Zafón. His name is made for the one-word demands of branding, while the “Z” and accented “ó” dole out the right dose of Spanishness (how the mouthful “Gabriel García Márquez” became a household name is a tribute to the Colombian master’s raw appeal). Of course, the author’s full name is Carlos Ruiz Zafón, but this bestselling Spaniard has much in common with the Colombian Nobel Prize winner. There is an air of magical realism to Zafón’s tales. The prose is robust and the dialogue rich with smart irony. But mostly, reading Zafón is great fun.
The pleasure derives from the writer’s mastery of the rhetoric of melodrama. Every chapter ends in a cliff-hanger. Zafón’s novels are page-turners, and his latest, The Prisoner of Heaven — the third installment of a series that includes The Shadow of the Wind and The Angel’s Game — is no exception.
The Prisoner of Heaven moves the story of the characters of the last two novels forward. The tale is set in the late 1950s, and Spain is beginning el milagro — the miracle of economic recovery from the disastrous wake of the Spanish Civil War. Ahead lies el destape – the uncovering or letting loose of the puritanical restraints of the Franco years that will turn Spain from Europe’s most sexually inhibited nation to its most aggressively liberated. Zafón’s Barcelona is dark and gothic, which may be hard to reconcile with the sunny image of Mediterranean Spain; one expects vampires to emerge from the buildings’ shadows — and some characters are positively vampiric. However, Zafón stays within the realism side of the magical-realism formula, toying with the supernatural but not plunging headlong into it, though there is enough coincidence running through his plots to make one believe in Fate with a capital F.
The center of Zafón’s city is a place he calls the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, the title of the series, a labyrinthine library that echoes Umberto Eco, who in turns echoes Borges. This is where the Spanish novelist transcends the potboiler formulas of his narrative and steers the reader to ponder the mysteries of language, writing, that vulnerable yet sturdy software we call books and how they relate to the even deeper mysteries of the human condition.
But neither this novel nor any of the predecessors is a bibliophile’s game. There is action aplenty. Most of the narrative is set in flashbacks to the terrible years of la posguerra, when, after winning the Civil War, the Franco government set about persecuting its enemies and crushing civil liberties. Most of this narrative is set in a horrible prison, where one convict is tortured (the torment is never described, just its aftermath) to reveal where a treasure is hidden (there are explicit references to The Count of Monte Cristo). Another prisoner is spared the worst hardships so he can write; his fellow convicts call him “the prisoner of heaven.”
The series began, in The Shadow of the Wind, with an object of desire: a fountain pen whose putative owner was Victor Hugo and promises to guarantee the young man who covets it a successful life as a writer. The Prisoner of Heaven, the third book of what is slated to be a four-installment series, ends with a handwritten note that makes the reader salivate in anticipation. The scribbled information leads to moral conflict and beyond it to bloody adventure and perhaps tragic disaster. For once this reader felt abandoned by the writer, cheated, teased beyond his human rights. Not fair. Zafón is smiling, no doubt, delighting in this cruelty as he puts the finishing touches on what he knows the victims of his black magic will rush to read.
Enrique Fernandez is a writer in Miami.