The very first thing after retrieving our stuff from the luggage carousel at Barcelona airport, I sought out una librería, a bookshop. I’d been looking forward to reading in Spanish in Spain, and I knew that, unlike Bono, I’d find what I was looking for – La sombra del viento (“The Shadow of the Wind”) by Carlos Ruiz Zafón – in the first bookshop I came across. From what I’ve read, this gothic blockbuster lies somewhere between a Dan Brown potboiler and an erudite, labyrinthine Umberto Eco one, and is just as successful.
A couple of days before leaving for Europe I had researched bookshops in Barcelona and found a couple worth investigating, but I knew it might be a few days after our arrival before I got to them. On the other hand, the airport bookshop would give me what I needed quickly, the Zafón, which indeed I started reading that same day. Más vale pájaro en mano que cien volando (“a bird in the hand is worth more than one hundred flying”) as they say.
And so, jet lagged and unable to sleep past 5 in the morning for the first few days of our sejourn, I ploughed into La sombra with my Android phone’s Google Translate app at my side every step of the way. For me reading a popular novel set in Barcelona, albeit one of dark alleyways and abandoned mansions, against the backdrop of a civil war, was a perfect complement to the standard tasteful restaurant and architecture guides you get when you come here. Although seriously, I have to say that there’s nothing really tasteful about the Sagrada Família. It really is unlike anything else. We would have given it a miss if it wasn’t for 5-year old Eoin insisting we buy a miniature Sagrada from one of the ubiquitous quioscos, which made me realise how iconic it was, and how it would be madness not to at least be able to say “Yep, seen it.”
Another of the highlights of our trip was Barcelona Cathedral, which naturally enough was dark and sepulchral inside, but whose plaza out front was spacious and full of people taking photos, celebrating mass, or having an expensive coffee, as befits one of the tourist epicentres of this city. The area around the cathedral had a more sinister ambiente in the novel, of course, and it was fun to go home each day after our sightseeing and read about Daniel, el hijo del sombrerero (what a wonderful word), the son of the hatmaker, passing through the alleyways in and around the catedral.
And as I write this, three months after Barcelona, I’ve finally just finished La sombra. It’s been a long and rewarding slog, and I now know know how to say “his hands trembled as he turned the dusty pages in the failing light” in Spanish. Actually I don’t really, but I’d recognise those words if I ever saw them in another Spanish novel. A novel like El juego del ángel (“The Angel’s Game”) for instance, the sequel to La Sombra, which I picked up second hand in Girona in one of those street book stalls you see quite a lot in Europe. God, I miss Europe.