The OF Blog: Carlos Ruiz Zafón, The Prisoner of Heaven (El Prisionero del Cielo)

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Carlos Ruiz Zafón, The Prisoner of Heaven (El Prisionero del Cielo)

– Observe la marca de agua.  Y estas líneas.  La textura...

– ¿El cabellero es un experto en falsificaciones?

– Todo es falso en este mundo, joven.  Todo menos el dinero. (p. 31)

"Observe the watermark.  And these lines.  The texture..."

"The gentleman is an expert in forgeries?"

"All is false in this world, young man.  All except money."

In 2001, Carlos Ruiz Zafón's La Sombra del Viento (later published in 2004 in English as The Shadow of the Wind) was published.  Through word-of-mouth, this book went on to sell more than 10 million copies worldwide by 2008, when the second volume, El Juego del Ángel (The Angel's Game) was published.  Nearly three and a half years later, the third volume in the planned four volume sequence of The Cemetery of Forgotten Books, El Prisionero del Cielo (to be published in English in June 2012 as The Prisoner of Heaven), has now been published to great fanfare in Spain.

El Prisionero del Cielo, unlike the previous two standalone volumes, needs to be read after them, as it depends too heavily on events in both novels for its stories.  The main action takes place in Barcelona around Christmas 1957, a little over a year and a half after the concluding events in La Sombra del Viento.  Its two main protagonists, young Daniel Sempere and his older friend and quasi-guardian, Fermín, feature heavily in this work.  The story begins with Daniel receiving a visit from a strange gentleman who deposits an old copy of The Count of Monte Cristo with the following inscription:

Para Fermín Romero de Torres, que regresó de entre los muertos y tiene la llave del futuro.


For Fermín Romero de Torres, who returned from among the dead and who has the key to the future.


From this point, the action of El Prisionero del Cielo switches into exploring the mystery behind this inscription and just why Fermín may be near the nexus of a series of events that stretch back to the Spanish Civil War and the rise of Franco's fascist government.  The mysteries behind "13" and why The Count of Monte Cristo are explored in depth in a flashback that takes up most of the second and third sections of the book.  In the previous two books, Zafón kept the historical events in the background, to the point where there was barely any mention in La Sombra del Viento of the repression of political dissent in Franco's Spain.  Here in El Prisionero del Cielo, however, this repressive regime plays a larger role in explaining not just "13" but also who "the prisoner of Heaven" might be.  In this shift toward providing a stronger historical background to the fictional events, Zafón also introduces the first true villain of the series, albeit one who lurks in the background for most of the novel.  

Like its predecessors, El Prisionero del Cielo mixes in several references to literature.  Whereas the earlier volumes referenced in passing Benito Pérez Galdos, one of Spain's leading writers of the mid-to-late 19th century, here and there in the text are references to Miguel de Unamuno, one of Spain's greatest essayists/poets/novelists of the 20th century and one whose criticism of the nascent rebels against the Republicans did not endear himself to Franco's supporters.  Although one can read the novel without needing to be aware of Unamuno's writing, having a fair knowledge of his works can add a little touch to the plot, just as such literary references did with the previous two novels.  In addition, the aforementioned The Count of Monte Cristo plays a more direct role in the plot besides being the book in which the quoted inscription appears.  Zafón's use of these references feels more integrated here than it did in the previous two volumes, perhaps due to the book being over a hundred pages shorter than La Sombra del Viento and nearly 300 shorter than El Juego del Ángel.

El Prisionero del Cielo's shortened length is almost certainly due to not needing to introduce new characters; Fermín and Daniel should already be familiar to readers.  This does not mean that Zafón does not flesh out their characters (one of the few complaints I had about La Sombra del Viento was the sense that Daniel's character was too much of a cipher), as we see how Fermín came to be associated with the Semperes plus we witness the stress and strain in Daniel's life, first from being a new father and then later as he deals with the explosive revelations told in the flashback sequences.  We also learn a bit more about certain characters that first appeared in El Juego del Ángel, with certain surprises that lead the reader to reconsider what s/he had read in that book and perhaps in the first volume.

The past, whether it be that of the city of Barcelona or the literature of previous generations, has always played a major role in Zafón's recent novels.  This continues in El Prisionero del Cielo, not just with the literary or political references, but also with the revelations revolving around the Sempere family.  Zafón's imbuing the narrative with traces of a mysterious historical past is a hallmark of his recent writing and it continues to be a strength here.  The past, both real and imagined alike, feel "alive" throughout El Prisionero del Cielo and that local color adds immensely to the enjoyment of the plot.

Despite the novel being less self-contained than the others (not only does it depend upon the previous two for its setup, but the story also ends with a quasi-cliffhanger), El Prisionero del Cielo is a more streamlined novel that sheds some of the narrative bloat that plagued El Juego del Ángel, not to mention having the narrative PoVs narrowed down to Fermín and Daniel make for easier transitions than found in La Sombra del Viento.  This leads to a more focused story that conveys at least as much as the previous volumes but without the bloat or narrative juggling that sometimes slowed down the narratives in the previous two volumes.  The action is strong, reminiscent of the best 19th century sensational novels, with good characterization and character motivation throughout the book.  The main weakness of El Prisionero del Cielo is the seeming lack of resolution; it introduces the main villain and sets the table for what ought to be an explosive finale, but in and of itself, it concludes with the characters being able to integrate the revelations of the preceding chapters into their lives and adjusting the best they may.  Despite this lack of a strong conclusion, El Prisionero del Cielo is my favorite volume in the series to date and I cannot wait until the next time one of the characters dares visit The Cemetery of Forgotten Books.  One of the best novels I've read in 2011.

Note:  I use Spanish titles throughout due to the fact that I read each volume in the original Spanish and I've never read any of the translations.

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