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The gripping novels of Carlos Ruiz Zafón, an author who will be sorely 'Mist'
The gripping novels of Carlos Ruiz Zafón, an author who will be sorely 'Mist'
By thinkSPAIN Team Sun, Jun 28, 2020
HEARING of the recent passing of Spain's best-selling author after Cervantes, Carlos Ruiz Zafón, at the age of just 55, has had many of us reaching for our copies of The Shadow of the Wind again – probably untouched for a decade and a half on average – and discovering elements in it we missed the first time around.
This is often the case with a book or film we check in with again after a long hiatus and, in the case of Ruiz Zafón's massive hit, may well spur many of us on to buy and devour his long string of others – especially given that even the sequels to it have been overshadowed by his masterpiece of 2001. To such an extent, in fact, that many avid readers may be unable to name his other titles, particularly the early ones aimed at a younger audience.
Yet they may be missing out on entire new worlds created by the writer who is, arguably, Spain's King of Mystery and Suspense, sometimes based upon real life, sometimes fantasy, sometimes both, and frequently sinister, gripping and labyrinthine in its twists and turns, with impressive and vivid historical detail.
Ruiz Zafón was diagnosed with bowel cancer in 2018 whilst on holiday in London, two years after finishing his last novel, and in a tragic coup of irony, discovered it was terminal, like the main character in one of his best-loved books.
As a result, Spain, the rest of the world, and readers in 36 languages have lost a brilliant imagination and talent and a huge source of literary entertainment.
The advertising industry's loss is your bookshelf's gain
Born in Barcelona, where he also went to university to study Information Science, Ruiz Zafón worked in advertising after he graduated – but only for a few years. After having fairly swiftly risen through the ranks to become creative director at the prestigious McCann WorldGroup advertising agency in his home city, he took the plunge, aged 28, chucked it all in and wrote his first novel.
The Prince of Mist ('El Príncipe de la Niebla') was published the following year and won the Edebé Award for children's and young adult fiction – and, with the prize money, Ruiz Zafón decided to make his dream of travelling to Los Angeles, California, a reality.
Setting up home there and still living in the city when he died on June 19, the move – sparked by his lifelong passion for the cinema – led to his writing film scripts alongside his books, and he was still working in the Hollywood industry at the end of his life.
Until a week ago on Friday, Ruiz Zafón was the world's most-read living Spanish-language author, and the second overall in history – more so even than Latin American household names like Isabel Allende, Mario Vargas Llosa, and the late Gabriel García Márquez.
The multi-million bestseller they didn't want to publish
His success would probably not have arisen at all if it had not been for one of the judges on the panel for the Fernando Lara Novel of the Year Prize in 2000, Spanish and catalán author Terenci Moix, who passed away in 2014: Ruiz Zafón presented an unpublished book, his first aimed at an adult audience, for the award, and only reached the finals because Moix loved it.
The prize went to prolific author Ángeles Caso for her El Largo Silencio ('The Long Silence), and the publisher Planeta only took on Ruiz Zafón's manuscript to keep Moix quiet and stop him pestering them.
After Planeta very reluctantly released it, the book took years to sell any significant number of copies – and, indeed, few Spanish readers had even heard of it until about six years later, when it suddenly took off and amassed nine-figure sums after it started to fly off the shelves.
This only happened because it was widely read outside of Spain, particularly after it was translated into numerous languages.
But now, this 'reluctant' novel – none other than La Sombra del Viento, or The Shadow of the Wind – has shifted over 15 million copies, accounting for around 40% of Ruiz Zafón's book sales over the past 27 years.
Many of those who succumbed to the hype and were captivated were surprised to realise Sombra was published in 2001; it was not until around 2007 when it became the novel title most bandied around and one of the most prominent on the shelves and in windows of bookshops. This was partly because it was named in the 2007 list of the '100 best books in Spanish of the last 25 years', compiled by 81 Latin American and Spanish authors and critics.
You will have heard of it, even if you haven't yet read it. It's on every ListChallenges book list. It was 'Spain' on the now-viral Reddit world map of bestsellers – although an updated version changed it to Cervantes' Don Quijote, based upon the fact this was the most-sold Spanish novel in history, but in fairness to Ruiz Zafón, Quijote has had 400 years or so to shift copies, whereas Sombra has only had 19.
La Sombra del Viento (The Shadow of the Wind)
Set in post-Civil War Barcelona, young book-trader's son Daniel Sempere loses himself in a novel to help him get through the recent loss of his mother. He's so enthralled with it that he tries to find other works of the same author, Julián Carax, but discovers that the one he is reading is the only copy of any of the writer's books in existence. One by one, they've all been destroyed, but the tome Daniel's found has somehow escaped. Who is trying to wipe Carax off the map, and why? A tortuous quest for the truth unearths madness, murder and a frustrated love affair, as well as a fascinating panorama of Barcelona in the years between the bombs and the tourists.
Read about this, and other masterpieces to come out of Spain in our feature Curl up and indulge: Top reads by Spanish authors translated into English.
El Juego del Ángel (The Angel's Game)
Once Sombra finally became successful – and then some – in Spain, Ruiz Zafón published a sequel in 2008. Or rather, a prequel, given that it is set two decades earlier, in the 1920s.
A young writer, David Martín, obsessed with an impossible love – the woman in question is about to marry his best friend – discovers he is terminally ill. But around this time, he is offered the chance by a mysterious editor to write a book 'like no-one has ever written before', in exchange for a cure for his cancer.
This strange editor, Andreas Corelli, wants to start a new religion and David is commissioned to write about it.
Enter young assistant and aspiring writer Isabella, who provides the connection between Ángel and Sombra.
Intrigue, romance and tragedy via a labyrinth of secrets, the bewitching power of reading, passion and firm friendship are guaranteed.
El Prisionero del Cielo (The Prisoner of Heaven)
It's hard to summarise part three of what had now become the four-part series known as El Cementerio de los Libros Olvidados, or 'The cemetery of the forgotten books', without giving away spoilers. But we'll do our best.
It flips forward a generation from Sombra, with Daniel Sempere now married with a son – named Julián, after Carax – and this time the spotlight is on his old friend Fermín, who was homeless when he and Daniel got to know each other in the first book and who eventually became a great friend of the family and was given a job at the Sempere shop. Here, we learn Fermín had been taken political prisoner during the Civil War, before he and Daniel met, and we hear of the despotic jail officer and his deadly hold over a young man who does his dirty work to avoid his wife and child being harmed, the pledge Fermín makes for his eventual freedom, and the unlocking of a treasure chest of which the contents were the proceeds of war crimes.
Jigsaw pieces start to fit together, and we get to see an intriguing mental picture of the city in the 1930s, from Montjuïc Castle to the Plaza Real.
And we'll leave you with a couple of fabulous quotes from it (translated directly from the original Spanish version): “A good liar knows that the most effective lie is always a truth with a key piece removed,” and, “The world is very small when you've nowhere to go.”
El Laberinto de los Espíritus (The Labyrinth of the Spirits)
The death of Daniel's mother – which led him to discover Carax's book in Sombra – turns out to be less straightforward than part one of the tetralogy led us to believe. And Daniel is in turmoil about it, determined to uncover the truth, despite his wife and his friend and bookshop colleague Fermín's efforts to lift his spirits.
A dark web of grim secrets, infiltrating every corner of life and of Daniel's family history, opens up, and the young father is forced to look the sinister truth in the eye – but he has to unravel it first, and at every page, its twists and turns seem to cart him back to square one.
He is led by Alicia, a child born in wartime, and who seems to hold the key to it all.
We can't tell you much more without revealing the plot, but we can certainly promise a page-turning few hours as you think you've worked it out and then realise you've also come back to the drawing board.
Fortunately for his readership, this final doorstopper published in 2016 and released in English two years later was, in fact, Ruiz Zafón's planned dénouement for his 'forgotten books cemetery', so if you've been following the series up until now, you won't be left in limbo at the end.
El Príncipe de la Niebla (The Prince of Mist)
Before Daniel first graced the pages and our lives, Ruiz Zafón wrote novels for pre-teen, teenage and just-out-of-their-teens bookworms, a genre that has now become known as 'YA', but which was not coined at the time.
Like the libros olvidados, it would go on to become a series, although this was not planned at the time of its publication in 1993.
It would not appear in English until 2010, appealing to the next generation on from those who became absorbed in its tangled magic and teen angst when it came out in the original Spanish.
Max Carver, 13, is the main character; his beautiful sister Alicia, 15, is in love with the tanned, athletic Adonis, Roland, 17, who lives with his granddad, lighthouse-keeper Víctor Kray; the 'Prince' of the title, Dr Caín, says he knows how to work magic, can change shape and grant wishes – always at a price – and his never-blinking eyes change colour constantly. For the 'Prince of Mist', time does not exist; it's 'silly' and 'an illusion' – and he's a shadow who comes out at night to seek revenge before evaporating at sunset.
It's gothic and mysterious, set in wartime, with spooky bits, weird dreams, disembodied voices and a journey into the past, and is about half the length of Sombra and a third of that of its sequels.
El Palacio de la Medianoche (The Midnight Palace)
With completely different characters and set in a different era to 'part one' of what would go on to become La Trilogía de la Niebla ('The Mist Trilogy'), this slightly-longer tome starts at a railway station in Calcutta, India, in 1916, where a man is desperate to safeguard his newborn twins before he, inevitably, falls victim to the killers pursuing him.
Fast-forward to the year 1932 and Ben and his friends, who are all 16, now have to leave the orphanage which is the only home they've ever known, and meet for one final time in a ruin they have named 'The Midnight Palace'.
These ruins house a scary, tragic secret, which Ben is set to get to the bottom of along with his long-lost sister, whom he never knew he had and whom he meets after leaving the Calcutta children's home.
It was published in 1994, but like its prequel, came out in English several years after the 'forgotten books' tetralogy.
Las Luces de Septiembre (The Watcher in the Shadows)
Its title translates to 'The September Lights', and it's set just before World War II when widowed mum-of-two Simone Sauvelle takes a job as housekeeper at Cravenmoore mansion in a Normandy coastal town called 'Blue Bay'. Her boss, Lazarus Jann, is an inventor who makes weird robot toys, and her colleague Hannah, the cook, has a handsome young fisherman cousin called Ismaël who is passionate about the world of sailing.
Simone's daughter Irène, 14, falls in love with Ismaël, and they go off to explore the mysteries of the abandoned lighthouse in Blue Bay.
But a shadow-like, other-worldly figure holds a long grudge and wants to settle old scores from the past and reclaim what is rightfully his – and his presence threatens the burgeoning young love between the teens.
A stand-alone YA novel, Marina is 'the most personal' of all his works, Ruiz Zafón has since said – although clearly not entirely autobiographical, since it features a Frankenstein-type inventor driven mad in his quest for eternal life.
Marina and Óscar, both 15, meet, fall in love, and witness a sinister ritual at the cemetery involving a woman in black, a single rose, and a tombstone with no name, only an engraving of a black butterfly.
When they decide to trail her in secret to see where she goes, they find themselves uncovering and solving a grim enigma that has been buried for nearly 40 years.
Hopping between 1980, when the teen lovers meet, and the bohemian, unconventional but grey and devastated Barcelona of the post-Civil War years, it also gradually reveals the family history of the title character and how this changes Óscar's life forever.
Photograph 1: Carlos Ruiz Zafón in happier times, by his publisher, Planeta
Photograph 2: El Búho del Libro ('The Book Owl'), blog and book sales and review site
Photograph 3: Waterstones
Photograph 4: English versions by Waterstones; Spanish versions by El Blog de Miso (elblogdemiso.wordpress)
Photograph 5: English version by Waterstones; Spanish version by FNAC stores
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