The Prisoner of Heaven by Carlos Ruiz Zafon is part of the "Cemetery of Forgotten Books" series, a group of titles including The Shadow of the Wind and The Angel's Game that can be read together but also standalone. The Cemetery is part of each story, in this case a relatively small one, but more they are about the power of story and how our own stories are interwoven with those of others.
If you are a book lover then you will want to read Zafon's books and you will love them. What surprised me with Prisoner though is how much this is also a straightforward survival story about life when you country is lost to chaos, your government has gone mad and your hope is trapped under the thumbs of dictators large and small. It's the Spanish Civil War in all its horror and oddly enough, with the Les Miserables movie coming out next month and stories of secret prisons and kangaroo courts still filling the news today, I can't think of a more appropriate book for our times.
Plus the Cemetery of Forgotten Books is made of awesome. AWESOME.
Initially, Prisoner is set in 1957 and about Daniel who works in his family's bookstore with his widower father and a longtime friend and clerk, Fermin. The intrigue begins when a stranger arrives, buys an expensive edition of The Count of Monte Cristo and leaves it with a suspicious inscription for Fermin. Daniel follows the stranger and becomes caught up in all kinds of a mystery but is warned off by Fermin. (In the meantime he's got his own issues with his wife which is a nice small subplot.) He keeps pushing Fermin however who decides to tell Daniel the truth about the stranger and so much more.
Fermin's story comprises the middle part of the book and takes place in 1939 when he was imprisoned in Barcelona as part of the Spanish Civil War. The prison is as horrifying as you would expect and this story, about how men cling to sanity in the most insane of circumstance, is the heart of Prisoner. It's hard to read but beautiful in its bitterness; a ugliness that commands we do not look away and instead embrace it and hold on tightly to each and every word.
I'm really struggling to make this book sound like something other than a prison escape thriller and also to explain how poetic and elegant it is. It's not just about the prison but also about friendships and, more than anything, stories. There is the prison despot trying to attain fame through a story he can not write and the writer trying to stay sane by putting words on paper. And Fermin is the witness, the one who remembers it all and then must disappear in order to survive. It's an awful burden to know so much but be incapable of telling it all under threat of discovery. Of course the third part of the book is about that discovery, and also a treasure and finally, it all comes back to Daniel's family and the part played in this drama by his mother which is more about the horror of war than anything else. This is also when the Cemetery of Forgotten Books comes into play and a great discovery is made there.
Zafon's books read as very Spanish to me - stories that are universal in their appeal but deeply rooted to one specific place. For western readers his books bring the Spanish Civil War alive in ways that our pathetic history books never have (do we even spend a day on this war in class?) and like many great writers he brings home the message that story = hope and hope = survival in powerful and beautiful ways. The whole series is one I would recommend for readers who like thrillers and mysteries that dig deeper than the standard fare. They are more emotional then you expect, more thoughtful, more literary if that makes any sense. I hate to get into a genre war here because I love mysteries but Zafon's books aren't just about solving but about living in the finest, purest meaning of the word.
Also, please let there be a real Cemetery of Forgotten Books. Please.
[Book came from the publisher.]