by Carlos Ruiz Zafon
trans. by Lucia Graves
‘Years later, on his deathbed, old Sempere would explain how at that very instant he thought he saw Andreas Corelli shed a tear which, when it hit Cervantes’s tomb, turned to stone. He knew then that on that rock he would embark upon building a sanctuary, a cemetery of ideas and inventions, of words and marvels . . . . until it [found] again the reader that every book carries within it.’
The City of Mist is Zafon’s last published work, a slim-volume collection of short stories, set mainly in Barcelona. There are eleven stories altogether, including one which Zafon wrote in English, an apocalyptic 300-word tale of an encounter at the end of the world. For two others, he was his own translator; the remainder are rendered into English by Lucia Graves, who collaborated with him for nearly two decades.**
These tales, from the ultra-short Two Minute Apocalypse to the novelette The Prince of Parnassus demonstrate all the invention and writing kills that have made the author such a tour de force since the nineteen nineties. Crossing genre from the literary through the historical to the fantastic, this slim volume recalls names and places from the novels. The Prince of Parnassus, a fantasy-imagining of the life of Miguel de Cervantes, features not only Antoni de Sempere, creator of the Cemetery of Forgotten Books but also the mysterious publisher, Andreas Corelli, from The Angel’s Game.
Blanca and the Departure, a story of lost childhood love, and (possibly) Nameless, a tragedy of a lost mother, bring back as protagonist David Martin, the unreliable narrator of The Angel’s Game who also features in The Prisoner of Heaven. A third tale, Rose of Fire, supposedly told by Martin while in prison, is a fantasy about the last dragon, and a medal containing a tear shed by Jesus Christ.
‘. . . she gave me a kiss that tasted of all the truth in the world and made me want to be a decent man.’
Another artist inhabiting The City of Mist is Antoni Gaudi. In Gaudi in Manhattan, a student of architecture tells of a journey in the company of the master, a trip that the real-life Gaudi almost certainly did not make. For me, this was the most enjoyable story, not only because I admire Gaudi’s work but because there is humour here too, something which is lacking in the Barcelona of ghosts and graveyards.
However, they are all good!
The stories in The City of Mist are mostly dark, atmospheric and even macabre, demonstrating Zafon’s flair for the gothic. There are angels and dark angels, real or imagined – possibly both, and cemetery scenes feature on several occasions. It may be that Zafon wrote at least some of the pieces years ago, and that he resurrected them from one of those ‘dumps’ of unused material which most writers have, to polish and issue in this collection. One or two may even have been published already elsewhere; I have not attempted to research their history. But it doesn’t matter anyway!
Here, we catch glimpses of the author’s mind and recapture the tone and splendour of his longer novels, coupled perhaps with a degree of personal angst. Carlos Ruiz Zafon was taken from this world much too soon and all lovers of good literature should mourn his passing. Who knows what heights he might have achieved had he been spared for a few more decades?
‘When she reached the entrance to the graveyard she paused for a moment to catch her breath. A forest of angels and crosses peered over the walls. The stench of dead flowers, lime and sulphur licked her face, inviting her in.’
** Graves’s translation of The Shadow of the Wind appeared in 2004; the English version of his 1993 novel The Prince of Mist did not appear until much later. Without Lucia Graves’s translations, I would never have discovered this great author.
I – and many other readers I am sure – owe her a debt. Translators are often not appreciated nearly enough!