The novel opens in Barcelona in 1945, as Daniel Sempere walks with his father to the mysterious Cemetery of Forgotten Books for the first time. Mr. Sempere warns Daniel never to speak to anyone of what he will see inside. When Daniel asks if he can tell his mother, Mr. Sempere says sadly that “we keep no secrets from her.” This is because Daniel’s mother died in a cholera epidemic just after the end of the Spanish Civil War.
The novel starts—and ends—with a ritual of father-son bonding. That this ritual takes place at a literary landmark demonstrates how central books are both to their relationship and Daniel’s process of growing up. As are most of the novel’s mothers, Mrs. Sempere is immediately established as a passive and ghostly presence at the narrative’s sidelines.
Mr. Sempere owns a bookshop he inherited from his father. He and Daniel live over the bookshop in a small apartment which Daniel feels is still permeated by the sadness of his mother’s death. Daniel says he spent his entire childhood making “invisible friends” among the characters in old books. He also treats his dead mother like an invisible friend, talking out loud to her before he falls asleep.
Right away, Daniel compares his love for books to his love for the women in his life. Both play a strong and mysterious but ultimately passive role in his development.
On the morning in question, Daniel wakes up at dawn “screaming” because he can no longer remember his mother’s face. After comforting him, Mr. Sempere says he has something to show him and leads him through the sleepy city streets. Stopping at a large, forbidding door, Mr. Sempere knocks until a small man named Isaac answers. Mr. Sempere introduces Daniel as his son and the future inheritor of his bookshop.
Daniel is upset because he’s losing the memories that link him to his mother. The Cemetery of Forgotten Books is a solution to this not just because it’s a good distraction for a child, but because it’s a repository of memories and truths at risk of perishing in the real world, tacitly assuring Daniel that his mother’s memory won’t ever disappear.
Daniel discovers that within the building is a round hall and myriad labyrinthine passages, all crammed with books. Browsing through them are several men Daniel recognizes as other booksellers and colleagues of his father. Mr. Sempere tells Daniel that “every volume you see here has a soul” and preserves the thoughts and feelings both of the author and those who read it. He says no one knows exactly how the Cemetery originated, but the men who know its secret now make sure that books without a home or at risk of fading into oblivion are stored here, waiting to be appreciated by new readers.
Mr. Sempere’s narrative suggests that the world of literature, although ostensibly created by humans, is also outside human control and somehow coincident with human development. He makes clear that books also interact with and influence reality, rather than just reflecting it.
Daniel is awed and amazed. Best of all, to commemorate his first visit to the cemetery, he gets to choose a book to take home with him. As he walks deliberately through the passageways, he muses that each book contains a “boundless universe” that is infinitely more expansive than the worlds of people, who while away the time in “football and radio soaps.”
At that moment, drawn by “chance, or its more flamboyant relative, destiny,” Daniel notices an unfamiliar title called The Shadow of the Wind, by Julián Carax. He selects this book and leaves the cemetery, feeling that the book has been waiting for him since before he was born.
Back in their apartment, Daniel begins reading The Shadow of the Wind and is immediately hooked. The novel is about a man searching for his biological father, whose identity his mother divulges only as she is dying. The protagonist is also haunted by his “lost youth” and the “shadow of a cursed love.” The novel is especially interesting because it’s composed of various nested narratives, the literary equivalent of “Russian dolls.” Daniel stays up all night reading.
Carax’s novel is concerned with the same problems – the relationships between fathers and sons and the tragedy of romantic love – that will come to dominate Zafón’s. Daniel doesn’t know it yet, but for the first time he’s experiencing the duality between books and his life. Moreover, the reader experiences a sense of duality because the book within the book is suspiciously similar to and even shares a name with the novel itself.
Daniel recalls a customer remarking that nothing is more influential to a reader than “the first book that finds its way into his heart.” Daniel believes this is true, and that the “enchanted” themes and images he first encounters in Carax’s novel accompany him through the rest of his life.
The novel establishes acts of reading as equivalent to conventional milestones of life. In Daniel’s case, this phenomenon is exaggerated because the events of his life will go on to directly mirror the events of the book to which he’s so drawn.