Review: Fiction: The Prisoner of Heaven by Carlos Ruiz Zafón
Weidenfeld & Nicholson, €14.99, tpbk, 288 pages
Available with free P&P on www.kennys.ie or by calling 091 709350
Carlos Ruiz Zafón's The Shadow of the Wind was a beautifully made Euro literary thriller that sold more than 15 million copies worldwide. The Spanish novelist's latest work is also part of this "cycle of novels set in the literary universe of the Cemetery of Forgotten Books", and features many of the same characters and imaginary writers. Can he pull off the trick again?
"That year at Christmas time, every morning dawned laced with frost under leaden skies." We are in late-1950s Barcelona. Daniel Sempere, boy hero of The Shadow of the Wind, is now grown up, working in his father's bookshop.
He is married to his childhood sweetheart Bea, while his older friend, Fermín Romero de Torres -- former spy and legendary ladykiller -- is now engaged. But when a creepy stranger with a porcelain hand turns up one day in the bookshop, the past threatens to unravel this present happiness.
As with The Shadow of the Wind, there is a historical story within the story. Set in a prison castle after the victory of Franco in the civil war, with an ambience of lice, cold and summary executions, it features a novelist, imprisoned and denounced as "the worst writer in the world", who is blackmailed into polishing the prison governor's own execrable literary efforts.
Melodrama succeeds when there is no embarrassment in its execution, and Zafón is a splendidly solicitous craftsman, careful to give the reader at least as much pleasure as he is evidently having. Scene-setting is crisp, and minor characters expertly sketched: a priest with "the manners of a retired boxer", or a scrivener who guarantees the effects of his erotic love poetry.
The evil prison governor, whose eyes are "blue, penetrating and sharp, alive with greed and suspicion", is a movie-villain cliché, but cliché is sometimes just what is needed to maintain the blissful narrative drive of a high-class mystery.
The most vividly lovable person here is Fermín, a master of comically flowery rhetoric, who claims that "obstetrics, after free verse, is one of my hobbies". When Daniel complains that it is impossible to argue with him, Fermín shoots back: "That's because of my natural flair for high dialectics, always ready to strike back at the slightest hint of inanity, dear friend." By the end, it's clear that Fermín is not just a comic turn but a kind of hero of resilience.
Zafón combines genre tradition with clever touches of the literary postmodern. (The novel's epigraph is by a fictional writer who featured in The Shadow of the Wind.) This is explicitly, and joyously, a book about books, about what can be learned from them (say, how to follow someone in the street), and what is lost when they are lost.
Much of the novel's appeal is that of time-travelling tourism, strongly flavoured with literary nostalgia -- for a time when a bookshop could be a city's cultural nerve-centre, when a paper-based bureaucracy could be outwitted, when bohemian scribblers could afford to eat world-class crème caramels, and even when money could be "cursed". But beneath the sugared surface there is also political anger.
Only belatedly did I realise that this is actually the third novel in Zafón's sequence. Luckily, we are assured that the books can be read in any order. I immediately bought the other, The Angel's Game, to take on holiday.