strongly to anyone who likes to read.


About Simon

Hi. I'm Simon Rubinstein-Salzedo. I'm a mathematics postdoc at Dartmouth College. I'm also a musician; I play piano and cello, and I also sometimes compose music and study musicology. I also like to play chess and write calligraphy. This blog is a catalogue of some of my thoughts. I write them down so that I understand them better. But sometimes other people find them interesting as well, so I happily share them with my small corner of the world.
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