Translated from Spanish by Lucia Graves
“This is a place of mystery, Daniel, a sanctuary. Every book, every volume you see here, has a soul. The soul of the person who wrote it and of those who read it and lived and dreamed with it. Every time a book changes hands, every time someone runs his eyes down its pages, its spirit grows and strengthens. … When a library disappears, or a bookshop closes down, when a book is consigned to oblivion, those of us who know this place, its guardians, make sure that it gets here. …Every book you see here has been someone’s best friend.”
Welcome to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, a place only a few know about and where Daniel’s father, a bookseller, takes him when he turns 11. The tradition is that when someone visits the cemetery for the first time, he or she must choose a book and adopt it, promising to always keep it alive.
The book is set in Barcelona between 1945 and 1955, during the time of the Franco dictatorship. It was a time when people had to be careful about what they did or said or whom they associated with: getting on the wrong side of those in power could lead to your imprisonment or death. Political prisoners are held in Montjuïc Castle, an old fortress in Barcelona, where they are tortured.
That visit to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books changes Daniel’s life. The book that he chooses—or that chooses him—is The Shadow of the Wind by Julián Carax. Daniel becomes increasingly obsessed with the book and with its mysterious author. Julián Carax was from Barcelona but had disappeared suddenly and was said to have died in a duel.
Daniel’s search leads him to an abandoned house in the upscale part of Barcelona that used to belong to the Aldaya family, once known as one of the richest families in the city. The house seems to hide secrets about what really happened to Carax, and is not going to give them up easily.
Meanwhile, the shadow of the dictatorship falls on the lives of Daniel and his father. The man they hire to help in the bookshop, Fermín, was a political prisoner, held in Montjuic Castle, where he was tortured by Inspector Fumero. Fumero is a nasty, vengeful man, who is out to get Fermín by any means.
But there is more to Fumero. As Daniel and Fermín start to unravel the mystery of Carax’s life, they find links between him and Fumero. Was Fumero involved in Carax’s death? And who is the man with the scarred face calling himself Laín Coubert (the name of the devil in Carax’s The Shadow of the Wind), and determined to burn every single copy of Carax’s books?
I had read this book when it was first published and reread it after hearing of the death of Carlos Ruiz Zafón in June 2020. I remember enjoying it but had forgotten enough to be able to lose myself in the story. It was hard to put down: there are plenty of plots twists, a bit of melodrama and a real sense of place. It’s beautifully written, and Zafón pulls you into his world: a world where things—or people—might not be what they seem, where memories leave scars that don’t heal. And it’s a book about the power of books and stories.
Sometimes a writer creates a place that is so real and so tempting that you want to go there. As a child, that place for me was Narnia, C.S. Lewis’s imaginary world. As an adult, it would be the Cemetery of Forgotten Books: I would love to lose myself in its endless winding corridors and be claimed by a single book.
That’s the best compliment I can pay Zafón—that he still inspires me with the power to dream. I’m very sorry that we will not be reading more books from him, but by giving us the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, he has created an imaginary place that will live forever in the imaginations of his readers.