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The novel, set in Barcelona in the period following the Spanish Civil War, concerns a young boy, Daniel Sempere. Just after the war, Daniel’s father takes him to the secret Cemetery of Forgotten Books, a huge library of old, forgotten titles lovingly preserved by a select few initiates. According to tradition, everyone initiated to this secret place is allowed to take one book from it and must protect it for life. Daniel selects a book called The Shadow of the Wind by Julián Carax.
That morning he takes the book home and reads it, completely engrossed. Daniel then attempts to look for other books by this unknown author but can find none. All he comes across are stories of a strange man—calling himself Laín Coubert, after a character in the book who happens to be the Devil—who has been seeking out Carax’s books for decades, buying and burning them all.
The novel is actually a story within a story. The boy, Daniel Sempere, in his quest to discover Julian’s other works, becomes involved in tracing the entire history of Carax. His friend Fermin Romero de Torres, who was imprisoned and tortured in Montjuic Castle for having been involved in an espionage against the Anarchists during the war—himself being a government intelligence agent—helps Daniel in a number of ways, but their probing into the murky past of a number of people who have been either long dead or long forgotten unleashes the dark forces of the murderous Inspector Fumero.
Thus, unravelling a long story that has been buried in the depths of oblivion, Daniel and Fermin come across a love story, the beautiful yet tragic story of Julian and Penelope, both of whom seem to having been missing since 1919—that is, nearly thirty years earlier. Julian, who was the son of the hatter Antoni Fortuny and his wife Sophie Carax (but preferred to use his mother’s last name), and Penelope Aldaya, the only daughter of the extremely wealthy Don Ricardo Aldaya and his beautiful, narcissistic American wife, developed an instant love for each other and lived a clandestine relationship only through casual furtive glances and faint smiles for around four years, after which they decided to elope to Paris, unaware that the shadows of misfortune had been closing in on them ever since they had met. The two lovers are doomed to unknown fates just a week before their supposed elopement, which is meticulously planned by Julian’s best friend, Miquel Moliner—also the son of a wealthy father, who had earned much during the war, including a bad reputation for selling ammunition. It is eventually revealed that Miquel loved Julian more than any brother and finally sacrificed his own life for him, having already abandoned his desires and his youth for causes of charity and his friend’s well-being after his elopement to Paris — although without Penelope, who never turned up for the rendezvous.
Penelope’s memory keeps burning in Julian’s heart, and this eventually forces him to return to Barcelona (in the mid 1930s); however he encounters the harsh truth about Penelope, nothing more than a memory to those who knew her since she had never been seen or heard of again by anyone after 1919. Daniel discovers, from the note Nuria Monfort left for him, that Julian and Penelope are actually half-brother and sister; her father had an affair with his mother and Julian was the result. The worst thing he learns is that after Julian left, Penelope’s parents imprisoned her because they were ashamed of her committing incest with him and she was pregnant with his child. Penelope gave birth to a son named David Aldaya, who was stillborn. Penelope died in childbirth, due to her parents’ ignoring her cries for help, and her body was placed in the family crypt along with her child’s. When returning to the Aldaya Mansion, Julian is enraged and embittered by the news of his love’s death along with their child’s. He hates every wasted second of his life without Penelope and hates his books all the more. He begins to burn all of his novels and calls himself Lain Coubert.
After finishing reading the book, Daniel marries Beatriz “Bea” Aguilar, whom he has loved for a long time, in 1956. Soon after, Bea gives birth to a son. Daniel names his son Julian Sempere, in honor of Julian Carax. In 1966, Daniel takes Julian to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, where The Shadow of the Wind is kept.
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