In 2007, when I returned to university for a year to make my Spanish minor a major, I discovered a Spanish book in the library that had been translated into English. I read the book voraciously, unable to put it down in spite of all my studies and papers analyzing why El País used “ser” instead of “estar” and papers analyzing the symbiotic excess of Alex de la Iglesia’s El Día de la Bestia.
I had no idea that this marvelous book was one of the most popular books in Spain and had become popular throughout the world. I have since returned to read it in Spanish, and I can say not much was lost in translation for once, thanks to the expertise of English translator Lucia Graves, daughter of poet Robert Graves.
In Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s masterpiece La sombra del viento (The Shadow of the Wind), readers are taken back to Barcelona of the 1940s. Franco’s regime had just come into power. A young Daniel Sempere is taken by his father to The Cemetery of Forgotten Books, where he is allowed to rescue one book that he must promise to always protect. He chooses The Shadow of the Wind by Julián Carax and devours it (much like I devoured the book!) and sets out to find out more about this mysterious writer. Too bad all books by Julián Carax are being burned in post-Civil War Spain. The book then follows Daniel as an adult and his quest to learn about the mysterious man, putting himself into danger.
The 2001 successful was followed by a 2008 novel, El Juego de Ángel, which goes back to 1920s and 30s Barcelona to follow young writer David Martin, who is asked to write a book by a mysterious stranger. The Cemetery of Forgotten Books and Sempere and Sons bookshop make appearances. This was one of the first books I read in Spanish upon my arrival in Spain in December 2008, and I remember loving it, or what I understood of it, almost as much as the original.
The 2011 El prisionero del cielo, (The Prisoner of Heaven) is a disappointment after the first two. I remember being on the waiting list for about six months to read it, and it relies too heavily on being an homage to The Count of Monte Cristo and trying to make connections that aren’t really there between the first two novels in the series. It is nice, however, to return to see how Daniel Sempere is doing as an adult.
This series of books are not only a love affair to the city of Barcelona but also a love affair to books. They combine mystery, suspense, history and romance. And thankfully, neither Hollywood nor Spanish cinema has made a lesser film version yet. I’m knocking on wood here.
In a world of Twilights and 50 Shades of Grey, it’s nice to have a well-written suspense novel ride to the top of the literary world. For anyone who loves Barcelona as much as I do, these books are a must-read for insight on how it was during a tumultuous time in Spain’s history.
I just wish the Cemetery of Forgotten Books was real, as I’d probably never leave it.