The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

Once in awhile books come along and break all kinds of sales records, like The Da Vinci Code. Then, there are books that kind of trail along behind said bestsellers, hoping to ride on its success, like this one.

That might be a little unfair to say, since The Shadow of the Wind was first published in Spanish in 2001 — long before Dan Brown probably knew his book-in-the-making was going to shatter just about every sales record out there. However, the English translation has since become caught up in a Brown-esque hype machine to a point where the latest paperback incarnation of Wind is now hovering around the No. 300 mark on It has, in fact, become something of a minor cult classic that has drawn comparisons to Gabriel Garcia Marquez and acclaim from (God forbid) Stephen King. It was also breathlessly recommended to me by a librarian very much into mystery novels, cited as an example of a genre novel that could be enjoyed by lovers of high literature.

Here’s the thing: after reading this book, I don’t get the hype. Not one bit. It’s a shame because this book had the makings of a great literary-mystery hybrid of the sort not seen since, perhaps, Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye, which itself was really just a long rumination of the mystery of writing and the seductive power of authorship

Like The Long Goodbye, this book really uses the mystery genre to make a number of quips on the writing life – or so it would seem. The novel starts out in Barcelona in the days following World War II, where a young boy named Daniel Sempere falls in love with a book written by a character named Julian Carax that’s called — well, wouldn’t you know? — The Shadow of the Wind. Unfortunately for Daniel, though, most of the books of Mr. Carax are literally out-of-print. Mysteriously, a firebug wandering around Barcelona is setting fire to every available copy of the book he can find.

Sounds like a great set-up, right? Well, here’s the rub: Wind goes nowhere and just billows around aimlessly like a sheet of newspaper floating down a deserted, dusty street during a slight gust. What’s more, its villain is hardly menacing and does little but stand in the shadows for most of the book.

And if that were all: its first love interest turns out to be a big tease, and any pretensions this novel had towards being a literary thriller pretty much evaporates around page 50 or so. Right about the time, too, when astute readers will probably figure out the villian’s “secret” identity. Conversely, it’s right about the place when author Carlos Ruiz Zafon – whose fifth novel this supposedly marks — starts piling on the subplots, extraneous characters and forays into divergent genres like gothic horror and romantic comedy in a bid to cover up the lack of story.

This book reminded me a lot of Neil Stephenson’s cult SF novel Snow Crash: not in its content or choice of genre, but in that both works start out with a crackling, great beginning, and then squander any initial promise by adding redundant plot twists and characters. It gets to a point where the reader – suffering from information overload — will simply either keep reading lazily, hoping that something will happen if they skim through the pages, or give up altogether.

Well, I have to admit that I cheated a bit on this book, so I probably fall into the latter category of abandonment. There’s a significant section of the last quarter of the book that’s written from the perspective of a very minor character for some reason that I still can’t really quite fathom. Not really caring what this section was going to prattle on about, I was able to skip over this section entirely and still, more or less, figure out what was going on.

I guess, though, that I really stopped caring about half-way through, about the point where one of the characters gets a brain scan during a hospital stay in 1950s Spain. (I hate to break it to Zafon, his translator and his editors, but MRIs were first developed and tested on humans only in the 1970s.) Given the author’s inability to look up and check his facts, I suppose that’s where the comparisons to Garcia Marquez, a magic realist writer, come in. Hey, why sweat the details when you can just invent stuff, right?

In the face of stuff like this, what I don’t understand, once again, is the hype behind this title. That this was even a finalist for the Spanish Fernando Lara de Novela award and received all sorts of glowing reviews in Europe before crossing the Atlantic just baffles me. Is the state of fiction in this bad of a state that books that are little more than pleasant timewasters, if not utter wastes of time, are to be given the most currency or frequency of attention? Not to sound like a book snob, of course, but for a novel so lauded and critically acclaimed, The Shadow of the Wind really feels like only the shadow of a great book: a book with a great premise and idea, but one that fails to follow through on it.

So you say you want a book that’s more worthy of your time? Well, I can’t vouch for this personally, but I tell gotta tell ya: I hear something called The Da Vinci Code is quite the page-turner….