"Books are mirrors: you only see in them what you already have inside you."
Well, I wonder then what part of me I saw inside this book - a book I adored despite its imperfections, despite its frequent veering into melodrama, despite (or maybe because of?) its densely Gothic atmosphere.
Whatever it was, it was enough to make me lose myself completely in the rich setting of mid-20th century Barcelona, in the world of seductive dangerous power of literature and perils and passions of young love, and the contrasts of idealistic innocence with the weariness of experience, all against the rich tapestry of the city full of beauty and secrets and vividness, all told in a lavish idiomatic language that makes you forget you're reading a translation.
And over all of this gothic surreal passion turned into words hangs a real grim presence of those in power who can come after you whenever they please, and who will try to silence you whenever they feel like it.
"I told her how until that moment I had not understood that this was a story about lonely people, about absence and loss, and that that was why I had taken refuge in it until it became confused with my own life, like someone who has escaped into the pages of a novel because those whom he needs to love seem nothing more than ghosts inhabiting the mind of a stranger."
This is really a story within a story. Narrated by a young Daniel Sempere, it chronicles his transformation from a child to a young man in a Francoist post-war Spain, his loves and obsessions, his brushes with the world of mysteries and reality - both of these worlds equally dangerous and fascinating. But Daniel is really a medium through which we learn the heart and soul of this book - the story of Julián Carax, a man who wrote a book that finds its way into Daniel's life, a man whose past and present shape the course of all the events in this narrative, Julián Carax who seems to be the embodiment of both driving force and destructive force in the pages of this novel.
“There are few reasons for telling the truth, but for lying the number is infinite.”
This book left me in an enchanted daze, and I'm still struggling to figure out why or how. What was it exactly that made it so easy for me to overlook the imperfections and blemishes of this story - the not-uncommon sexist male gaze, the telenovela-like melodramatic developments, the sometimes strange choices of inserting exposition into the narrative flow.
"A story is a letter that the author writes to himself, to tell himself things that he would be unable to discover otherwise."
And the only answers I can find are these - it was the fantastic engrossing atmosphere and the sincere unabashed love of literature, combined with the language that sings to you in all its exuberant beauty.
The atmosphere is built on a classic Gothic setting. The foreboding darkness haunts the story, complete with foreshadowings, strange haunted old mansions, dark secrets waiting to be unearthed, feverish passions and dark past tormenting the characters, emotional epistolary confessions, menacing villains, and dark stormy nights in abundance. Shadows are everywhere, and things lurk in them, be sure of that. And destiny seems to reach in with its meddling hand and place things in necessary to it order. And the tortured, passionate love stories - oh yes, they are here, too.
"Memories are worse than bullets.”
And yet the framing setting of 1950s grounds the Gothic atmosphere, forces it into reality. And the pervasive sharp humor makes the story quite self-aware of its own stylized nature, making the elements that can easily turn annoying into fascinating bits instead.
"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."
Daniel, a son of a bookshop owner, has a special connection with books - after all, he was introduced by his father to the mysterious place known as Cemetery of Forgotten Books, a place in the heart of Barcelona where abandoned books are stored, a place from where he is allowed to 'adopt' a book - and what calls to him is the book by an obscure writer Julián Carax, a Barcelonian himself, a man long-dead, a man whose remaining books are hunted and burned by a mysterious stranger.
"I began to believe that Julián was not a man, he was an illness."
It's Julián Carax, his elusive past and present, the enigma that surrounds the man and is impossible for Daniel to resist that form the cornerstone, the centerpiece of this novel. Julián, a tragic hero of the Gothic novel, whose life and character are slowly revealed bit by bit, until you realize you are just as enchanted with him as the people who have met him seem to be - and all that without Julián ever making an appearance himself. And by the time we see the warning signs of Julián's single-minded destructive obsession, it is too late to turn back, and we begin to understand the strange obsession with him that more than one character carries.
"There are worse prisons than words."
This book is an example of the journey, not the destination. The plot twists are not pivotal. The reveals that come are not that important, and there are plenty of clues for the reader to come to the conclusions well before they are revealed.
What is important, however, is allowing yourself to step into the world Zafón creates, into the early- and mid-century Barcelona, under the shadow of gothic buildings, into the world that no longer exists.
Lovely, lovely book; not perfect but engrossing and beautiful, and well-deserving of the attention it has received. Reading it is a quite an experience. 4 stars.
"Once, in my father's bookshop, I heard a regular customer say that few things leave a deeper mark on a reader than the first book that finds its way into his heart. Those first images, the echo of words we think we have left behind, accompany us throughout our lives and sculpt a palace in our memory to which, sooner or later—no matter how many books we read, how many worlds we discover, or how much we learn or forget — we will return."