Is it just me, or has Spain had a bit of a literary renaissance in recent years? It seems like, since the death of Franco, there has been a surge in interesting writing coming out of there. Some of that writing looks back at the time of Fascist dictatorship in that country, either directly for source material, or more generally for mood and theme.
The Shadow of the Wind falls into the second category. The book is set during Franco's long rule; the main story covers the years just after World War II up through the mid-1950's, while the rich backdrop for the story stretches back to the chaotic time just before the start of the civil war. The book really isn't about Franco, and I'm actually not sure if his name is ever mentioned, but the specter of malevolent power lies over the whole text. This is not a world that is ruled by the kind and the just; it is a world where brutal men with the fewest scruples gather the most power.
The book is pretty dark... not pitch black, thanks to some welcome humor and some wonderfully lovable characters, but still, there's a lot of fear to go around. Some of it is concentrated in particularly frightening scenes that play out like a Hitchcock horror, full of dread and slowly mounting tension that abruptly results in unexpected shocks. Even outside of that, though, there's a more displaced fear hanging around all the characters; their lives feel tenuous, as though at any moment they could be snipped away, and nobody would dare complain.
I had a hard time getting a bead on the literary style of this book. The narrator, Daniel, tells his own story, but his story is mainly about his attempt to discern another story, that of the mysterious novelist Julian Carax. Carax's story was largely finished before Daniel was born, and someone has been trying to wipe Carax's story from the face of the earth. Daniel keeps chasing down leads and trying to get a picture of what happened. Much like in Rashomon, though, every source he encounters has its own prejudice and perspective, and some people directly lie to him. Rather than slowly but directly approaching the heart of the secret, the story rapidly spirals in on it; allegations are corroborated, new threads woven into the tale, others plucked out. All this happens as Daniel faces increasing personal threats, and the circle of danger around him grows, gradually pulling in his friends as well.
One of the really disconcerting things about this book is the number of similarities between Daniel's personal life and that of Carax. Over and over, we see direct parallels between Daniel's past experiences and things that he has just learned about Julian. For a while, I was thinking that the book would turn out to be really meta, and we'd learn that Daniel was actually Julian or something elaborate like that. That turned out to not be the case; instead, the author does a phenomenal job of scattering those parallels throughout the book, and then, towards the end, wrapping them up and showing how they actually came to pass. Without giving too much away, I'll say that it's a surprisingly satisfying treatment.
I'd give this story its highest props for the plot and the mood, but the characters are just shortly behind that. Daniel himself is rather plain, but almost everyone else is colorful in a really interesting way. Some of the most vivid characters are those who we never meet, but who are revealed in Carax's backstory.
I'd never heard of the author before picking up this book, but I'm thoroughly impressed by what he's produced here. The Shadow of the Wind is a great, spooky, interesting story, a book about books that manages to avoid post-modern trickery and just tell a really excellent tale.