The Labyrinth of the Spirits
by Carlos Ruiz Zafon
translation by Lucia Graves
‘Isaac sighed. “Alicia,” he said at last. “Welcome to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books.” ‘
I [and I suspect many other readers too] have waited a long time for this book. Conceived sometime around 1998, the project Mr Zafon is pleased to call a cycle of novels reaches a satisfying conclusion in The Labyrinth of the Spirits, published in Spain in late 2016.
The English version, released a month ago, is, like the others three books, translated from the Spanish by Lucia Graves. Set mainly in Barcelona, it introduces us again to the important characters from The Shadow of the Wind, The Angel’s Game and The Prisoner of Heaven – Daniel Sempere and his family, their friend Fermin Romero de Torres and Isaac, ageing custodian of the Cemetery. Readers of the earlier novels will know that Daniel has unfinished business.
‘[Alicia] let out a muffled cry, and her whole body tensed up like a steel cable for a few seconds. Leandro pulled the needle out slowly and left the syringe on the bed…. Alicia’s forehead was bathed in sweat. He pulled out a handkerchief and dried it for her.’
The main protagonist here is a new character, Alicia Gris. However, we are a few chapters in before we meet her as a young child, caught up in the ferocious bombing of Barcelona by the nationalist’s allies during the Civil War. In an attempt to escape, Alicia, in the company of Fermin, is badly injured in the hip.
Fermin too is injured and it is a while before we catch up with him again. We move forward now to 1959 where we are reintroduced to Mauricio Valls, the nasty piece of work who appeared in The Prisoner of Heaven. Valls has disappeared and Alicia, who in the intervening years has been groomed by Leandro (yet another new character) to become a reluctant agent of the state police (or maybe secret police – it isn’t totally clear what they are) is charged with the job of finding him.
‘…… “But you didn’t listen to me. That’s why now, much against my will, I’m going to have to order the death of all those people you have involved in your adventure. Daniel Sempere, his wife, and all his family, including the fool who works for them, and all those to whom …. you’ve had the ill-fated idea of blurting out what they should never have known” ‘
Alicia is a sympathetic character, but she can also be ruthless when she chooses. Her ability to ‘think outside the box’ defines her value to her superiors as an agent. Handicapped or not, she is not without feminine charms. She is attractive enough to spark Bea Sempere’s jealousy when she sees her with her husband – and Bea herself is known as a beauty. It is Alicia’s presence in the novel that ties past and present, enabling us to connect both people and events already described in the first three novels. What was the true fate of David Martin (Angel’s Game)? Will Daniel avenge the murder of his mother Isabella (Prisoner)? As the true nature of the conspiracy which binds the characters unravels, we begin to see why Valls has disappeared, why Martin had to be silenced, and why Isabella had to die.
‘Even in the shadows he can see that the two dark stains where his fingers should be are suppurating, oozing what looks like a thick and bloody liquid.’
As in The Shadow of the Wind, The Labyrinth of the Spirits is also the title of a novel within the novel. Labyrinth goes further. It is a book within a book within a book. Like Julian Carax in Shadow, its author Victor Mataix is a casualty of war and its aftermath, in which state-sponsored evil goes unchecked and unpunished. The inevitable question which arises as we begin reading is, will it go unpunished here? The novel also poses what, for me, is a more important and interesting question. Do unspeakable evil deeds deserve unspeakable evil punishment in return? Does eye demand eye, does tooth demand tooth?
The Labyrinth of the Spirits is a dark novel, a literary thriller which digs deep into Spain’s turbulent past and exposes the early Franco era for what it was – a blot on the history of that beautiful country. Here, Barcelona’s war-torn splendours, its cafes, secret corners and dark cellars, as well as the people who inhabit them, come alive to tell us, these times should never return. There are moments of horror and tragedy but also episodes of wonderful Zafon humour, all of it enlivened by Lucia Graves delightful English prose. I mean it as a compliment to both when I say she has inherited all her father’s command of the English language. My only regret is that I am unable to compare her translations of Zafon’s work with the original text.
‘According to malicious gossip, [Braulio] lived in the basement of the morgue, turning filth into an art form and drifting into old age in the safe haven provided by a decrepit bug-ridden bed.’
Somewhere in the WordPress archive, if interested, you will find my reviews of the first three novels of the Cemetery cycle. They can also be found in one place, on pages 58-64 of my little book, Classic Reviews*, available free [the e-book only, I’m afraid, not the paperback] from Amazon for the next five days [Wednesday 31 Oct to Sunday 4 Nov].
*Classic Reviews by Andrew G. Lockhart, published by Magda Green Books https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B01E2TNBC8