Sunday 22 September 2019

In the shadow of a bestseller

Books Editor John Spain talks to Carlos Ruiz Zafón, author of the international bestseller 'The Shadow Of The Wind'

Global hit: Carlos Ruiz Zafón's has followed up The Shadow of the Wind with The Angel's Game
Global hit: Carlos Ruiz Zafón's has followed up The Shadow of the Wind with The Angel's Game

Ask people at random what their favourite book of the past few years has been and you will be amazed how often The Shadow of the Wind crops up. From TV presenters to ordinary readers across Ireland, all kinds of people have been entranced by this book by a previously unknown Spanish writer called Carlos Ruiz Zafón.

It was a "sleeper" book, the kind that gets passed around and talked about and ends up being a huge bestseller.

First published in English five years ago it has been a phenomenon in countries around the world, selling over 12 million copies.

It attracted ecstatic praise everywhere, from readers, critics and authors alike. Stephen King, for example, called it "the real deal, a novel full of cheesy splendour and creaking trapdoors, a novel where even the subplots have subplots ... one gorgeous read."

It's a gothic mystery, a thriller and a ribald comedy all rolled into one and set in the old quarter of Barcelona in the years after the Spanish Civil War.

Above all, even though it's a literary novel in the tradition of Dickens and Wilkie Collins, it's also a gripping page turner, with ancient buildings, dead bodies and a shock around every corner. As one eminent critic said, it's "a triumph of the storyteller's art."

Shadow begins in Barcelona in 1945 when a man who runs an antiquarian bookshop takes his 11-year-old son Daniel to a mysterious place called the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, a library hidden in the old town of Barcelona where lost titles end up.

When somebody is introduced to this secret place, he has the right to pick a book, which he must protect in the future, and the one Daniel picks is The Shadow of the Wind.

Daniel becomes obsessed with the book which he learns was written by a man called Carax who was murdered early in the Spanish Civil War in mysterious circumstances.

Now somebody is looking for all Carax books to burn them, and the story follows Daniel over the next few decades as he explores the Shadow world of strange characters, where every mystery has another mystery behind it, a labyrinth of danger and surprise.

Those gripped by the book have been waiting impatiently for Zafón's next book, hoping for more of the same.

They won't be disappointed because the new one, called The Angel's Game, has now arrived and it is indeed more of the same. It's a prequel rather than a sequel, beginning in the 1920s and taking us back to the Cemetery of the Forgotten Books, the Sempere and Son bookshop, and the winding streets of Barcelona's old quarter.

It's another gothic tale about the magic of books and the darkest corners of the human soul.

The story is about a young man who lives in an abandoned mansion in Barcelona, making his living by writing baroque tales about the city's underworld. In a locked room deep within the house there are letters and pictures hinting at the mysterious death of the previous owner.

Then he gets the offer of a lifetime from a reclusive editor to write a book with the power to change hearts. In return, he will receive a fortune, but as he starts to write it he realises there is a connection between the book and the shadows that surround his home.

Zafón, who is coming to Dublin this week for the launch of the new book, says that when he was working on Shadow he "started toying around with the idea of creating a fictional universe around four inter-connected stories in which we would meet some of the same characters at different times in their lives, see them from different perspectives and where many plots and subplots would tie around in knots for the reader to untie.

"At first I thought this could be done in one book, but soon I realised it would make Shadow a monster novel and destroy the structure I was trying to design for it. I realised the right way to do this would be to write four different novels. They would be stand-alone stories that could be read in any order. I saw this as a Chinese box of stories with four doors of entry, a labyrinth of fictions that could be explored in many directions. These novels would have a central axis, the idea of the Cemetery of Forgotten Books and would use a highly stylised, gothic and mysterious Barcelona that would provide its backdrop."

Next week will be Zafón's first visit here, although he is well aware of the historic links between Ireland and Spain.

"Maybe the infamous Armada served some purpose after all," he says.

'Until now I haven't had the chance to visit Dublin and I am eager to walk those streets I've explored in my mind numerous times. From what I understand Dublin and Barcelona could be close stops along the same train line. I also find many elements about Ireland somewhat similar to Catalonia. We have more sun, though, but the grass is always greener on your side."

A scriptwriter, musician and successful author of young adult fiction before he hit the jackpot with Shadow, Zafón has always been a voracious reader, especially of the big story classics from over a century ago.

He also loves the great Irish writers.

"Well, there's plenty to choose from!" he says. "Irish literature is so rich and vast you would think the country is the size of a continent. Despite the many new brilliant voices, my personal favourites tend to fall among the classics, from Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw to Bram Stoker. I'd also stay with the James Joyce from Dubliners. Call me old-fashioned."

How did he get so immersed in books? "Authors are often asked why they do what they do, why they didn't become corporate lawyers or dentists. Why do we choose this strange profession? I write because I really have no other choice. This is what I do. This is what I am.

"I am in the business of storytelling. It is what I've been doing since I was a kid. Telling stories, making up tales, bringing life to characters, devising plots, visualising scenes and staging sequences of events, images, words and sounds that tell a story.

"I write for a living. I've been writing and making stuff up to make ends meet since I left school. It is my way of surviving, of earning a living and of navigating this world. I have written for young readers, for the movies, for so-called adults; but mostly for people who like to read and to plunge into a good story. I do not write for myself, but for other people.

"I believe it was Umberto Eco who said that writers who say they write for themselves and do not care about having an audience are full of shit, and that the only thing you write for yourself is your grocery shopping list. I couldn't agree more."

The Angel's Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafón is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson at €15.99

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