The Prisoner of Heaven
is the third in Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s series that began with The Shadow of the Wind
and continued with The Angel’s Game.
The main character in this chapter of Ruiz Zafon’s multi-volume tale is Fermin Romero de Torres, friend to the Sempere family, the owners of a struggling bookshop, in 1957 Barcelona. While other characters get their time on stage, this is Fermin’s tale. And a compelling story it is, from the time he adopted his name, through his less than friendly encounters with Spanish fascists in 1939, including a stint in a top-of-the-hill prison that would have been at home in the mind of Kafka or Bram Stoker, to the present (1957) when a ghost from his time in prison comes calling.
I confess that I found myself at loose ends a fair bit. As this is a continuation of the previous stories, or at the very least, is linked to them, I found myself, ironically, constantly straining to remember who this or that was, and what happened to them, or what it was that they had done. And even though I had read both prior books and kept notes on them, one of a thousand hard drive crashes had annihilated much of the information, and also, my note-taking was not quite so OCD as it is these days, so even the retained notes were of less than outstanding value. Maybe the best approach to Ruiz Zafon is to make a pile of all the books in the series and read them in a row, the better to keep things straight.
Ruiz Zafon is trying to reconstruct the big novels of the 19th century. On his website, he specifically mentions Tolstoy, Dickens, and Wilkie Collins in discussing his aims. So there will be plenty of characters, plenty of sub-plots, and when spread over three (and eventually four) books it can be a bit much to keep track of, let alone recall from having read the prior volumes years before.
The primary literary inspiration here is The Count of Monte Cristo
, with both that novel and this one involving an undeserved imprisonment, a clever escape, fabulous treasure, and adventure. The mention is overt in the text and gives us a neon clue as to how a prison escape will be accomplished.
While this is a page-turner to read, it is more than a mere action-adventure treat. There is content lurking in the shadows. Keep in mind that one of the central images of the entire series is a literal place called the “Cemetery of Forgotten Books.” It does not figure very largely in this episode, but it underlies. The need to remember, however, permeates. And it is not just the desire to keep alive the memory of loved ones, or even of literature, but of the reality of Fascism, lest the powers that be erase that memory.
Christmas figures early in the story, an image of hopefulness in a time almost worth forgetting:
In those days, Christmas still retained a certain aura of magic and mystery. The powdery light of winter, the hopeful expressions of people who lived among the shadows and silences, lent that setting a slight air of promise in which, at least children and those who had learned the art of forgetting, could still believe.
Memory is erased as the corrupt surround themselves with their kind then intimidate speakers of truth into suppressing reality and promoting fiction. Although this is not at all referenced here I could not help but think of the McCarthy era in America, and today of those who claim a perfect knowledge of the American founders as a defense of their positions, and any and all political spinmeisters.
I don’t know where I’ve read that deep down we’ve never been who we think we once were, and we only remember what never happened
Lies find their way into common experience
I’ve seen a few cases and the patients often hear voices, or they see and remember people and events that have never taken place…The mind slowly deteriorates and the patient can no longer distinguish between reality and fiction.
“like seventy percent of Spaniards. “
And a bow to the importance of historians, research and writing:
cities have no memory and they need someone like me, a sage with his feet on the ground, to keep it alive
Cemeteries of varying sorts pop up like mushrooms after a shower, Fermin has a close encounter with a particularly grisly one, there is the cemetery of forgotten books of course, and other visits take place as well. They seem to be locales where, ironically, truth is kept alive.
Fire flames into the text many times, but I leave that for another reviewer
And I take the title to refer nor only the Daniel Martin’s dubious mental state, but to the person of Spain itself, which, in a way, had to keep its own consciousness in the clouds in order to survive the horrors of fascism.
While I may have concerns about one’s ability to read this book solo, this is not to say that this was not an entertaining read. It was. It is not to say that the characters are not interesting. They are, at least the ones which are developed. And it is not to say that this book cannot be read as a stand-alone. It can, although it would be like reading with one eye tied behind your back. (Yes, I know) I do wish, though, that more ink had been applied to the female characters. They seem to serve here more as plot devices than as realized individuals.
So, bottom line here is that The Prisoner of Heaven
is an engaging and entertaining read, offering the perceptive reader plenty of content beneath the surface story, connections to literature from the past and an appreciation of the importance of keeping the truth alive in our memory. I would suggest, however, having the first two volumes in the series close at hand, or ideally, if you have not read them already, read all three at once for the best possible immersive reading experience. Forgetting is a terrible thing.
PS - You might enjoy checking out the author's site
I wish there were half stars. I wanted to give this 3.5
And just a question that kept me wondering. Why was Daniel digging a hole in the ice?