The Prisoner of Heaven
by Carlos Ruiz Zafon
trans. by Lucia Graves
‘Cast against the light from the street, the silhouette resembled a tree trunk lashed by the wind. The visitor ….took one step forward, limping visibly. He had the cold eyes of a bird of prey, patient and calculating.’
The Prisoner of Heaven is the third book in Zafon’s cycle of stories set in Barcelona and featuring the Cemetery of Forgotten Books. It is much shorter than either of its predecessors yet lacks none of the intrigue of the earlier books. Nor is it missing their compelling characters.
We return again to Sempere’s Bookshop and renew acquaintance with Daniel Sempere, his father and their loveable helper, Fermin Romero de Torres, central characters in The Shadow of the Wind. And we meet again David Martin and Isabella, protagonists in The Angel’s Game.
Two years after the events related in The Shadow of the Wind, Daniel Sempere is happily married with an infant son. It is Christmas. A stranger walks into his father’s bookshop and enquires after a special edition of The Count of Monte Cristo. He is willing to pay far more than the book is worth. When he leaves the book behind with a dedication for Daniel’s friend, Fermin, it sparks a mystery that has its roots in Barcelona’s revolutionary history. Fermin’s disquiet on being told of the stranger’s visit prompts Daniel to question him about his past.
The past is something the reader feels Fermin would rather forget. However, his problem can be simply stated: he loves Bernarda and wants to marry her; he needs papers to marry; he has none; Fermin Romero de Torres does not exist; he died in prison a quarter of a century ago!
‘Fermin went on cleaning him as best he could, silently, and then covered him with the piece of blanket they shared – teeming with nits and stinking of urine. He sat next to the thief until Salgado closed his eyes ….. “Tell me he’s already dead,” came Number 15’s voice.’
Zafon now switches from first to third person point of view to relate the story of Fermin’s earlier life, a story at the heart of which is a sinister secret that will disturb Daniel’s newly-found happiness.
In 1940, Spain still suffers the effects of the civil war and its people are cruelly and mercilessly ruled by an oppressive regime. The authorities arrest Fermin and confine him in a cell in Montjuic Castle, then Barcelona’s fascist prison. David Martin, the haunted narrator of The Angel’s Game, the second book in Zafon’s cycle, has already been confined there for several years when Fermin arrives. Prisoners in Montjuic routinely die of cold, starvation or disease. However, for his own reasons, Valls, the prison governor, is determined to keep Martin alive. The story reintroduces us to Isabella, who has always been Martin’s friend, and is making strenuous efforts to have him released from prison.
Like Monte Cristo, Fermin’s tale involves conspiracy, murder and a large fortune. And like Edmond Dantes, Fermin, with help from Martin and an apparent corpse, makes a dramatic escape. But unlike Dantes, Fermin does not find gold and jewels in an Aladdin’s cave. He goes on the run, possessed of the secret that, when told, will shatter Daniel’s perception of himself and his family’s past.
‘My father stared at her in astonishment, as if he’d seen a ghost. I gulped, feeling a shiver run through my body. That girl was the spitting image of my mother: she had the same face that appeared in the set of photographs my father kept in his desk.’
Again, as in his earlier novels, Zafon challenges our idea of the conventional hero. He paints Fermin as a brave but gentle man who values friendship and honour above fame and wealth. And once again, in Valls, he introduces us to a villain with no apparent redeeming qualities, one that demands a fourth novel to satisfy the reader’s sense of justice.
I would add only that, for me, the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, though fantasy, is one of the greatest fictional creations of all time.