Carlos Ruis Zafon on Barcelona, Spain #TheCityasMuse
The dark brooding city that forms the backdrop of Zafon’s Shadow of the Wind and its prequel The Angel’s Game bears little resemblance to the sunny bright city I experienced in the summer of 2011. Stop. Let me think again….. a sliver of a memory jumps out at me…
On one dark night, Rahul and me explored the lanes around La Ramblas in the Catalan city of Barcelona and then meandered back to our rented apartment through the Gothic Quarter. I remember vividly picturing the loneliness and pain of Julian Carax and the insatiable curiosity of Daniel Sempere. Mean looking gargoyles stared down at us and strange shapes in light and shade flitted about, sending shivers down my spine. Then the sounds of tourist revelry brought me back to the present….
Zafon’s book brings to life post-war post-Gothic Barcelona in a special way. The city does not take over from a story that focuses on its intense characters; there are no long architectural descriptions, no paeans to the glorious past. Yet the city is a person, present at every turn. A backdrop, a refuge, a cruel taskmaster, a friend offering solace. Zafon constructs a Gothic Barcelona, dark, elusive, misty and mysterious and he weaves it into the experiences of his characters. This is a city that tourists rarely see but are now being shown, in the form of walking tours, since his book’s fame spread!
“I had grown up convinced that the slow procession of the postwar years, a world of stillness, poverty, and hidden resentment, was as natural as tap water, that the mute sadness that seeped from the walls of the wounded city was the real face of its soul. One of the pitfalls of childhood is that one doesn’t have to understand something to feel it. By the time the mind is able to comprehend what has happened, the wounds of the heart are already too deep. That evening in early summer, as I walked back through the sombre, treacherous twilight of Barcelona, I could not blot out Clara’s story about her father’s disappearance. In my world death was like a nameless and incomprehensible hand, a door-to-door salesman who took away mothers, beggars, or ninety-year-old neighbours, like a hellish lottery. But I couldn’t absorb the idea that death could actually walk by my side, with a human face and a heart that was poisoned with hatred, that death could be dressed in a uniform or a raincoat, queue up at a cinema, laugh in bars, or take his children out for a walk to Ciudadela Park in the morning, and then, in the afternoon, make someone disappear in the dungeons of Montjuic Castle or in a common grave with no name or ceremony. Going over all this in my mind, it occurred to me that perhaps the papier-mache world that I accepted as real was only a stage setting. Much like the
arrival of Spanish trains, in those stolen years you never knew when the end of childhood was due.
We shared the soup, a broth made from leftovers with bits of bread in it, surrounded by the sticky droning of radio
soaps that filtered out through open windows into the church square.”
Of course, the author’s love and sensitivity to the city he grew up in is obvious and he has been outspoken about this. In an interview to The Independent in 2012, Zafon said: “The haunting of history is ever present in Barcelona. I see cities as organisms, as living creatures. To me Madrid is a man and Barcelona is a woman. And it’s a woman who’s extremely vain. One of the great Catalan poets, Joan Maragall, wrote this famous poem in which he called Barcelona the great enchantress, or some kind of sorceress, and in which the city has this dark enticing presence that seduces and lures people. I think Barcelona has a lot of that.”