Thursday, April 9, 2015

The Cemetery of Forgotten Books

I read The Shadow of the Wind almost six years ago, and in the past couple of weeks devoured the other two books in the series: The Angel's Game and The Prisoner of Heaven.

The Angel's Game is a prequel, but came out after The Shadow of the Wind. The Prisoner of Heaven covers events between the books as well as after the events of The Shadow of the Wind.

In my original 2009 review, I wrote, "This beautifully written literary thriller pulls you in and invites you into the exciting literary underworld of Barcelona," but advised "Read The Shadow of the Wind for fun, not for substance." I wonder if I would write those words today.

The Angel's Game and The Prisoner of Heaven are equally vivid page-turners. Yet both books contain a depth of thought that I wonder if I missed in the first book. The atmosphere is so distracting that it appeared to me, at first, to be the most significant element of all three novels.

Zafon's Barcelona is seedy, treacherous, and disorienting. At times, it's as if the streets, alleyways, and abandoned homes of the city collude against the characters. Yet, it is also the home of the comfy and pivotal Sempere & Sons bookshop, not to mention the drool-worthy necropolis that is the Cemetery of Forgotten Books. Zafon's creepy world-building reminds me strongly of the Gothic novels of Daphne du Maurier, though she's strangely not name-dropped as one of his influences (Jane Eyre, The Count of Monte Cristo, and Victor Hugo's works all garner mentions). However, while I always realized that the significance of du Maurier's work lay in the psychology of her characters, perhaps I failed to recognize this in Zafon. Unlike du Maurier, his novels seemed more like purposeful and straightforward mysteries to me. The primary mystery in The Shadow of the Wind is actually resolved, and so I saw the lack of tying up loose ends as a failing and not a statement about what was truly important in the book.

The Angel's Game is a different book altogether, and I'll be honest when I say the unresolved ending drives me crazy. I read this article recently about why adults shouldn't read YA books, and while I completely disagree, I found Ruth Graham's suggestion that one of the distinguishing features between a YA book and an "adult" book is that YA books have satisfying endings, and "adult" books do not, illuminating. While the smugness of this bothers me, I feel compelled to examine this tendency in myself, and while it's true that I can appreciate an ambiguous ending, I often find a lack of resolution frustrating. The Angel's Game follows the template of a thriller, with an elaborate setting and complex cast of characters, and then turns it on its a way that could feel like a cop-out or could be a brilliant commentary on unreliable narration and mental illness, I'M STILL NOT SURE.

This is kind of SPOILER-y (or maybe not?), but on the one hand, I feel like it's way too easy to say HEY! GOTCHA! My character's insane, and nothing that you think just happened actually happened HA HA, THE END. On the other hand, I think I owe Zafon more credit than that. He is obviously well-read, and the conversations between his characters on the nature of literature and reality suggest that he is purposefully blending the two--either making a statement that it doesn't matter which is which, or perhaps that any of us can choose to believe what we want, or maybe that believing in fiction more than reality is a dangerous, dangerous thing to do. And I think that's what these proponents of "adult" fiction like Graham are getting at, that it's up to the reader to wrestle with the meaning of the book, and decide for themselves. And Zafon's The Angel's Game, and the other two books, to a lesser extent, allow us a vehicle to do that.

The Prisoner of Heaven, as I've said of the other books, is big on atmosphere, especially the Mont Juic prison where two of the main characters are held during the Spanish Civil War. Here, we once again have The Shadow of the Wind's Daniel Sempere as first person narrator, though a large chunk of the book is narrated by his friend Fermin. The Prisoner of Heaven is none other than David Martin, who is the narrator of The Angel's Game. A young Fermin meets the acclaimed but now possibly deranged author while imprisoned at Mont Juic. Where The Shadow of the Wind paid homage to Victor Hugo, The Prisoner of Heaven owes a significant debt to Dumas' The Count of Monte Cristo. The occasionally tongue-in-cheek homages are not just playful updates, but add depth to the originals. For example: When an escaped prisoner finds refuge in a priest's home and eyes the priest's silverware, the priest informs him, "I have also read Les Miserables, so don't even think about it." Later, the priest places the packet of silverware in the prisoner's suitcase.

I've enjoyed thinking along with the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, even if I'm still frustrated with the ambiguity, I can recognize it as perhaps a quirk of mine rather than fault in the author. Though if the last line of The Prisoner of Heaven--"It was only the beginning"--DOESN'T token another book, I will be furious.

No comments: