There’s a special thrill to those moments when life imitates art, when events unfold as though there was a plot to it all, when characters escape out of a book…
It all started one grey day in winter at my friend Miranda’s where I sometimes lock myself away in her garden shed in order to write. I was upstairs in the house, answering the call of nature since the Muse was taking her own sweet time, when I caught sight of a book on the shelf outside the bathroom. The author’s name was picked out in lettering reminiscent of a Victorian freak-show handbill, and a figure fleeing out of the sepia-tinted picture seemed ready to jump right out of the cover. The promise of cheap thrills, dark deeds, and Gothic horror was irresistible.
I nicked the book, stashed it in my bag and headed home to read it.
Which I did, in great big, delicious, juicy hunks. I was about two-thirds of the way through, when the phone rang. It was my mum. We’re both a bit memory-challenged and slightly hard of hearing, so it wasn’t the most sparkling conversation, but it went roughly like this:
“I’m reading this book,” she said. “I think you’d like it.”
“I’m also reading a book,” I replied. “I think you’d like it too.”
“No way! Mine’s by Carlos Somebody-or-other too.”
“Not Shadow of the Something?”
“No. No, mine’s called Prisoner of Something-else.”
It turned out that, by pure chance – or was it? – we had both picked up books by the same author at the same moment. Her’s, The Shadow of the Wind (2004), was the first and mine, The Prisoner of Heaven (2011), the third in the ‘Cemetery of Forgotten Books’ cycle by the Catalonian novelist Carlos Ruiz Zafón. Along with The Angel’s Game (2009), they have been translated into English – masterfully – by Lucia Graves, the granddaughter of the poet Robert Graves.
It transpired that the only extraordinary thing about our literary serendipity was that it hadn’t happened before now. Far from being an obscure … hermit, Zafón is Huge, capital H. His books have sold in many millions of copies and been translated into 40 different languages. The Angel’s Game holds the record as the fastest-selling book in the whole of Spanish history, no less.
Zafón’s world is a place where plots nest within plots, stories weave in and out of each other, each thread enriched with passion and intrigue, blood and friendship, betrayal and unrequited love, and – above all – by mysterious books. The play – and Zafón’s intensely visual language makes reading much more like watching a film or a play – opens as Daniel, a young boy, is taken by his father to a secret vault in the heart of Barcelona’s historic quarter where old books are kept: The Cemetery of Forgotten Books. This, his father explains, is “a place of mystery… a sanctuary… When a library disappears, or a bookshop closes down, when a book is consigned to oblivion, those of us who know this place, its guardians, make sure that it gets here. In this place, books no longer remembered by anyone, books that are lost in time, live forever, waiting for the day when they will reach a new reader’s hands… Every book you see here has been somebody’s best friend. Now they only have us, Daniel. Do you think you’ll be able to keep such a secret?”
Each visitor to the library gets to choose one book. Or rather, the book chooses them. The book that our young hero picks out is called The Shadow of the Wind by Julian Carax, an author whose identity is shrouded in mystery – a mystery which Daniel devotes his life, and Zafón devotes the rest of the book, to solving.
All three of the books take place in Barcelona, a city steeped in history and mystery, cheap bars and pavement cafes, old bookstores and crumbling mansions and peopled with such an array of fascinating, vivid characters it’s enough to make you want to jump ship and wave bye-bye to the tanker HMS Brexit brandishing your passport application aloft. No wonder the Catalonians want independence, you think, if it’s anything like this.
How wonderful, dear reader, to have a book choose you, for it to fall into your lap as though it had jumped there of its own volition. How much more wonderful to find within its covers a fable of your own romance with the notion of destiny, the flirtatious and seductive notion that there is The One for you out there, waiting. And even more than that, that You complete me need not be whispered in your ear by a longed-for lover, but can be – if you’re very lucky – read between the lines on a page of a special book, a book seemingly written with you, and only you, in mind.
I’ve just had the most fabulous Christmas news and I can bring you the glad tidings that the last and final installment of the cycle, entitled The Labyrinth of the Spirits, will be out in 2018. O, happy new year!