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Thursday, July 12, 2012

"The Prisoner of Heaven" by Carlos Ruiz Zafon (Reviewed by Liviu Suciu)

INTRODUCTION: Carlos Ruiz Zafon is a Spanish author who became world famous when The Shadow of the Wind, his first installment of the Cemetery of Forgotten Books series, took the publishing world by storm a decade or so ago and went on to sell millions of copies in many languages and become a favorite novel for people of diverse literary inclinations. 

A first person narration from young bookseller Daniel Sempere, but a double mystery/love story set in Barcelona of the 1940-50 and the 1910's respectively, the book's narrative power makes it impossible to put down once opened. 

The 2008 follow-up, The Angel's Game was a huge favorite of mine and the first book in a while that I have read in Spanish on publication and later in English on translation. While it kept the single narrator/dual story structure of The Shadow of the Wind, The Angel's Game is set earlier in the 1920-1940's and the late 19th century respectively and can be read partially as a prequel. 

Its enigmatic narrator, writer David Martin, seems to wonder into the fantastic and that combined with the shifting focus away from the endearing Daniel, brought some criticism from fans of The Shadow of the Wind, but I found the darker style and mood of The Angel's Game quite suited to its story.

Now in The Prisoner of Heaven, David and Daniel's stories converge, the past is seen in a different light and the fourth - and presumed last though of course one wants more - installment has become another huge asap.

Note that a lot of what follows is taken from my short take on El Prisionero del Cielo on its Spanish publication last fall, but I will add more reflections both from my reading of the English translation and as time has passed and the book has settled in my memory...

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS "The Prisoner of Heaven" is a shorter novel than its two predecessors and it also offers a few departures from their common structure. While the past/present threads still appear, this time they are clearly divided rather than intertwined as before, with Daniel and Fermin as the respective narrators in a present/past/present succession, so the book starts and ends with Daniel's voice. 

 After a few introductory chapters here is Daniel getting the first inkling that things are about to get complicated again:

 "Cast against the light from the street, the silhouette resembled a tree trunk lashed by the wind. The visitor sported a dark, old-fashioned suit and presented a grim figure as he leaned on his walking stick. He took one step forward, limping visibly. The light from the small lamp on the counter revealed a face lined by age and the unmistakable trace of misfortune. The man stared at me for a few moments, sizing me up unhurriedly. He had the cold eyes of a bird of prey, patient and calculating.

‘Are you Señor Sempere?’

‘I’m Daniel. Señor Sempere is my father, but he’s not in right now. Is there anything I can help you with?’"

"The Prisoner of Heaven" forgoes the dual love affairs, offering instead a more political story in the Monte-Cristo vein in Fermin's narration and a yet unclear present storyline that ends with a big "to be continued". As the title character is David Martin (!), it should be clear that familiarity with both books is necessary and on first read, I found myself darting back and forth through Shadow of the Wind and The Angel's Game.

"The Prisoner of Heaven" still offers great prose and characters and all that you expect from a Carlos Ruiz Zafon novel and Fermin is added to the collection of memorable series characters alongside Daniel, Isabella Sempere, his mother and David's apprentice and friend, David Martin himself and Julian Carax. The secondary characters shine too, with prison governor and wannabe writer Mauricio Valls stealing the spotlight whenever he appears:

"Normally, after Sunday mass, the governor addressed a few edifying words to the prisoners. All they knew about him was that his name was Mauricio Valls and that before the war he’d been an aspiring writer who worked as secretary and errand-boy for a well-known local author, a long-standing rival of the ill-fated Don Pedro Vidal. 

In his spare time Valls penned bad translations of Greek and Latin classics and, with the help of a couple of kindred souls, edited a cultural pamphlet with high pretensions and low circulation. They also organised literary gatherings in which a whole battalion of like-minded luminaries deplored the state of things, forecasting that if one day they were able to call the shots, the world would rise to Olympian heights."

The one niggle I had is that "The Prisoner of Heaven" is the least self-contained of the novels so far both as backstory goes and with an ending that while not quite a cliffhanger, definitely begs the fourth novel, while presenting quite a different view of the past from what we thought we knew after The Angel's Game.

"The Prisoner of Heaven" was a big favorite last year in the original Spanish, while this year I found it as impressive as I remembered in its masterful English translation done by Julia Graves.


John said...

...what a fantastic read: The Prisoner of Heaven. I just finished it and my goodness I wish I hadn't! What a great book and Zafons dialogues are little artworks.

I just browsed through his books on Amazon in the hope I would find the following part, but alas... I guess I have to be patient and wait...

Which is difficult since he's one my of favorite authors!


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