THE SHADOW OF THE WIND

By Carlos Ruiz Zafon

Translated from the Spanish by Lucia Graves

Penguin. 487 pp. $24.95 Critics describing a new novel will sometimes resort to a particularly seductive formula: "If Judith Krantz had written Ulysses . . ." or "Half Georgette Heyer, half H.P. Lovecraft," or "If you enjoyed A Dog of Flanders, you'll just purr over The Cat's Pajamas." This is a seductive formula because it's easy to use (too easy, most of the time) and because it can quickly convey something of the range and complexity of a new book without going into a lot of detail.

But such shortcuts also remind us that novels, like most literature, build on earlier books as much as they do on life or on a writer's personal traumas. Indeed, one loose definition of modernism might be writing that is actually rewriting.

The Shadow of the Wind provokes such thoughts because it is a long novel that will remind readers of a good many other novels. This isn't meant as criticism but as an indication of the story's richness and architectonic intricacy. Before everything else, Carlos Ruiz Zafon's European bestseller is a book about a mysterious book, and its even more mysterious author. Try to imagine a blend of Grand Guignol thriller, historical fiction, occasional farce, existential mystery and passionate love story; then double it. If that's too hard to do, let me put it another way: If you love A.S. Byatt's Possession, Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude, the short stories of Borges, Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose, Arturo Perez-Reverte's The Club Dumas or Paul Auster's "New York" trilogy, not to mention Victor Hugo's Hunchback of Notre Dame and William Hjortsberg's Falling Angel, then you will love The Shadow of the Wind.

"I was raised among books," writes Daniel Sempere, "making invisible friends in pages that seemed cast from dust and whose smell I carry on my hands to this day." Young Daniel's father runs a used bookstore in Barcelona; his mother died when he was 4, and he misses her desperately. One afternoon in 1945 the older Sempere informs his not quite 11-year-old son that he is taking him to The Cemetery of Forgotten Books. "You mustn't tell anyone what you're about to see today." They wander through narrow winding streets, then finally stop before "a large door of carved wood, blackened by time and humidity. Before us loomed what to my eyes seemed the carcass of a palace, a place of echoes and shadows." Inside "a labyrinth of passageways and crammed bookshelves rose from base to pinnacle like a beehive woven with tunnels, steps, platforms, and bridges that presaged an immense library of seemingly impossible geometry." Daniel's father tells him that "according to tradition, the first time someone visits this place, he must choose a book, whichever he wants, and adopt it, making sure that it will never disappear, that it will always stay alive." Daniel chooses -- or perhaps is chosen by -- "The Shadow of the Wind," by Julian Carax.

Daniel loses himself in the book -- we are never told too much about its gothic-thriller plot -- and soon asks for other works by Carax, who seems to have been a Spaniard living in Paris during the 1920s and '30s. He learns that his works are virtually impossible to find. Rumor has it that over the past 10 years or so a dark figure with a limp has bought up every Carax available, and that libraries and private collections have had their Carax titles stolen. It's hinted that all the copies -- never plentiful to begin with -- have been burnt and that the man with the limp goes by the name of Lain Coubert. Daniel knows this name. In "The Shadow of the Wind" it is the one used by the devil.

About this same time, our young bibliophile comes to know a well-to-do bookseller and his gorgeous blind niece, who dresses all in white. The boy takes to visiting Clara in the evenings to read to her, naturally falling in love with the young woman. Meanwhile, he keeps trying to find out more about Julian Carax. Time passes. Then, one night, the now adolescent Daniel is unable to sleep, and he looks out into the night. "A motionless figure stood out in a patch of shadow on the cobbled street. The flickering amber glow of a cigarette was reflected in his eyes. He wore dark clothes, with one hand buried in the pocket of his jacket, the other holding the cigarette that wove a web of blue smoke around his profile. He observed me silently, his face obscured by the street lighting behind him. He remained there for almost a minute smoking nonchalantly, his eyes fixed on mine. Then, when the cathedral bells struck midnight, the figure gave a faint nod of the head, followed, I sensed, by a smile that I could not see. I wanted to return the greeting but was paralyzed. The figure turned, and I saw the man walking away, with a slight limp."

This passage occurs on page 37, and the real story of The Shadow of the Wind has just begun.

Gradually, Daniel learns that Carax was born in Barcelona, the son of a beautiful French piano teacher and the owner of a local hat shop. It's said that someone other than Antoni Fortuny was Julian's actual father but that Sophie Carax, even when beaten and abused, would never reveal his identity. When Julian grew to adolescence, he joined a group of four other boys -- one later becoming a priest, another a cold-blooded government assassin, another the financier of his books. He also fell desperately in love with the fourth boy's sister, Penelope.

Meanwhile, the reader notices that Daniel himself -- now 18 or 19 -- is oddly replicating the life of Julian. As he delves into Carax's past, he meets people who casually mention that he looks a little like the novelist. Daniel eventually discovers that Carax fled Paris after a duel on the day he was to marry a wealthy and elderly woman. His body was found in an alley in Barcelona a month later, just as the Civil War broke out. Virtually all those who befriended Carax appear to have ended up impoverished, crazed or dead. The house of his beloved Penelope has been long abandoned and is said to be haunted.

As the reader tries to figure out the links between modern Spanish history, two passionate and forbidden love affairs and an enigmatic novelist, Carlos Ruiz Zafon periodically lessens the tension of his dark melodrama by introducing humorous interludes or eccentric secondary characters. The Semperes give work to a beggar who claims to have been a secret agent and many other things. Fermin is worldly, tough, shrewd, utterly loyal and bawdy:

"For the life of God, I hereby swear that I have never lain with an underage woman, and not for lack of inclination or opportunities. Bear in mind that what you see today is but a shadow of my former self, but there was a time when I cut as dashing a figure as they come. Yet even then, just to be on the safe side, or if I sensed that a girl might be overly flighty, I would not proceed without seeing some form of identification or, failing that, a written paternal authorization. One has to maintain certain moral standards."

Zafon -- at least in the fine English of Lucia Graves -- can also turn a witty phrase: Describing a learned priest, he writes, "Years of teaching had left him with that firm and didactic tone of someone used to being heard, but not certain of being listened to." Some of the wit -- or is it symbolism? -- can be subtle: When Fermin happens to mention the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse on one page, on the next he is knocking over a set of the novels of Vicente Blasco Ibanez, whose best known book is the once wildly popular bestseller The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Not least, like his partial model Sancho Panza, Fermin also specializes in peasant wisdom:

"Look, Daniel. Destiny is usually around the corner. Like a thief, like a hooker, or a lottery vendor: its three most common personifications. But what destiny does not do is home visits. You have to go for it."

And so, in a sense, Daniel does go for it, plunging deeper and deeper into the enigma of Julian Carax and his accursed books, and along the way risking the lives and happiness of all those he loves. It grows ever more apparent that much that has seemed random or mad or unlucky -- the burning of Carax's novels, sudden disappearances, the blighting of so many lives -- may be part of a larger insidious plan, that there are wheels within wheels.

I'd like to say more about this superbly entertaining book but don't dare to hint any more about its plot twists. Suffice it to say that -- and here's yet another critical formula -- anyone who enjoys novels that are scary, erotic, touching, tragic and thrilling should rush right out to the nearest bookstore and pick up The Shadow of the Wind. Really, you should. *

Michael Dirda's email address is dirdam@washpost.com. His weekly discussion of books takes place each Wednesday at 2 p.m. on washingtonpost.com.