Labyrinth of the Spirits is a Masterpiece

Labyrinth of the Spirits (2016/2018 in English)
By Carlos Ruiz Zafόn

If you are a fan of the Cemetery of Forgotten Books series, you already suspect that Labyrinth of the Spirits, the fourth and final book, is worth reading. I will go one step further, though, and aver that it’s one of the few genuine masterpieces yet to appear in the 21st century. You could read this one on its own, but if you’re not yet a fan I highly recommend that you devote a few months and devour the entire quadrilogy. Reading Carlos Ruiz Zafόn is a bittersweet experience; you keep turning the pages to see what will happen next, yet you don’t want the story to conclude.

One of the most dangerous times in an authoritarian state is when it seems the dictator’s grip is loosening. In part that’s because fascists like Spain’s Francisco Franco never really want to give up control, and in part because there’s an entrenched power structure dependent upon not relaxing the grip. In the case of Spain in 1960, when much of the action of Labyrinth of the Spirits takes place, this would include the police, the secret police, the military, Opus Dei, and a host of now-respectable citizens who have vats of blood on their hands.

Labyrinth of the Spirits retains a cast of characters that feel like family to devoted readers, including Daniel Sempere and his aging father Juan, the owners of a book store; Daniel’s wife, Beatrice; Isaac Montfort, the caretaker of the secret Cemetery of Forgotten Books; and, of course, Daniel’s mentor and partner in adventure Fermín Romero de Torres, one of literature’s most outrageous, funny, and lovable characters. Like the first three books of the series, this one flashes back to the Spanish Civil War (1936-39), a bloody event often viewed as a dress rehearsal for World War II. Most secrets, after all, have been moldering for many years.

By 1960, Franco was 68-years-old, and had been in power for 21 years. He chose to “liberalize” Spain, mostly in a (successful) attempt to attract foreign investment that would revive Spain’s moribund economy. With it came rumors that Franco’s Falangist Party was also relaxing social codes. In Barcelona, where the novel is set, most citizens were justifiably skeptical. (The city had long been a center of anti-Franco sentiment.)  

Zafόn introduces a new character, Alicia Gris, a Barcelona native but now a member of the secret police based in Madrid. She is beautiful, though damaged; walking is difficult for Alicia, as she hobbles on a hip damaged when Franco’s planes bombed Barcelona in 1936, when she was a child. (She was rescued by none other than Fermín, but you can discover the details of this on your own.) Alicia is a deadly femme fatale, the star creation of ruthless mentor Leandro Montalvo, who sends her to Barcelona to discover the whereabouts of Mauricio Valls, who was once a merciless man in his own right, but is now Spain’s Minister of Culture. Montalvo sends police detective Juan Manuel Vargas to assist her, over Alicia’s vehement objections­—she’s a classic lone wolf—but she reluctantly (and only to a degree) partners with him. Alicia has her own sources, including a young man named Fernandito, who is in love with her. 

On a parallel track, Daniel is haunted by his mother’s death and rumors of her life before she married his father. He has become downright sullen and, in turn, his wife Beatrice is losing patience with him. The two tales will overlap, with clues emerging in archives and in an ominous children’s book by Victor Mataix. Alicia comes to suspect that there are layers of secrets that lie deeper than even she realizes.

 Labyrinth of the Spirits is a serpentine mystery filled with the unexpected. Note that the final word in the title is plural. Metaphorically speaking, it is a book filled with ghosts. For instance, the section of Barcelona known as Montjuic is perhaps best known as the site of the 1992 summer Olympics. In the 1940s, though, it was the location of the kind of prison one exits posthumously and probably not in one piece. It factors into the story, as do some exceedingly creepy houses, a terrifying henchman named Hendaya, a missing banker Ubach, and much more. The Cemetery of Forgotten Books is also integral to a story that reveals more details about those from the previous three books whose back stories had remained ambiguous: Julián Carax, Daniel Martín, and Daniel’s mother. It is a sprawling novel and at times you might feel lost, but don’t worry or hurry—all is revealed in due time. Plus, just when things become almost too tense to endure, Fermín comes to the rescue with one of his outsized boasts that make you snicker out loud.

The one knock on Zafόn is that his female characters are too passive. He compensates in spades in his finale. Finale—a word I’ve been loath to type. But I get it; I can’t imagine how he could top Labyrinth of the Spirits.

Rob Weir

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