The Labyrinth of the Spirits by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“This is a place of mystery, Julián, a sanctuary. Every book, every volume you see here, has a soul. The soul of the person who wrote it and of those who read it and lived and dreamed with it. Every time a book changes hands, every time someone runs his eyes down its pages, its spirit grows and strengthens. This place was already ancient when my father brought me here for the first time, many years ago. Perhaps as old as the city itself. Nobody knows for certain how long it has existed, or who created it. . . 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. . . . In truth books have no owner. Every book you see here has been somebody’s best friend. Now they only have us . . .”

Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s remarkable tetralogy of books, which make up the ‘The Cemetery of Forgotten Books’ series, comes to a fittingly stunning conclusion in this last book, The Labyrinth of the Spirits. All the familiar elements of the three prior books in the series are here as well as all of the beloved characters from those books. But there are new stories and new people also which intermingle with the lives of those earlier characters as we delve deep into a mystery which gets increasingly horrific as the pages whiz by and have their origin in the dark days of the Franco dictatorship in Spain. While the gothic elements may be slightly toned down here for most of its duration from previous entries in the oeuvre this still plays with enough verve to be a fast paced thriller/whodunit. As usual, the heart of it all of course is the Cemetery of Forgotten Books and the Sempere and Sons bookshop.

There is a sort of prologue section which describe the inimitable Fermín Romero de Torres’ perilous passage to Barcelona with a specific aim involving a comrade’s family. He escapes from the bowels of a bloody civil war raging in Spain and makes a crossing by sea before being accosted by a familiar foe from the previous books and being virtually left for dead. But destiny has other plans for our ubiquitous hero and he almost manages to make good on his promise to his friend’s daughter. But fate once again intervenes and he is left broken with guilt on what he perceives as his failure to protect her.

The story shifts its focus to Madrid and a certain minister Valls, who readers of the entry prior to this in the series, The Prisoner of Heaven, may recognize as the corrupt and ruthlessly opportunistic governor of the prison Montjuic Castle. His autumn years as culture minister in the Franco government has been anything but peaceful what with threats from unknown sources making it clear that not all of the enemies he has made over the years past are willing to let their injustices lie low. Before long he and his trusted bodyguard leave town to track down their nemesis head-on and are not heard from again. It is at this pivotal point of the story that we are introduced to the primary protagonist of this story.

Alicia Gris is a reminder, a broken remnant of the merciless Fascist bombing of Barcelona in 1938 which left her homeless and on the streets. From there she was picked up by the mysterious Leandro, a shady operator/recruiter for the government who helps them out in covert cases by assigning his best minds to work the mystery. One such case is that of the missing minister and Alicia, considered his best, is assigned to the job. She is partnered reluctantly with an officer, Vargas, with whom, as the case progresses, she develops a tentatively trusting bond. But the case is one which has long tentacles reaching back into the dark history of their country and Alicia soon finds herself heading back to her Barcelona.

One of the tropes of the series as a whole is one of the doomed writer, and like David Martin and Julian Carax in previous installments, here too we have one. A series of books, banned and extremely difficult to find, by an author called Victor Mataix is a key clue to the mysteries behind Valls’ disappearance and it becomes obvious soon enough that Mataix is another of those who suffered immensely at the hands of those in power. Alicia’s search for answers takes her to the hallowed, if slightly debt-ridden, interiors of the Sempere and Sons bookshop. As she entrenches herself with the family, she realizes that she may hold the key to another long festering mystery in the suspicious death of Isabella, mother of Daniel Sempere and tireless campaigner for David Martin during his years at Montjuic. But does anyone else really want Daniel to find out the answers to the sordid mystery surrounding her death and her unnamable bond with David Martin? And what of the irrepressible Fermín, full of flowery wisecracks and literary form as usual, who very obviously has a fleeting yet intense connection with Alicia from the past? As Alicia and Vargas delve into their quest, they realize that the true horrors of what Valls, among others, was involved in on behalf of the government and its power brokers go much beyond what was initially suspected into crimes that show the true costs of unfettered power being in the hands of a dictatorial few. But will Alicia and her band of a trusted few, as well as the Semperes, be able to get to the bottom of the mess without becoming mere footnotes themselves to another of history’s brutal regimes?

While Fermín and the Semperes get their moments here, this is really Alicia’s story. She is a richly realized character, a change from the male-centric narratives the rest of the books in Zafón’s series have, both vulnerable and incredibly tough in equal measures. Scarred physically and emotionally for life from her wartime experiences, her relationship with Leandro is curious in its seeming tenderness clothed in a blanket of resentful acceptance. Wanting out of that world, Leandro promises her quits after this one last job. Her journey enables one to soak in both Madrid and Barcelona of the middle of the last century and as always Zafón is a master at describing place and time. Of course his primary indulgence and muse is always Barcelona, and despite never having been to the city myself, Zafón makes me feel like I can live the place through his prose.

Ultimately this book, like the rest of his oeuvre, is a testament to the power of old fashioned storytelling. At times the series does delve into convenient clichés and cheesy tropes, but it is done so immeasurably well that we don’t really care. The concept of the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, a complex and labyrinth ode to both books and those underappreciated caretakers of their destinies, librarians and old bookstore owners, is such a literary enthusiast’s dream. Words and their preservation are synonymous to the great loves in our lives, and that is another of the driving forces behind these stories. Unrelentingly dark as this world of ours can get, the bright spots are always at hand for those who know how to give themselves over to their heart’s calling and to the people who can make it whole.

If only we could expect more from this author’s pen. Unfortunately that is not to be as, a few years after completing this book and series which he considered a culmination of his life’s efforts, he passed away in 2020; a couple of years earlier he had been diagnosed with colon cancer. In concluding this review, I guess it’s best to put it across in a quote from this book as spoken by one of the characters.

“Tell our stories to the world, and never forget that we exist so long as someone remembers us.”
― Carlos Ruiz Zafón, The Labyrinth of the Spirits

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