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


Nothing Here to See Catches Fire

Nothing to See Here (2019)
By Kevin Wilson
HarperCollins, 272 pages

Welcome to chapter two of offbeat novels week. Nothing to See Here is from the pen–okay keyboard–of Kevin Wilson. If the name rings a bell, it’s because he previously wrote The Family Fang, which was made into a movie starring Nicole Kidman and Jason Bateman.

Nothing to See Here begins routinely enough. Two girls meet at a private school and become best friends. It’s an unlikely pairing as Madison is tall, beautiful, blonde, and rich. Lillian is a scholarship student, has no idea who her father is, and was (barely) raised by an emotionally unavailable mother distracted by financial pressures and a series of inappropriate boyfriends. Family dysfunction is a point of contact; Madison’s parents have also checked out in the affection department, partly because she’s a girl, but mostly because they just can’t be bothered, which is why she’s in a boarding school in the first place. They seem to care only about reputation. Lillian swears like a sailor, which is a perfect match for Madison’s internalized anger. By their senior year, both need to figure out what comes next. Fate makes that decision for them. Drugs are found in Madison’s desk, which is an automatic expulsion offense. Except it’s Lillian who gets the boot, because Madison’s father pays her money-hungry mother a tidy sum to force Lillian to say the drugs were hers. Mom gets the cash and Lillian gets a dead-end service industry job. So much for friendship.

Move the calendar ahead a few years and Madison reappears with a tale of how “embarrassed” she was over her father’s bribe. She’s now married to Jasper Roberts, a U.S. Senator from Tennesee, who is older than Madison but was dazzled by her beauty and left his wife and two children for her. Together they have a four-year-old son named Timothy and they live on the Roberts ancestral estate. She was rich before, but now she’s filthy rich and married to a man many believe will be a future U.S. president. Madison has a proposition for Lillian. Would she like to come live on the estate and become a governess?

Here’s where it gets weird. Lillian would not be Timothy’s governess, rather that of Jasper’s first two children,10-year-old Bessie and 9-year-old Roland whose mother has committed suicide. And by the way, they sometimes catch on fire. Yes, you read that correctly. They don’t start fires; they catch on fire! They are not harmed by the flames, though it’s not so good for clothing, furniture, curtains, or other combustible objects. There are a few other impediments to consider. First, Lillian knows nothing about children. Second, she has no training as a teacher, psychologist, or firefighter. Third, she’d be living on the estate and has the social graces of a badger, the wardrobe of a skateboarder, and every other word out of her mouth is “fuck.” Finally, the kids are not exactly thrilled to be coming to live with a father they barely remember or fobbed off to some girl they’ve never met.

You’ve got to admit, it’s an original premise! Fobbing off is exactly what’s supposed to happen. Senator Roberts is an ambitious cold fish. Madison claims to love her husband and her life, but deep down she realizes that she married into a situation analogous to the one in which she was raised. In truth, the only close relationship she’s ever had was with Lillian. Back on the estate, there’s lots of staff to help out, including Mary, the skeptical cook, and Carl, who seems to be a combination senatorial aide and fixer. He is also supposed to keep an eye on Lillian, whom he treats with disdain. In other words, Lillian is so far out of her element, that things might just work. After all, what could possibly go wrong with to kids who self-combust when agitated? Kids hardly ever get upset, right?  

Wilson could have played this for dark comedy laughs, a route he sometimes takes. Alternatively, he could have taken the logical illogical path and made this into an absurdist novel–perhaps a Southern-fried mix of Lewis Carroll, Joseph Heller, Tom Robbins, and Samuel Beckett. Instead, Wilson chooses a more conservative gambit that, frankly, I don’t think works as well as he does. To be candid, there were times in which the book flounders stylistically. Madison and Lillian often act and speak as if they are 26 going on 14. Consider this small sample. In a moment of anger Madison accuses Lillian of jealousy. She replies, “I don’t want your life. Your life seems fucked up. It seems sad.” Prose like that is neither Virginia Woolf nor Tom Wolfe. If I might, such passages are in no danger of igniting.

Nonetheless, if Nothing Here to See isn’t deathless prose, it is surely well-plotted. No matter what else one might say, Wilson has one helluva central hook. His device eventually leads us to muse upon questions of damage and healing. We often hear glib comments about the resiliency of children. Allegedly they recover from trauma more easily than adults. If it’s so, why are Lillian and Madison stuck in adolescence? (If that is so, why do psychologists spend their careers helping grown-ups resolve haunting memories?) Wilson’s novel touches upon the search for keys to unlock youthful hurt. Plus, don’t you really want to know what’s in store for kids who catch on fire? I know I did. Thus, even if Nothing Here to See isn’t a perfect novel, it’s so odd that it works against all odds. (Word play intended.) It’s a quick and lively read and sometimes that’s all the flame one needs.

Rob Weir  


Crossings a Weird and Unique Novel

Crossings (2019)
By Alex Landragin
St. Martins Press, 384 pages

Crossings, the debut novel from Alex Landragin, has a bit of everything: pure fiction, literary fiction, science fiction, romance, mystery, anthropological observations, and paranormal activity. It spans 150 years of time, but implies things ancient and inexplicable.

The novel opens with a clever device. It’s opening lines are, “I didn’t write this book. I stole it.” Baroness Beatie Ellingham visits a respected Belgian bookbinder and advises she will send a book by courier with instructions and materials on recovering the text. She makes him promise that he will not read it. All bets are off, though, when the bookbinder discovers several days later that the baroness is dead, the victim of a grisly murder in which her eyes were cut out. As the bookbinder peruses the volume, he observes that the baroness has made notes on how to re-sequence the chapters. And so, it is left to each reader to decide whether to read it straight through as originally written, or as Baroness Ellingham re-arranged it.

The first path will take you through three interconnected novelettes: “The Education of a Monster,” reportedly an unknown ghost story from French poet and essayist Charles Baudelaire (1821-67); “City of Ghosts,” a noir romance whose central character is clearly German philosopher/theorist/critic Walter Benjamin (1892-1940); and the third, “Tales of the Albatross,” which involves Polynesian rituals and a (literally) timeless love story. The baroness’ path is more circuitous, but it weaves the three separate stories into a single strand.

Any way you read it–and most will choose one and sample the second–you will wend your way through an amazing, often perplexing tale in which Baudelaire and Benjamin factor prominently. If you take you cues from the baroness, the narrative opens with a chapter titled “This is Where the Story Ends.” A man (Benjamin) encounters a mysterious woman in Paris’ Montparnasse Cemetery standing aside a tomb in which four past presidents of the Charles Baudelaire Society are buried. The year is 1940, Nazi troops are just outside of the city, and Benjamin, a Jew, knows he needs to flee. Yet he lingers as he yet he is drawn to the woman, and over several dangerous days, falls in love with her. It is truly a fatal attraction, though not how you might imagine.

The baroness’ sequence is, however, neither how the story ends or begins. A true beginning requires gleaning from the novel’s most difficult-to-grasp sections from “Tales of the Albatross.” These take place on a Polynesian island named Oáeetee, which we visit first in 1771. There we learn of several unusual rituals, including a tattoo practice restricted to inscribing the body only with inked eyes. More unusual still is the rite of “crossing,” which gives us the novel’s title. Initiates (and sometimes a novice) stare into each other’s eyes and by doing so, exchange bodies. It is such a powerful and potentially dangerous practice that the island’s chief mandate (merely called the Law) is “there be no crossing without a return crossing.” “Blind crossings,” those in which the second party is unaware of the exchange are considered especially dangerous. In 1791, however, a French ship enters the harbor and circumstance drives two lovers, Koahu (male) and Alula (female) to violate the Law. This will set in motion a pursuit across time and the globe in which Koahu will assume six bodies and Alula seven. Baudelaire is somehow in the middle of all of this.

Crossings will put you in mind of David Mitchell novels. This means that it is nearly impossible to describe what happens in a linear fashion. Crossings also involves gender transformations that evoke Virginia Wolff’s Orlando, as well as racial crossing. From here you can start adding elements: a mad bookseller, mesmerism, colonialism, slavery, gold teeth, violence, evocations of One Thousand and One Arabian Nights, and the appearance of French designer Coco Chanel. She, Baudelaire, Benjamin, and Jeanne Duval, a former slave who was Baudelaire’s muse and lover, are historical figures who interact with colorful imagined characters.

Is Crossings a vampire tale? Not really. A paranormal fantasy? Maybe. An overdressed romance? Possibly. I don’t mean to be coy. Like a David Mitchell novel, reading Crossings is more experiential than sequential–another reason why it can be read several different ways. It is also one whose internal logic is peculiar to the worlds Alex Landrigan interconnects. Your imagination is the only key that can unlock any of it.

Crossings is also a book one hopes is never adapted for a film. At best, a movie would impose coherence to a book whose magic lies in controlled incoherence. At worst, as was done with Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, a movie would make a complete hash of the novel. Crossings may frustrate you at times–I suggest you keep a list of characters and their avatars–but I heartily recommend that you read it. You are unlikely to come across too many other books this delightfully weird and unique.

Rob Weir