This is one of the novels included in the Eton headmaster’s list I wrote about earlier this month.
Let’s start with the nonsensical title, which sets the tone for the rest of the novel. The wind does not have a shadow. Perhaps I am being overly literal, or perhaps that is the point – the title being a euphemism for something that doesn’t exist. The title is also the name of the novel that is the subject matter of the story, a novel that is elusive and hard to pin down, like its author. So the title is, if I am being kind, an ironic, tongue in cheek, self-referential joke.
The same summary could be applied to the rest of the novel. It is written in high gothic style, reminiscent of the early 19thcentury gothic, grand guiginol novel. When one of the characters tells one of the many tales within a tale that make up this novel, another character responses that “It had all the makings of a lurid melodrama. “(239). When I read that I felt like responding as another character did when yet another diversionary tale is being spun ““The abridged version…for goodness sake!” (253). There are scenes set in crypts, with mysterious, ghostly apparitions, sinister, spectral figures lurking in the gloom, and so on. (See chapter 34 for the height of this style). The principal plot follows a young man who comes across a novel (the eponymous Shadow of the Wind) by a mysterious writer, Julian Carax. The young man tries to track Carax down, following various clues, and passes through a maze of clues until finally, at the novel’s climax, Carax’s true identify is revealed.
It’s hard to take this melodrama seriously. It seems more in European taste (for example, The Name of the Rose” which is an obvious influence) but is very old-fashioned. The tendency for characters to monologue about their exotic past reminded me at points of the un-improvable scene in Austin Powers, where Dr Evil reminisces about his childhood.
“The details of my life are quite inconsequential… very well, where do I begin? My father was a relentlessly self-improving boulangerie owner from Belgium with low grade narcolepsy and a penchant for buggery. My mother was a fifteen year old French prostitute named Chloe with webbed feet. My father would womanize, he would drink. He would make outrageous claims like he invented the question mark. Sometimes he would accuse chestnuts of being lazy. The sort of general malaise that only the genius possess and the insane lament. My childhood was typical. Summers in Rangoon, luge lessons. In the spring we’d make meat helmets. When I was insolent I was placed in a burlap bag and beaten with reeds- pretty standard really. At the age of twelve I received my first scribe. At the age of fourteen a Zoroastrian named Vilma ritualistically shaved my testicles. There really is nothing like a shorn scrotum… it’s breath-taking- I highly suggest you try it.”
Compare this with:
“This dream was the first of many and they began with that mysterious fever, which some blamed on the sting of a huge red scorpion that appeared in the house one day and was never seen again, and others on the evil designs of a mad nun who crept into houses at night to poison children, and who, years later, was to be garrotted reciting the Lord’s Prayer backwards with her eyes popping out of their sockets, while a red cloud spread over the town, discharging a storm of dead cockroaches” (268)
If you like this sort of thing, then obviously this is the sort of thing you will like. But is it well done? Are the characters convincing? Is the narrative compelling? Is this suitable reading for a well-read 16 year-old Etonian?
Well not really, no. The text is repetitive and over-written. There is little to admire in the writing by way of style, although I appreciate that could be in part a question of translation. The plot is ridiculous and predictable, and characters behave as they do without apparent motivation or sense. Women are reduced to cyphers – there isn’t a well developed female character in the book, and those that do appear are all generic and passive. Why this appeared on the Etonian reading list is more of a mystery than that unwound in this novel.
Redeeming features? Well the background was interesting. Post-Civil War Spain, where the fascists remain in control and the Secret Police can still make people disappear, where everyone has lost a family member or friend, was realistically drawn. But that’s largely it. This novel has huge numbers of five star reviews on Amazon, so I am obviously missing something.
This edition, published for the 10th anniversary of the book’s original publication, contains at the end some “Book Club reading notes”. I doubt if the book was originally written for this market, but there is a childishness, a paradoxical lack of complexity in the characterisation and plot (which for all its detail and length is actually fairly straightforward; all is revealed in a very linear way with the minimum amount of effort from the investigators, and carefully laid out in well preserved diaries and notes when required) which makes this suitable book club material, as well as justifying its inclusion in the Eton “What every 16 year old boy should have read” list.