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Doom, gloom and suspense

Peter Green is the former fiction critic of the London Daily Telegraph.

The great city of Barcelona in northeast Spain, its ancient and still heavily trafficked port looking out over the Mediterranean, sees thousands of tourists every summer. They admire the Roman remains and the medieval fortifications. They stroll along the Ramblas, a charming tree-lined avenue with stalls selling everything from flowers to tame songbirds. They shop in the fashionable boutiques, visit the art galleries, sample Catalonian cuisine, swim and sunbathe.

If they study their guidebooks, they know that Barcelona is a major industrial center and, during the Spanish Civil War, was the main bastion of the Republic against Franco’s fascist-backed forces. Those who open Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s “The Shadow of the Wind” hoping for a spot of picture-postcard nostalgia are in for the shock of their lives.

The Barcelona of this novel, which covers the period between 1945 and 1966, is a city where the sun seldom breaks through. Most of the time it is raining. As a change from the rain, we get the heaviest snowfall of the century. Dampness and gloom are all-pervasive. It is a city oddly devoid of noise, bustle and day-to-day business. Its only stores are apparently secondhand bookshops. Damp outside is matched by indoor mustiness, dust and decay. Apartments are peeling and neglected.

Several obviously prime real estate sites are occupied by vast dilapidated mansions with enough spiders’ webs (and lurking Gothic horrors) to satisfy Charles Dickens’ Miss Havisham. None of this seems to provoke the interest of the city authorities. The only official we meet -- and he’s a major character -- is a psychopathic chief inspector of police, Javier Fumero, who roams the city beating up and murdering personal enemies with alarming impunity.

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Clearly, Zafon is using the city as a vast amorphous symbol for the legacy of guilt, misery, unresolved conflict and social disruption left by the Civil War. Fumero, who switches sides handily more than once during the fighting -- and ends up as a postwar fascist executioner in a grim hillside castle -- is proof enough of that. The trouble is, Zafon is not a whole-hogging magical realist like Gabriel Garcia Marquez. What he sets out to write -- and manages to do so quite brilliantly -- is a complex generational family mystery. But the thing about mysteries is that, to convince, they have to be bedded in acceptable fact. The compulsive fascination of Zafon’s plot keeps bumping up against the implausibility of its context and background.

Dickens is, unexpectedly, the novelist from whom Zafon would seem to have learned most. In particular, he shares Dickens’ penchant for drawing business tycoons, whose actual business remains indeterminate, and, above all, he possesses an irrepressible urge to enrich a narrative with offhand allusions to extraneous characters and events. I especially relished his thumbnail sketch of the mad nun who “crept into houses at night to poison children and who, years later, was to be garrotted reciting the Lord’s Prayer backward with her eyes popping out of their orbits, while a red cloud spread over the town and discharged a storm of dead cockroaches.”

The central mystery isn’t quite as exotic, but what with secret tombs in bricked-up private vaults, obsessional book-burning and youthful grievances turned sour and monstrous with age, “The Shadow of the Wind” certainly has its moments. The main narrator, Daniel Sempere, a Candide-like innocent, is the son of an antiquarian bookseller, and the novel opens with his introduction to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, one of those vast yet apparently secret mausoleums that fill Zafon’s Barcelona.

Invited to choose a book for himself, he picks a novel by one Julian Carax titled (guess what) “The Shadow of the Wind.” It turns out that a mysterious figure (who assumes the name of a Carax character identified with the Devil) has for some time been buying up, and burning, every copy of Carax’s fictional output on which he can lay his hands.

The thread of this long novel is Daniel’s increasingly obsessional quest for Carax and a solution to the puzzling secrets in which his past is wrapped. The quest involves, among other things, a kind of creepy parallelism between the older and the younger man’s love affairs. Though Daniel manages to avoid Julian and Penelope’s horrendous erotic tragedy and reaches a Dickensian happy ending with his Beatriz, it’s only by the skin of his teeth and after a series of hair-raising mishaps.

Antiquarian books don’t normally make for trouble, but I lost count of the times Daniel and his friends are beaten up. Penelope dies in childbirth, alone in a locked bedroom. Fumero slits women’s throats with abandon. As the family secrets are opened up, one by one, they trigger yet more violence. Rain pours down, malevolent ghosts from the past stalk the streets, nothing is quite what it seems. The truth, when it emerges, is bleak, pitiless and not entirely credible.

“The Shadow of the Wind” is a runaway bestseller in Spain, and the book’s rights have been sold in more than 20 countries. At one level it’s easy to see why. Beautifully translated by Lucia Graves, it’s a compulsive page turner: Never mind the improbabilities; the reader gets hooked by Daniel’s strange odyssey and the innumerable offbeat characters he encounters along the way.

I once asked John Braine, the author of “Room at the Top,” what he thought made a bestseller. In his rich Yorkshire accent he said, “Lust and doom, lad, lust and doom. That’s what pulls ‘em in.” Zafon has both by the bucketful. But behind them there also lurks the memory of a struggle that tore Spain apart. Those ghosts are not laid to rest yet, and the Spanish readers who bought this novel in the thousands know it all too well. *

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