Discover the Barcelona of Carlos Ruiz Zafon

Gothic City, Gothic Literature

Ruiz Zafón’s writing has been associated with the Gothic novel, a genre that has had very few exponents in Spain. And Barcelona is considered a Gothic city by virtue of its architecture. Is there any relation between these two circumstances?


The writer himself, Barcelona-born, likes to allude to his links with an English-language literary tradition that emerges in the eighteenth century with authors such as Walpole and Beckford and is characterized by the use of medieval settings, a fantastical tone, and psychologically damaged, if not downright demonic, characters. Gothic, as a creative genre that attracted figures such as Byron, Jane Austen, Melville and Wilkie Collins, has a rich continuation in twentieth-century culture, from the Rebecca of Daphne du Maurier and Alfred Hitchcock to the Batman saga in comics and films, by way of Isak Dinesen or Roman Polanski and a good few of the novels of Joyce Carol Oates.

Ruiz Zafón combines this affiliation – the dark scenes, the demonic presences, the tormented characters – with doses of wry humour and observations of ordinary life. His is a nuanced Gothicism.

As for Barcelona, this is a city with more than two thousand years of history, which began its expansion under the Roman Empire. But its first great historic moment is medieval, and there we find the power of the Gothic. As the art critic Robert Hughes affirms in his famous book about the city: ‘Today, despite centuries of attrition and destruction, Barcelona’s Gothic quarter still contains the most concentrated array of thirteenth- to fifteenth-century buildings in Spain and, not discounting even Venice, the most complete in Europe. They are of all types: parish churches, town houses, government buildings, council halls, guild headquarters, industrial structures, and of course the Cathedral.’ The architecture reflected the prosperity of the medieval kingdom of Catalonia and Aragon, when, according to legend, even the fish in the Mediterranean had the four-barred flag on their backs.


Barcelona’s Gothic quarter, for a good few years now one of the city’s major tourist draws, is one of the elements that contextualize The Shadow of the Wind. The quarter is bisected by Calle Fernando, where Gustavo Barceló has his bookshop, between Calle Santa Ana, where the Semperes live, and the Plaza Real, where Clara Barceló plays the piano; Daniel frequently passes to and fro, skirting the Cathedral.

As it appears today, the Gothic quarter is something of an illusion. The whole area was subjected to a process of reconstruction and monumentalization between 1911, when the neo-Gothic façade of the Cathedral was completed, and 1965. Certain parts were rebuilt, such as the Plaza de San Felipe Neri where Nuria Monfort lives in The Shadow of the Wind – the square had been badly damaged during the Civil War, and the new buildings were required to be Gothic in style. Other elements were created from scratch, such as the so-called Puente del Obispo, designed by the architect Joan Rubió i Bellver in 1928, which very few people today would put at less than five hundred years old (local legend has it that the head of the Metropolitan Church used the bridge to slip out of his palace unnoticed – there are different explanations of why he should have wanted to).

Barcelona is a city with a lot of very good Gothic architecture, outside the Gothic quarter as well as in, but some of it is reconstructed and stylized, as it is in the Carcasonne of Violletle- Duc, who influenced a whole generation of Catalan architects. The Gothic buildings are a much repeated sign of how in Barcelona the distant past continues to pervade the present with its medieval memory. David Martín, the hero of The Angel’s Game, moves into a house in Calle Flassaders, in the Ribera district. The neighbourhood lives in the shadow of Santa María del Mar, one of the finest Gothic churches in the world, which has a referential role in the novel similar to that of the Cathedral in The Shadow of the Wind.

To all practical purposes, however, Ruiz Zafón is interested not so much in the Gothic as the neo-Gothic, which in Catalonia assumed certain very singular characteristics, and like any ‘neo-‘ is more dramatic and exaggerated than the model it is based on. Neo-Gothic, the reworking of elements of Gothic architecture several centuries after that historical style passed away, is in most cases a nostalgic vision of the past that sees the medieval as the pinnacle of a country’s culture. Nineteenth century Britain saw a revival of the Gothic style, championed by theorists like John Ruskin, with ogee arches, pointed towers and stained glass appearing all over the island, a phenomenon that was understood as a nostalgic reaction to rampant industrialization.

In Catalonia there was also a revival of Gothic in the second half of the nineteenth century, the period of maximum expansion of the local industrial bourgeoisie and the emergence of a movement of nationalist affirmation and recovery of the Catalan language that sought to recreate the glories – real and imagined – of the Middle Ages by way of things like Catalan poetry contests (Jocs Florals) and the adoption of a medievalizing aesthetic. This was the background to so-called Modernista architecture, whose prime exponent was Antoni Gaudí, Barcelona’s most eccentric and inspired architect (though he was born in Reus). Is it so surprising that the city that produced the finest concentration of Gothic buildings in Europe should also have the most distinguished Gothic revival?


Ruiz Zafón first fell under the hypnotic spell of Catalan neo-Gothic as a schoolboy at the great college run by the Jesuits in Sarriá. The school – by the architect Joan Martorell, who taught Gaudí and guided his first steps – is a powerful presence in Marina, as the boarding school attended by the narratorhero, and reappears in The Shadow of the Wind, transmuted into San Gabriel’s School.

Here Carax, Aldaya, Moliner, Ramos and Fumero coincide — the quintet of friends who then diverge, with tragic consequences: ‘Its red brick façade dotted with dagger-shaped windows [and] crowned by arches and towers . . . peered over a group of plane trees like a Gothic cathedral.’

As for Gaudí, his febrile spirit pervades many Zafónian pages. The author of The Shadow of the Wind grew up in the neighbourhood dominated by the Sagrada Familia, the unfinished ‘cathedral of the poor’, and the recurring sight of the Expiatory Temple with its spires and bridges and variegated multiform façade contributed, with the Jesuit school, to the neo-Gothic iconography of the writer’s childhood, so decisive in his work. For Ruiz Zafón, his Martorell-created school space and Gaudí-dominated home space compose the original sites of imagination, of mystery, of the enigma . . . The dusty zoology museum in the San Ignacio school and the unfinished towers overlooking his home stimulated him — enormously — and shaped his baroque, and at times sombre, imagination. And here we have the shift from Barcelona’s Gothic architecture to the literary Gothic in which our writer soon found the most satisfactory vehicle for his expressive needs.

The Year of the Games

It is hard to say whether a trilogy like the Cemetery of Forgotten Books could have been written before the 1992 Olympic Games, which placed Barcelona in the spotlight of international attention, made it fashionable, and at the same time led to the biggest urban transformation in its contemporary history.

It is possible that the recent international interest in Barcelona and its history and culture has contributed to The Shadow of the Wind being greeted with such well-deserved enthusiasm. We should bear in mind, though, that Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s mature fiction is largely a lament for a lost city, the city that disappeared with the Olympic games. As the narrator of Marina regretfully observes, ‘the Barcelona of my youth no longer exists. Its streets and its light have gone forever and live now only in memory.’

After working in advertising for a while, Carlos Ruiz Zafón (Barcelona, 1964) left the agency to start out as a professional writer and created his first published work, the young adult novel The Prince of Mist, in that Olympic summer of 1992. ‘I wrote a lot of it at night. The city was all lit up and I would work through till sunrise,’ he recalls. The Prince of Mist, which won the Edebé prize the following year, is set in a village on the English coast during World War II. His next two novels, The Midnight Palace and The Watcher in the Shadows, also for young adults, came out in 1994 and 1995, and also have non-Spanish settings: Calcutta in the 1930s and France in the same period.

Meanwhile our author, fascinated since childhood by the world of cinema, moved to Los Angeles, hoping to launch a career in the Seventh Art. It would seem that distance shifted his perception of his home town, because after a few years in the Californian metropolis, for the first time he felt inspired to use the Catalan capital as a literary setting, and has not strayed from it since. Marina takes place in Barcelona; he himself calls the book a hybrid between juvenile and adult fiction. Marina came out in 1999, followed in 2001 by The Shadow of the Wind, and in 2008, after a long wait, by The Angel’s Game, and all three are set in Barcelona. Meanwhile a number of short stories that had first appeared in diverse publications were collected in the privately circulated Barcelona Gothic (2008). In other words, the entire corpus of Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s mature fiction is enacted on the same stage.


The post-Olympic Barcelona is an elegant and (mostly) well kept and interconnected city, famous for its urban design, which has received a Harvard University planning award (although many dissenting voices are now dismissing the city’s model of development as moribund). In present-day Barcelona almost everything seems new or recent, even the historic buildings, most of which have been subjected to radical restoration.

By contrast, the city prior to the monumental Olympic face lift and the property speculation that went with it was a lot less looked-after, more ramshackle and labyrinthine, with less efficient transport links. It was not uncommon to find vacant lots and empty apartments, even whole buildings. Much of the outskirts was a no man’s land of dead-end streets where grass and weeds grew, and there were whole neighbourhoods where everything seemed just as it must have been in 1920. Down on the beach you could eat at wooden kiosks, now all bulldozed away. Despite the reforms being introduced by the new democratic administration, many grand official buildings retained their old, dark, heavy furniture and heinous functionaries who harked back to the Franco era or earlier, to the dictatorship of General Primo de Rivera. It was, in short, a city much more mysterious and full of contrasts, as well as being more sinister and of course more run-down than Barcelona today.


This pre-Olympic city is what captivates Carlos Ruiz Zafón, who has managed to fashion for us an extraordinary synthesis of the many different aspects of the historic Barcelona, its culture, its social life, its crime reports, its palpitations – at times with passionate feeling, at others with ironic detachment, but always with great narrative verve.

One of the most attractive qualities of these books is their point of view. In both Marina and The Shadow of the Wind, as in much of The Angel’s Game, the narrator who immerses himself in the city and reveals it to us is a teenager on the threshold of adulthood. His gaze is ours: his ingenuity and his vulnerability, and his insights, too. He is a solitary and far from knowing individual, often defenceless, like those heroes of Dickens’s to whom Ruiz Zafón pays tribute in his books, and it is through him we gain access to the secrets of the metropolis and observe with emotion and sadness how the passage of time and life tarnishes friendships, embitters hearts, twists destinies . . . And we also see how truth and love can win through, exercising their redemptive power.


Suggested Further Reading

  1. The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas
  2. A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens The Turn of the Screw by Henry James
  3. The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson
  4. The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana by Umberto Eco




(c) Sergio Vila-Sanjuán, 2008