The Prisoner of Heaven, by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

This 2011 work is a highly readable commercial novel, but another step down from the literary promise of The Shadow of the Wind. With some of the same characters from Shadow and The Angel’s Game, this is again a story of Barcelona, books, and intrigue. The intrigue occurs on two levels, more significantly when Franco takes power in 1939, but also when the novel’s resolution occurs almost twenty years later.

The novel begins in 1957 when the hero Daniel Sempere, a boy in Shadow and now distraught over the possible infidelity of his wife Bea, reveals that his older friend, Fermin Romero de Torres is under even greater distress because of events that occurred under Franco in a Barcelona prison castle in 1939. Fermin was an assumed name his friend used, when he was arrested as a spy and put in prison; and now he must not only resolve a threat that harkens back to that era but also officially produce new papers in that name twenty years later so he can marry Bernarda, his true love.

Those in prison with Fermin back in ‘39 include author David Martin, a hero from earlier books in this series, and Sebastian Salgado, a former jewel thief who has secreted away a rich treasure from his last escapade. These Franco prisoners undergo torture, privation, and blackmail, witness arbitrary executions, and face a life without hope. In fact, the horrendous life in this prison run by the cruel and ambitious Mauricio Valls is the finest portion of this novel, suggesting the literary depths that the author once achieved.

But the novel’s early emphasis on the texture of life under Franco shifts to an emphasis on the characters’ personal lives—and on the plot—once Fermin cleverly escapes from prison and is pursued by Valls. At the same time, Isabella, not yet David’s mother, is trying to get Martin freed from prison, and Daniel wonders, a generation later, if she actually loved Martin and that Martin was his real father.

The remainder of Daniel’s narration concerns his efforts to find papers for Fermin, learn who is real father is, and revenge himself on Valls, whom he believes had murdered his mother. But these efforts seem inconsequential, compared to Fermin’s adventures: his flight from Barcelona, his long recuperation, and his return to Barcelona to reunite with Daniel and then both resolve his identity issue and discover the jewels that the prisoner Salgado had hidden away.

Even if Daniel narrates much of this novel, and has his own concerns, the main character is Fermin. He is not only a much more interesting person than Daniel, but so are his daring adventures. Especially in the prison and with his escape, but also in the 1957 scenes narrated by Daniel. I would also note that even the minor male figures, such as the letter-writer and the priest, imbed themselves in the reader’s memory—unlike the women, especially wife Bea and fiancée Bernarda, whose lack of depth diminishes the personal motivations of both Daniel and Fermin.

None of these efforts, however, by either Daniel or Fermin, reaches the significance or complexity of the issues the characters confronted in The Shadow of the Wind. The issues here are personal, whether motivated by revenge or love or greed. Moreover, The Cemetery of Forbidden Books, so provocative an idea in the earlier books, does not appear here until the final pages, when it seems tacked on, as if to provide a possible (but is it believable?) conclusion to David Martin’s bond with Daniel’s mother.

The other mystery we are left with is the existence of Valls, who has disappeared two decades later. An epilogue suggests that the answer will come with a fourth volume in this series. But one anticipates that such a novel will continue on the level of mere personal motivation, that it will boast no psychological, philosophical, or political developments that will enable that upcoming story to regain for Ruiz Zafon his former literary significance. (March, 2015)

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