It’s surprising to learn that Carlos Ruiz Zafon, of all people, uses a Kindle. In the world created by this internationally bestselling Spanish writer, book lovers are heroes and rare books the greatest treasures of all.
“The Prisoner of Heaven” is Zafon’s third novel set around Sempere & Sons bookstore and the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, a fabled repository in Barcelona where people are allowed to choose one volume in their lifetime. Oh, you could digitize all those rare editions, but where’s the drama in that?
Zafon claims you don’t have to read his books in chronological order, but “The Prisoner of Heaven” would be a confusing place to start. This slender novel provides some answers to what happened to David Martin, the writer who made a Faustian bargain in “The Angel’s Game” (2009), and to the mother of Daniel, the young hero in “The Shadow of the Wind” (2004).
Each of the novels in this series revolves around a particular rare book. This time, “The Count of Monte Cristo” gets pride of place. Several key plot points parallel Dumas’s classic of wrongful imprisonment and revenge.
It’s Christmas 1957, and customers are scarce at Sempere & Sons; bills are coming due. But then a man with a porcelain hand enters the store and buys the most expensive book, an edition of “The Count of Monte Cristo.” He inscribes it: “For Fermin Romero de Torres, who came back from among the dead and holds the key to the future.”
That “gaunt knight,” Fermin Romero de Torres, becomes the hero of a tale within a tale marked by improbable escapes, torture and near starvation. As he careens from one near-death adventure to the next, Fermin makes bravura pronouncements such as “Obstetrics, after free verse, is one of my hobbies,” and “Destiny doesn’t do home visits.” When a character remarks that he must have a hard time in Franco’s Spain, the former spy replies, “You have no idea. But I always tell myself that having direct access to serrano ham makes up for everything.”
“Everything” in this case involves a stint in the Montjuic Castle in the 1940s, presided over by the nefarious Mauricio Valls. Before the Spanish Civil War, he “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.” Fermin is imprisoned alongside another of Zafon’s characters, and the two try to find a way out of the impenetrable fortress that makes the Chateau d’If look like the Four Seasons. The sadistic Inspector Fumero from “Shadow of the Wind” is also back, lurking in the castle’s dungeons.
Full of stylish writing, Gothic atmosphere and love letters to 19th-century novels, “The Prisoner of Heaven” ends with one villain still at large, so fans should get at least one more trip to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books.
Zipp regularly reviews books for the Christian Science Monitor and The Washington Post.
THE PRISONER OF HEAVEN
By Carlos Ruiz Zafon
Translated from the Spanish by Lucia Graves
Harper. 278 pp. $25.99