Ruiz Zafón’s gothic psychological thriller takes us on a journey through 1920s Barcelona with a writer named David Martín who carries a lot of tragic baggage from an unhappy childhood. Abandoned by his mother, beaten by his father, desperate to read anything he can get his hands on, and protected by the neighbourhood book seller, Señor Sempere, David has a rather cynical and dark outlook on life. When his father is killed at his caretaking job on the newspaper, The Voice of Industry, David is taken under the wing of a wealthy patron, Pedro Vidal, who occasionally writes for the paper and convinces editor Don Basilio to give the ambitious 17-year-old an opportunity. The result is an ongoing serial story, “The Mysteries of Barcelona”, which David refers to as “penny dreadfuls,” as well as alienation from older more experienced writers on the paper. After a time, he is pushed out, and, through his friend Vidal, he secures a 20-year contract with a pair of publishers of the most despicable reputation. David begins turning out a book a month for a series called “City of the Damned“, and he becomes the main character in a reality version (or possibly a madness version) of his own plots.
Our hero rents a long-abandoned, eerie home with a history of mystery, violence, and the supernatural. He becomes obsessed with his writing, the mystery, and the deterioration of his own health. Between the blurring lines of a bizarre reality and the dark imaginings of David we see something of a Picture of Dorian Grey or a Faustus, where someone has made a pact with the devil. We are led to believe that the evil publisher, Andreas Corelli, who approaches David to abandon his current publishers and write a religious book is the devil incarnate, eternal and continually bargaining for people’s souls. When David makes his agreement, his health problems suddenly disappear. Everything and everyone who becomes an obstacle to David ends up dead or vanishes with a trail leading the police back to him.
David believes himself to be trapped in an ever-widening conspiracy of evil. When the police inspector, Grandes, tries to corroborate David’s story, nothing checks out, and the last thing Grandes tells him is that the angel brooch David has, throughout the narration, seen on the lapel of Corelli’s jacket, has been “on your lapel ever since I met you.” By the end of the story, we are left wondering if anything David has told the reader was real or just some figment of his writer’s imagination. Was Corelli merely David’s own reflection in the mirror? The only people David has not felt jaded about are Sempere and his son, Isabella, the young writer Sempere senior asked David to mentor, and Cristina, the chauffeur’s daughter who David loved but who married Pedro Vidal.
The story is divided into three parts and is quite long. It begins as a gentle amble through the city of Barcelona of David’s childhood, through the fevered frustrations of a young man who has survived the hard times and made a life for himself despite it all. It progresses through the ambitious years where everything is unsettled and mystery after mystery complicates the plot, then finally, we find our hero leading a placid life on some idyllic island, writing his own story for no reader other than himself. Perhaps it is this story which we have just read. The resolution is mysterious and the reader is left with many questions, but the journey along the way is worth it. This is another amazingly written, complex story from a great author. * * * * *
One more to go: a book, fiction or non-fiction, about sports. Any recommendations?