R.I.P Carlos Ruiz Zafón

As if 2020 hasn’t been horrible enough, Spanish author Carlo Ruiz Zafón died in Los Angeles on June 19. He was just 55 and had been in the U.S. off and on since the 1990s working as a screenwriter. His was not a coronavirus death; he had colorectal cancer, but still….

Earlier this year I read The Labyrinth of the Spirits, the final selection in his magnificent Shadow of the Wind quadrilogy. I cannot conjure the name of an author writing in the 21st century whose works enthralled me as much or engaged my imagination to the degree that Zafón was able to do.

Zafón was born in Barcelona in 1965. That made him 26 years too young to recall any part of the Spanish Civil War (1936-39), which brought the Falangist (fascist) dictatorship of Francisco Franco to Spain. He had just turned 10 when Franco died in 1975. Like many Spaniards, especially Catalonians such as Zafón, the Civil War continued/continues to loom large in that slippery construct known as the collective unconscious. Catalonia was fiercely anti-Franco and often bore the brunt of oppression. If you’ve been to Barcelona and marveled over its vibrancy, know that most of it evolved after Franco’s death. Likewise, if you’ve followed the current political drama involving the desire of Catalonians to secede from Spain, it too is rooted in Falangist repression, including Franco’s decree banning the Catalan language. (Contrary to popular belief, Catalan is not a Spanish dialect, though it is a Romance language.)

Zafón’s Shadow of the Wind books all involve the Spanish Civil War, the dictatorship, and the semi-loosening of Falangist repression in the 1960s. Not much is more fraught with danger than a dictatorship seeking to “liberalize.” Where is the boundary between freedom of expression and ending one’s days being tortured in a castle dungeon? What generally occurs is that overt control gives way to self-imposed (but well-placed) paranoia. Zafón wrote about all of this, but wove the themes into fictional tales that centered on the Sempere family and their Barcelona bookshop, especially young Daniel Sempere and his mentor/sidekick/and sometimes dangerous older friend Fermin Romero de Torres. Fermin is, simply, one of the funniest and most outrageous characters in all of literature. Whenever things start to get too heavy, one of Fermin’s bodacious boasts force readers to laugh aloud.

The novels also have splashes of magical realism. The Cemetery of Forgotten Books also factors into the novels. It is a hidden place accessible only by initiates and is as implied–a repository for books either never published or which never found favor. Those who gain access the first time get to choose a book to borrow–randomly, as it is said the book chooses you, not vice versa. The image one gets of the place is that it is a Fibonacci spiral based on the mathematical figure that yields the golden ratio. (You don’t need to understand that.)

I have reviewed all four books and will let those words speak for themselves. Each uses an unreliable narrator that keeps readers on their toes. Here is a capsule with a link to each review.

The Shadow of the Wind (2004 in English) introduces us to Daniel, Fermin, and their neighbors. Daniel’s forgotten book is from Julian Carax and Daniel becomes obsessed with trying to unravel what happened to Carax and his love affair with Penelope. It takes us backward to the Civil War and forward to 1956. There are elements of Romeo and Juliet, but literal and figurative mists make this a mystery within a tragedy within a thriller.

The Angel’s Game (2009 in English) is the toughest read of the four because it’s a prequel set in the 1920s and 1930s. It also involves the Sempere family (sans Daniel), but centers on writer David Martin, who plays more of a deal-with-the-Devil game rather than one with an angel. It is melodramatic and so deeply mysterious that you need to read the next book to sort what happened from what may have been Martin’s descent into madness.

The Prisoner of Heaven (2012 in English) is something of an unlocking key novel that unveils deep background details of Fermin, Martin, and Daniel’s brooding personality and marital problems. It is the shortest of the three books. I liked it, but it’s the weakest of the four. It needs to be read, though, to sort out the details mentioned.

The Labyrinth of the Spirits (2018 in English) is, like Book One, a masterpiece. It delves deeply into the aforementioned dangers of a liberalizing dictatorship and introduces a tantalizing which-side-are-you-on character Alicia Gris. Daniel seeks the answers to a mystery involving his mother, but does he really want to know? Many doors open; most are dangerous.

Rob Weir

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