Carlos Ruiz Zafón's The Shadow of the Wind was a beautifully made Euro literary thriller that sold more than 15m 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 Catalan novelist tells Christian House about the inspiration for the Cemetery of Forgotten Books
The Covent Garden Hotel off Seven Dials, London's 17th-century junction, is a fitting location in which to meet the perpetually inquisitive Carlos Ruiz Zafón. "The stranger who finds himself in the Dials for the first time," wrote Charles Dickens in Sketches by Boz, "at the entrance of seven obscure passages, uncertain which to take, will see enough around him to keep his curiosity awake for no inconsiderable time."
Ruiz Zafón is no stranger to the allure of eerie alleys. In his bestseller The Shadow of the Wind, the master of Catalan gothic seized upon the seductive, sinister nature of Barcelona's maze of avenues and plazas during the chaos of the Spanish Civil War and its Francoist hangover. The Prisoner of Heaven, the third in a projected quartet of tales set around the city's mythical literary haven of the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, is now being published in English.
We settle into the hushed cocoon of the hotel's drawing room, where Ruiz Zafón cuts a gently commanding figure. He's a great bear of a man with a neat goatee and a voice lazing half way between Beverly Hills and the Ramblas of Barcelona. He's the physical opposite of Fermin Romero de Torres, the beanpole hero of The Prisoner of Heaven. Fermin is the skinny bookseller at Sempere and Sons, purveyors of fine volumes; a romantic with a quickstep wit and tango libido. Held in Montjuic castle by Franco's goons, his period of captivity holds the key to earlier mysteries and future retribution.
"What I want is that these stories are arranged as a labyrinth with different points of entry," says Ruiz Zafón. The four quarters that make up this "Chinese box of fictions" each possess a different tone, a different texture, and this is Fermin's tale. "He's always been the moral centre of the stories. He's the guy who holds the truth in his hands. Fermin is also in many ways an homage to the picaresque tradition of Spanish literature. He's been holding a secret which can take us to the heart of this labyrinth."
While his books are immersed in Spain's second city, Ruiz Zafón has lived in Los Angeles for nearly two decades. His Californian lifestyle might seem at odds with the setting of his novels but his prose style has the rattling patter of West Coast authors such as Raymond Chandler. "I always had this childhood image in the back of my mind of this fantastic place where all the things I liked came from; Orson Welles, jazz, all that stuff. Los Angeles is one of those places where somebodies become nobodies and nobodies become somebody," he says. "In Los Angeles you get the sense sometimes that there's a mysterious patrol at night: when the streets are empty and everyone's asleep, they go erasing the past. It's like a bad Ray Bradbury story – 'The Memory Erasers'."
His home town is somewhat different. "The haunting of history is ever present in Barcelona," says Ruiz Zafón. "I see cities as organisms, as living creatures. To me Madrid is a man and Barcelona is a woman. And it's a woman who's extremely vain. One of the great Catalan poets, Joan Maragall, wrote this famous poem in which he called Barcelona the great enchantress, or some kind of sorceress, and in which the city has this dark enticing presence that seduces and lures people. I think Barcelona has a lot of that." In Ruiz Zafón's novels, Barcelona is as enthralling a character as Dickens's London or Isherwood's Berlin.
The author draws on many literary references, from Dumas to Poe, and in The Prisoner of Heaven, Fermin's imprisonment harks back to The Count of Monte Cristo. I'm surprised to learn that Ruiz Zafón is far from a stuffy bibliophile in awe of rare editions. "To me the romance is not these things, beautiful aesthetically as they are, but about the content," he tells me. "The Cemetery of Forgotten Books is a metaphor, not just for books but for ideas, for language, for knowledge, for beauty, for all the things that make us human, for collecting memory."
What started as a 'monstrous' concept has let the Spanish author explore the nature of literature.
The Cemetery of Forgotten Books is the sort of otherworldly place legendary Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges might have dreamt up. Borges wrote The Library of Babel in 1941, and in it philosophised about a vast library that housed almost infinite permutations of the same book.
The Cemetery of Forgotten Books - created by Spanish novelist Carlos Ruiz Zafon - owes something to Borges, because it is a fantastical affair: amid its soaring architecture we might find lost fragments of our own life stories because it is home to pieces of history and literature that have slipped through cracks in time.
Ruiz Zafon is the author of The Shadow of the Wind, the successful 2001 thriller that sold more than 12 million copies in 40 languages. His fans remain legion, but even they might not yet have gauged precisely how central the Cemetery is to his work: Ruiz Zafon's new novel, The Prisoner of Heaven, both a sequel and prequel to Shadow of the Wind, has that beguiling place at its heart.
The Cemetery is one of the key motifs throughout Ruiz Zafon's quartet of books, in which Shadow was the first instalment and Prisoner the third. In between came The Angel's Game(2008). He is writing the fourth.
Barcelona-born Ruiz Zafon spends half his time in Los Angeles these days and it seems no coincidence that he has settled in this vast city of extremes, which is home to so much noir literature and film. His work owes a great deal to the 1940s and '50s era of Hollywood, which produced so many gritty, black-and-white mysteries.
The Cemetery had its formation in Los Angeles, or perhaps somewhere between there and the author's beloved Barcelona. When Ruiz Zafon started to write Shadow of the Wind in 1997-98, he says, he had been living in California for three or four years and the image of ''a wonderful labyrinth of books, this kind of mysterious library hidden inside a palace'' in the old part of Barcelona came spontaneously into his mind.
''I could see it: the tunnels, the bridges, the arches and all of this impossible geometry, and I was thinking about what it meant to me,'' he says.
The Cemetery is a repository for forgotten books that have been carefully preserved by a select few librarians, and it symbolises for Ruiz Zafon the loss of literature, beauty and knowledge, as well as the destruction of memory, identity and ideas.
''Barcelona is a very old city in which you can feel the weight of history; it is haunted by history,'' he says. ''You cannot walk around it without perceiving it. In Los Angeles, it is quite the opposite: it is an older city than it might seem to be, but you don't perceive this - every day you get out of your home, you are driving somewhere and sometimes you get this impression that everything was put there the night before. This continuous erasure of history is something in the nature of the place that, when you come as I did from a very old place, you find it a very shocking thing.''
During those first years in Los Angeles, Ruiz Zafon travelled frequently around the US and would visit neglected second-hand bookstores. ''You could wander inside and get these treasures for 50¢,'' he says. ''They had most likely not been opened for decades. I also found this shocking because these were treasure troves of beauty and knowledge.''
At this time, he had been working as a screenwriter in Hollywood - work he didn't enjoy.
''I realised that I had always been writing things that other people wanted me to write and not what I really wanted to write, so I felt like I was losing my way. All of these things came together in this notion of a place that was important for me. It crystallised in my mind: it was very visual, like camera angles, but it also had great meaning for me. What I realised: that there was a story behind this place, behind this image, and I started thinking about the characters and the plot, and everything came from that.''
Many a critic and fan has noted how cinematic Ruiz Zafon's novels can be, especially in the scenes describing the Cemetery, yet he is adamant that despite some very generous offers from people he respects to turn his books into films, he does not want this. From the start, he says, these books are about an exploration of the wonders of the world of literature.
''It would be wrong to exploit or translate this into a different genre,'' he says. ''There is nothing wrong with turning [books] into film but why does everything have to be a film, mini-series or TV series? Why can't a book be a book? In this case, because of the nature of these books, what I feel for them, they are fine as they are. Already when you read them they are moving images in your mind in the best possible conditions; it is one of the layers of the books.''
While he says his novels are ''books about books, reading, writing, literature and even the mechanics of storytelling'', one of the things he has always tried to do is incorporate all sorts of genres - not just the noir thriller - so that the plot can toy with the conventions of those genres, such as the comedy of manners, the historical novel, the love story or a fantasy. He is fascinated that 19th-century novels - of Victor Hugo, Charles Dickens, Alexandre Dumas or the great Russian writers - also fused various genres into their work, using journalism, poetry, drama and philosophy to tell their stories.
''In the 20th century, the novel started doing that less,'' Ruiz Zafon says. ''It abandoned storytelling because it felt other forms were more aggressive in pursuing it. At some point you have to wonder, what exactly does [that sort of] novel do?''