Carlos Ruiz Zafn: The City of Mist a touchingly posthumous return to enduring themes

The late Carlos Ruiz Zafn. Picture: Getty Images
The late Carlos Ruiz Zafn. Picture: Getty Images

The bestselling Spanish novelist, Carlos Ruiz Zafn, was taken by cancer last year, at the sadly early age of 55. He wrote what might be called baroque mysteries, and his countless fans, of whom I am one, will miss him. He started out writing books for young adults, successfully switching to adult fiction in 2004 with The Shadow of the Wind, which, together with three other titles, The Angel's Game (2009), The Prisoner of Heaven (2012), and The Labyrinth of the Spirits (2017), became the quartet lovingly known and remembered as "The Cemetery of Forgotten" books. These novels don't need to be read sequentially, since their elaborately entwined paths can be followed from any entry point.

English translations for these well-loved novels are charmingly provided by Lucia Graves, daughter of the poet Robert Graves, which no doubt helped ensure their international popularity. In fact, there's an almost whimsical touch of old-fashioned prose, giving the endlessly twisting mysteries the authentic flavour of English from a different time. No postmodern literary tricks here, just the homespun honesty of vividly imagined adventures. Reminiscent, perhaps, of the exotic world of H. Rider Haggard's King Solomon's Mines, or the sadly misguided, but splendidly sought, vengeance achieved by Edmund Dantès in The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandra Dumas.

Zafn's chosen stage largely concerns the Spanish city of Barcelona, once described by a Catalan poet as "the great enchantress". And the setting is used well, from the plague and intrigue-ridden early days to the Spanish Civil War, which bled its tragedies into the Second World War, and the lost Franco-Fascist years beyond. A city enchanted by mists, conspiracies and beguiling places, such as the delightfully bizarre Cemetery of Forgotten Books, where "a labyrinth of passageways and crammed bookshelves rose from base to pinnacle like a beehive, woven with tunnels, steps, platforms and bridges that presaged an immense library of seemingly impossible geometry".

The players on Zafn's stage are driven by lonely aspirations, audacious ideas, spontaneous acts of self-sacrifice and heroism, along with enough Machiavellian mischief to thread a tapestry of human frailties and failings to span several centuries. All of which is over-arched by a seemingly mystical force, as if summoned up from romantic passion and creative life to share the healing solace of well-told stories.

The City of Mist is a touchingly posthumous return to these enduring themes, containing previously unpublished material, again translated by the wonderful Lucia Graves, but also including a couple of pieces given English expression by Zafn himself. A doomed writer, from The Prisoner of Heaven, appears here in a beautiful story, said to be taken from "the imagined memoirs of one David Martin". David was imprisoned by the Fascists in 1939 in a brooding old castle, but his brief memory here tells of a deprived childhood when he fell in love with a girl from a wealthy family. Conditioned to expect rejection and scorn, David is surprised and humbled by her kindness and sympathy, which provides a crucial key to his future as a writer.

A longer story, titled "The Prince of Parnassus" daringly plays with the life of Spain's most celebrated writer, Miguel de Cervantes, as it tells of a mysterious benefactor who persuades Cervantes to write a masterpiece to save the woman, he (Cervantes) loves. Zafn says "this story is a simple divertimento that plays with some of the less known and less documented elements of the great author's life, in particular his journey to Italy in his youth and his stay or stays in Barcelona, the only city he mentions repeatedly in his work."

Perhaps an even more fanciful story - and to the best of my knowledge entirely made up - is titled "Gaudi in Manhattan", involving of course the architect, whose eye-catchingly famous cathedral in Barcelona remains incomplete to this day. Told from the viewpoint of Gaudi's assistant, practically the first thing he must deal with is the master's definition of a skyscraper: "simply a cathedral for people who, instead of believing in God, believe in money". A wealthy tycoon has commissioned Gaudi to design and build a skyscraper in the heart of Manhattan. When Gaudi is asked why he would take on a task that would interrupt valuable work on his cathedral, he replies: "sometimes, to do the Lord's work you have to shake the hand of the devil". But this time the devil doesn't win.

Appropriately, The City of Mist closes with an extract from The Shadow of the Wind, the novel where it all began, and which I reviewed in these pages back in 2004. Daniel remembers when his father first took him to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, and is told it is a sanctuary, where every book has a soul. I'm a soul sceptic but love the idea. And the books it helped to create. Vale Carlos Ruiz Zafn.

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This story Postscript to vivid career in words first appeared on The Canberra Times.