“Aquella noche soñé que regresaba al Cementerio de los Libros Olvidados. (…)”
(“That night I dreamt I was returning to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books.”)
There are authors that have a gift for creating magic with words.
They have a special place in your heart, like old friends you meet every once in a while after a long time, weeks, months, years even, and for each such meeting you wait in anticipation, excitedly.
These are the people who taught you to love books, always reminding you how much you enjoy reading.
I’m sure that every avid reader can easily recall that moment when they encountered „their” book, the one that has changed their life and the perception of the world forever. Similarly, I’m certain that we all have our preferred authors whose sole name written in gilded letters on a cover will make us pick up their latest release, without even glancing at the plot summary. Mind you, I’m not referring here (only) to the world–renowned, critically acclaimed authors, Nobel prize winners, great minds like Shakespeare or Dostoyevsky (or course they are wonderful, but that’s not the point), but to the writers who have a mysterious power, the ability to posses you completely with the unique atmosphere overfilling their works. J.K.Rowling, for instance, rings a bell? I bet it does!
Carlos Ruiz Zafón has been one of such little gems for me and even if I’m well aware that he might not necessarily be perceived as a prominent writer (who cares, though?), his prose undoubtedly is quite exceptional and unique. Born in Barcelona in the 1960’s, he’s made his beloved hometown the main protagonist of almost all his books, yet it is in Zafón’s most famous work, the (now) tetralogy named The Cemetery of Forgotten Books, where the city blossoms and becomes alive through the evocative descriptions of its gothic, sombre beauty. The vivid descriptions of narrow alleys and obscure corners, so characteristic of the Catalan Capital are probably the best pieces you’ll find in Zafón’s prose and they create the peculiar air of mystery in itself. I think it wouldn’t be too far-fetched a conclusion to say that the entire series is a true homage paid to Barcelona by C.R.Zafón, which is one of the factors that make his books so captivating and truly one of a kind.
It must have been during my high school days when The Shadow of The Wind, the first installment of the saga hit the shelves of Polish bookstores and instantaneously became an ultimate bestseller and so I decided to check what all the fuss was about. This is how I met Daniel Sempere and accompanied him to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, where my love for reading was going to be rekindled forever. In short, The Cemetery of Forgotten Books series began in 2001 with The Shadow of the Wind and continued with The Angel’s Game and The Prisoner of Heaven and spans more than a decade.
In The Shadow of the Wind we meet 10-year-old Daniel Sempere, on his birthday, when he’s taken by his father to the The Cemetery of Forgotten Books (the place is described as the labyrinth where all the forgotten books are stored). Daniel’s father asks him to pick up just one book that he will protect and cherish throughout his entire life. Unaware of how the choice is going to turn his world upside-down, Daniel takes from the shelf The Shadow of The Wind, written by one Julián Carax. Mesmerized by his prose, Daniel other Carax’s works, which come out to be all destroyed and his copy of The Shadow of the Wind is most probably the last one in existence… That’s how the whole new journey begins and we’re going to reveal Barcelona’s darkest secrets, of tragic love and loss, murders, and madness, along with Sempere and the vast array of other characters, all set perfectly against the backdrop of the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War. The worldwide best-selling title (orig. La Sombra del Viento) opens the door to many long guarded family secrets, with Daniel as the core figure in this convoluted, albeit perfectly crafted plot, a giant jigsaw the readers construct bit by bit. Every next book comes with new pieces and none of them seems to be out of place or ill-fitting. Together they form a fully coherent whole that leads to the grand finale in the fourth – and the last – book, released in Spain in November 2016, titled El laberinto de los espíritus (The Labyrinth of the Spirits). Not having had the slightest idea that there was going to be one more installment coming up, needless to say such a big one (an impressive volume of almost 1000 pages!), you can imagine my joy when I saw it on the list of soon-to-be-released titles. I loved The Shadow of the Wind the moment I read it and enjoyed tremendously the two following parts, The Angel’s Game (El juego del angel) and The Prisoner of Heaven (El prisionero del cielo), however, and mind you I’m a bit ashamed to admit it, I had to brush up on the story and jot down the key events and figures appearing in each one of them. I simply didn’t want to start reading the book that closes the whole series not having a clue of what happened before, or wondering who the hell was this or that guy and why I actually recall this or that name. Luckily, my fear proved unwarranted, as the author himself claims that El laberinto de los espiritus, just like every single part of the saga, can be read as a standalone , since they are all self-contained „episodes”. There’s also been a bit of a mix-up regarding the chronological order which is not reflected in the order of publication, so I’m going to briefly sketch the story, trying my best neither to reveal to much nor to include spoilers.
The Shadow of the Wind, published first, is set in the 1940’s/early 50’s and follows Daniel’s quest to discover Carax’s books and unravels the long-forgotten story of the author’s tragic lot. Coming forward, we have Fermin Romero de Torres, Daniel’s friend and mentor, working at the Sempere’s bookshop. Together they come across many people who not only play important roles in the entire history of Julian Carax, but also have their own secrets that slowly come to light. On their way towards the book’s ending, Daniel and Fermin get involved in a criminal case, trying to deal with main antagonist, the murderous Inspector Francisco Javier Fúmero, and both find love, which for Daniel ends up in marriage with his beloved Beatriz Aguilar, in 1956. 10 years later, Sempere takes his son to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, where The Shadow of the Wind is kept. The uniqueness of this bestselling title lies in the passion for… books. Books that have power to change lives, those truly special books that bound us across different places and generations. The „second” part (The Angel´s Game), on the other hand, focuses on authors possessed by obsession, driven by the power they wish to exert through their art, their struggle to write life-changing stories that will allow them to manipulate people’s minds. The plot of The Angel’s Game takes place before The Shadow of the Wind, going back in time the early 40’s, introducing us to a completely new protagonist David Martin, who makes his living by occasionally writing popular penny-dreadfuls. One day, his editor makes him an offer he cannot refuse, to write a book unlike anything that had ever been written before, a book with the power to change hearts. While we observe his descent into madness, more stories of intrigue, romance, and tragedy unfold, concerning Martin, Fermin and Daniel’s parents. The book is, however, quite loosely connected to all the events we remember from the previous part, as the actual direct sequel to The Shadow of the Wind will be The Prisoner of Heaven, released in 2011. Zafón begins his the third novel one year after Daniel and Bea’s wedding and introduces us to a mysterious man who pays a visit to the family bookshop. His appearance is directly connected with Fermin’s past, his difficult years as a prisoner at the Montjuic Castle with none other than… David Martin, back in the 1940’s. Following Fermin’s escape, the author explores the themes of war, of the morality of men’s actions during the times of unrest, drawing on the gloomy atmosphere of the early days of Franco’s dictatorship.
„Una leyenda es una mentira pergeñada para explicar una verdad universal.”
(“A legend is a lie conceived to explain a universal truth.”)
Finally, Zafón gives us The Labirynth of the Spirits, the key to all the doors that have yet remained unopened, the final piece of the puzzle that will bringing all the stories of the Cemetery of Forgotten Books into conclusion.
It goes without saying that the Spanish author faced a really daunting task, given the enormous popularity of the saga, especially The Shadow of the Wind, among the vast audience scattered all over the world. As I mentioned before, the book hasn’t been translated into English yet (rumor has it that the publication has been planned for 2018), so, thus far, you’ll find reviews from Spanish speakers mostly and, knowing our beloved author’s beautiful mother tongue, I have had the great pleasure to read the original edition. Honestly speaking, I cannot imagine returning to translations now, be it into Polish or English, as it is only in the original Spanish versions of his works, where Zafón’s prose comes ‘alive’, the language flourishes, the vivid descriptions captivate you, creating this peculiar, irresistible air that has placed the Catalan writer among the greatest and the most loved contemporary authors. The readers’ expectations were, and still are, huge, no denying. Has he managed to meet them?
As for me, the return to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books after so many years was so exciting that I’m sure I would turn a blind eye to any plothole or a sense of futility – at least for the first 100 pages of so – if only Carlos continued mesmerizing me with his words and exceptional storytelling skills. Fear not, though. The entire plot of the fourth book is well-thought and carried out, with a surprising meticulousness even. I felt pleasantly amazed by how perfectly intertwined all the stories appeared, how a hell of a job the author did with linking all the cohesive chains through the narrative, making the entire story logical and not leaving loose ends. Allow me not to spoil you all the fun and leave the details for myself. In an nutshell, The Labirynth of the Spirits takes place in the 1950’s, where the previous installment finished and focuses on Daniel seeking vengeance for his mother’s death. Besieged by rage, he will do what it takes to dissolves the mystery surrounding his past. Being a step of solving the enigma, he’ll discover a network of crimes and violations of the Franco regime with the help of Alicia Gris, a rebellious and unruly survivor from bombing in Barcelona during the war, working for an ambiguous inspector. All set, as always, against the backdrop of the Spain and its history.
The amount of notes I made and the quotations marked during the reading is truly impressive, just look how my copy looks like… With so many details jotted down I could easily summarize the entire plot here, but I’m sure that other reviewers would agree with me that it would take all the pleasure from the potential audience, needless to say is not the purpose of my review to summarize. What is sit then? Definitely to invite you all to embark on a journey of a lifetime, to the fascinating, gothic Barcelona and its Cemetery, which I’d rather call the Altar of Books. I’d go as far as to say that even if you’re not familiar with the entire series, The Labirynth of the Spirits, read as an independent book is bound to be a compelling read, even though many readers complain that not knowing the previous parts strips it of all the magic. Well, de gustibus non disputandum est, as they say and as biased as I may be, I think that even as a standalone, the title stands its ground. Nonetheless, it is the admirer of the whole saga who’ll enjoy the last part the most, even with its flaws, whose presence cannot be denied. Certainly, it’s impossible to please everybody, so whether the ending is ‘good’ or not will remain the question of different preferences and expectations, but let’s face it, with so many already known characters and a pretty big bunch of newly introduced one sit might be overwhelming at times to follow the connections between them and not to loose track of individual stories. There were also parts that dragged and felt redundant, cutting it own by at least a 100/200 pages wouldn’t do any harm to the story, on the contrary, it would reduce the feeling of having to plough through some less exciting and relevant fragments.
Another aspect that I’m still not sure I liked was the truth about Daniel’s mother, I also wished for more Fermin , who’s always been by far my favourite character. Still, I had Alicia as a „compensation”, who easily became the perfect heroinę and a strong competition to the quirky, but oh-so-lovable Romero de Torres. She is able to “see what others don’t see, her mind works in a different way. Where the others see closed doors, she sees a key. Where the others loose their way, she finds a trace.” And, to put it bluntly, she simply rocks. If only Zafón allowed her a more happy ending, I’d be simply delighted!
All in all, The Labirynth of the Spirits left my appetite satiated, yet I have to admit that the ending as a whole was not such a firecracker I had expected it to be. It did not leave me awe-struck, but definitely with a hint of regret that this is all over now and I’m not going to accompany all these wonderful characters during their on their next adventures. But, who knows…? Carlos Ruiz Zafón, just as his beloved Barcelona, may have many surprises in store!
My rating: 4/5 stars
Read in: Spanish
Format: Kindle/ Hardback
Date read: August 2017