Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Discovering Carlos Ruiz Zafon: review of The Prisoner of Heaven

The Prisoner of Heaven by Carlos Ruiz Zafón


During a holiday to Isla Mujeres, Mexico in February, 2015, a jewellery shop manager and I started chatting about books while my husband browsed for a birthday present for his sister. Henry recommended Carlos Ruiz Zafon, a Spanish writer, in particular his trilogy called 'The Cemetery of Forgotten Books.' I loved that title. I'm also pushover for books in which bookstores play a major role, well beyond the 'backdrop denoting some nerdy intelligence' role allotted to bookstores by most of the movie industry.

My non-pushy, book-loving, jewellery store friend Henry had not read any Canadian writers because not many of us are translated into Spanish and he prefers 'epics', plural, which I took to mean a series of books which are connected, going by his description of Zafon's work. Henry's English was ten times better than my Spanish. I think I recommended Michael Ondaatje, Alice Munro, Margaret Atwood, Lawrence Hill and I hope I remembered to write down Fred Stenson and Miriam Toews as well. Honestly, I could easily have recommended about fifty Canadian authors if I'd had the time and a large enough notepad. But back to the point, which is the discovery of a wonderful new-to-me writer, Carlos Ruiz Zafon, who divides his time between Barcelona and Los Angeles.

As it happened, the remote library service which we lightkeepers use sent me Book #3 first, but somewhere on the book jacket maybe?, I read that the books can be read in any order. Certainly I felt that there was a Book #4 waiting when I finished this one. It is set in fascist Spain in the 30's and 40's, mostly, with well-paced fast-forwards to the 70's I think (the book has been returned so I'm going from memory here) and much of the action which isn't in and around the bookstore takes place in a hideous prison where unspeakable things are done by the sadist in charge to the usual threats to fascism: artists, novelists, union organizers, doctors, in short, the suspiciously literate and skilled who are possibly left-leaning socialists or rabid Communists to boot. No character is a stock 2-D persona, not even the sadist in charge who longs to be adored for his deathless prose and poetry and whose ability to social climb and to seek ways and means to self-aggrandizement sets a new high (or low) for bureaucrats with literary pretensions world-wide. Truly, a priceless character if he weren't so devoid of soul, heart, brain or basic humanity, of course.

A very famous novelist is in this medieval fortress of a prison and at first, the narrator (one of the bookstore employees) thinks he has gone barking mad but after prolonged study from a neighbouring cell, he arrives at the conclusion that this could be a most effective smoke-screen on the part of the novelist. The writing/translation is impeccable, the plot moves the reader along like a raft on a beautiful, treacherous river (this book kept me up until two a.m. several nights) and the characters are simply unforgettable. I now await the arrival of Book #1, The Shadow of the Wind and #2, The Rose of Fire and hope for a Book #4.

1 comment:

  1. This sounds like a perfect (and perfectly addicting, as in: better than hard drugs, hard being anything more than wine...) series. Will look for them. And hope that you will come back from this year in Mexico with more recommendations!