My favourites, Reviews

The Cemetery of Forgotten Books – Carlos Ruiz Zafón

 

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The book that started it all

 

Like songs and albums, I find that books work like a time machine, the mere mention of an author or title taking you back to the time and place where you first discovered a wonderful story. I can clearly remember buying a book to take on holiday to Mallorca in 2005 and getting lost in the pages of Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s The Shadow of the Wind. Thirteen years later, I have just finished the final book in the series, The Labyrinth of the Spirits. Rather than write a review of this final book, I wanted to use this blog post to talk about the series as a whole. I hope that readers who are familiar with the story will enjoy reading this overview and, even better, I hope that new readers might discover the series through my post. For this reason, I will keep my review free of major spoilers.

The Books

First, a summary of the books in the series (publication dates are for the English translations):-

  • The Shadow of the Wind (2004)
  • The Angel’s Game (2009)
  • The Prisoner of Heaven (2012)
  • The Labyrinth of the Spirits (2018)

The first book, The Shadow of the Wind, introduces us to The Cemetery of Forgotten Books, which is such a delicious concept to avid readers and writers alike. The novel opens in 1945, when we meet the main protagonist, a young boy named Daniel Sempere. His father, owner of the Sempere & Sons bookshop, takes Daniel to visit the aforementioned Cemetery of Forgotten Books, which is a hidden library in the heart of Barcelona’s old town. But this is no ordinary library – it is a labyrinth of seemingly impossible geometry, with endless twisting passages in which one could get lost. It is presided over by an old man named Isaac, and it seems that access to the library is reserved for a select group of people – Daniel’s father being one of them. Furthermore, visitors are invited to select one book from the library, and to take it away, making it part of their life.

Selecting a book titled “The Shadow of the Wind” by an obscure Spanish author named Julián Carax, Daniel does just that. Years later, his continuing obsession with Carax leads him into the mystery that lies at the heart of the novel. Along the way, he teams up with a beggar named Fermín, who has a secret past of his own – and a villainous nemesis in the form of Inspector Fumero, a torturer for the fascist regime. Fermín ends up working at the bookshop, and as Daniel’s quest to discover the truth about Julián Carax gathers pace, changing his life forever, Fermín fulfils the role of Daniel’s confident and side-kick.

The Angel’s Game is set in the decades before the first book, this time focussing on author David Martin, a writer of sensationalist pulp fiction, who yearns for work in a more rewarding literary field. He accepts a lucrative commission from a mysterious Parisian editor, Andreas Corelli, and whilst working on this project, David moves into an abandoned house in Barcelona. At this point, David begins to feel that he has made a Faustian pact, and as the story progresses, his life begins to unravel, causing the reader to question whether everything that David describes is as it seems. We also see how Daniel’s story interleaves with that of the owner of the Sempere and Sons bookshop, thereby making the link to the first book.

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Parc Guell (from my visit in May) – mentioned in the books

The Prisoner of Heaven is a curious entry in the series, mainly because of its page-count. At less than 300 pages, it is significantly shorter than any of the other books in the series. It does, however, contain the core of the story around which all the other events revolve – concerning a group of prisoners held in Barcelona’s Montjuic Castle after the Civil War. At times, the story is reminiscent of The Count of Monte Cristo or The Shawshank Redemption. This is a brilliantly told, and at times harrowing account that provides some further layers of story that help make sense of the events in The Angel’s Game, calling into question the reliability of some of what that earlier novel’s main character, David Martin, narrated for the reader. It also sets up what is to come in the final book very nicely. Naturally, Daniel and Fermín are involved, but to say how would spoil the plot.

And so, to the final piece in this epic jigsaw, The Labyrinth of the Spirits. At more than 800 pages, this is by far the longest book in the series and, given its structure, it could well have been separated into two volumes. The consequences of the events recounted in The Prisoner of Heaven begin to catch up with the main characters. Whilst the start of the story jumps back many years, with Fermín telling Daniel how he arrived in Barcelona, the vast majority of the first half of the book introduces us to an intriguing new character, Alicia Gris. Alicia’s connection to Fermín is revealed at the start of the book, but for a large part of the story, we see Alicia’s work as a police agent as she works on a case involving the disappearance of one of the characters that first appeared in The Prisoner of Heaven. As the action moves from Madrid to Barcelona, Alicia’s story meets with that of Daniel and Fermín, and the epic story arc reaches a dramatic conclusion.

Before getting into what makes Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s books so compelling, no review would be complete without mentioning the wonderful work of Lucia Graves, who translated all of the books from their native Spanish to English. (How about this coincidence: her family moved to Mallorca when she was three – interesting that that was where I first read The Shadow of the Wind on holiday!)

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Montjuic Castle (as seen from my telephoto lens when I was in Parc Guell!)

Analysis

Where do I start in assessing this modern masterpiece? Well, it’s right up there in the list of best book series I’ve ever read, and The Shadow of the Wind is in my top three books of all time. It can be enjoyed as an absorbing standalone novel in itself, but in fact, it is merely the set-up for a brilliantly constructed story arc. As already noted in this article, I read the first book thirteen years ago and the other books in the intervening period. Earlier this year, I re-read the first three books in preparation for the final instalment, and the connections are much clearer when you read them so close to each other. Little details that become lost over the years are sharper in the mind and make The Labyrinth of the Spirits all the more enjoyable thanks to the refresh.

Both the Sempere & Sons bookshop and The Cemetery of Forgotten Books are key locations in the puzzle that binds all of the various story threads together. Early on in the narrative, as a young Daniel reads the book that he has pulled from the most unusual of libraries, he compares the structure of the story to a Russian doll, with their ever-smaller dolls hidden within. This is a brilliant metaphor for the way in which Zafón’s tale unfolds. Like the books that follow, The Shadow of the Wind uses the idea of stories with a story. Over the course of the books, we have large sections of past events narrated by some of the characters that we meet. These sojourns are not mere paragraphs, but at times, comprise many consecutive chapters that take us away from the main protagonist’s current situation yet almost always have a bearing on their (and the reader’s) understanding of how these past events shape what is to come. In the hand of a lesser writer, this technique could come across as lazy info dumping, but in Zafón’s case, the vignettes are so beautifully crafted, and described in such wonderful prose, that every page is a joy to read.

The characters that populate the books are equally meticulous. From the inquisitive Daniel who kicks the whole thing off, to the damaged writer David Martin and the femme fatale, Alicia, they each bring something different to the ensemble. Best of all is Fermín, a gregarious character who doesn’t shy away from giving anybody and everybody his opinion on subjects as far-reaching as all aspects of love and romance, food (serrano ham and sugus sweets seem to be particular favourites), drink, politics and any number of other subjects. Fermín, a bundle of energy and enthusiasm who leaps off the page, is the one who keeps Daniel going, and later Alicia, when they start to flag in the face of the adversity.

It sounds like a cliché, and it’s mentioned in most reviews of the series that you will read, but Barcelona, in all its gothic glory, is as much a character of this series as any of the people who live there. Zafón’s description of the architecture of his home city, particularly the legacy of Spanish architect Antoni Gaudi, its parks and trams, little cafes and alleyways, the abandoned mansions, the brooding presence of Montjuic Castle, and the weather that hits the city as it rolls in from the sea is at once vivid and evocative. It marks out his story as being truly unique – not being set in more popular literary locations such as London, New York or Paris.

The shadow of The Spanish Civil War hangs heavy over the events and characters that are described in these books. As an Englishman born years after the conflict ended, it’s impossible to know how deeply the war affects Spaniards, but if this fictional account is anything to go by, I would imagine that the scars run deep. Spain is a wonderful country to visit these days, as many Brits do in their thousands each summer. But beyond the beaches, there is a fascinating history and rich culture in cities such as Madrid, Barcelona, Seville, Bilbao and plenty more. It’s hard to believe that it is only just over 40 years since the fascist rule of General Franco ended in 1975.

I’ve read somewhere that Carlos Ruiz Zafón has said that he would never sell the film rights to this series – he has turned down several offers from Hollywood – stating that it should remain solely a literary adventure. Whilst part of me would dearly love to see the characters of Daniel, Fermín, David Martin, Inspector Fumero and Alicia brought to life on the screen, I can see where the author is coming from, and you can only applaud his stance. The story works brilliantly in written form, and whilst I’m sure there are some great directors and screenwriters out there who could do the books justice, this is essentially a story about books and writers and the imagination of readers; it’s easy to see how some of that magic would be lost in the transfer to the big, or even small, screen.

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Gaudi’s unfinished masterpiece – the Sagrada Familia, Barcelona (form my visit in May)

Final Thoughts

As a writer, it would be impossible not to be influenced after reading such a monumental piece of work. Whilst my prose may not match up to that of Carlos Ruiz Zafón (who’s could?), I would like to think that I’ve captured that sense of excitement and danger in the dark mystery of long-buried secrets being unearthed by my protagonists in my novel, Monkey Arkwright. On my re-read of The Cemetery of Forgotten Books cycle, I was struck by how my fascination with Zafón’s intricate plot may have been running through my subconscious during my writing – not major plot points, of course, just little things like a mysterious old book here or an abandoned mansion there.

Whilst not every reader is familiar with the streets of gothic Barcelona, anybody who appreciates an engrossing story that is well told will find their patience rewarded in spades by this thrilling series of books. At its heart, it’s a story about writers and books that tangles the reader up in a web of intrigue, but there are also elements of detective noir, mystery, romance and plenty of horror – it pretty much has everything.

Thanks for reading my blog article. If you’ve read one or more books in the series, I hope that my summary will resonate with you and that you’ve enjoyed revisiting The Cemetery of Forgotten Books. If you’ve not read this wonderful series, I absolutely implore you to go and pick of a copy of The Shadow of the Wind and start reading.

 

Rob Campbell is the author of “Monkey Arkwright”, a mystery that will appeal to fans of 80s films such as “Stand By Me” and “The Goonies”, where people stumble across strange things in the woods or uncover dark secrets hidden in the abandoned places around a small town.

 

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