Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s Last Trip to Barcelona
Perhaps he never suspected as much when he began his endeavour, but Carlos Ruiz Zafon truly created something ravishing and magnificent with his series called The Cemetery of Forgotten Books, transporting the reader on unforgettable adventures through the heart of a Gothic Barcelona. With every book we peer deeper into the city, into all the horror and beauty it has to offer. As it happens, the latest book marks the end of the highly acclaimed series, and it’s titled The Labyrinth of the Spirits. Just like all the previous novels, it stands as a self-contained story and can even serve as someone’s entry point into the series. However, a complex narrative has been in the making since the first book, meaning reading the previous ones will bring an extra layer of enjoyment.
The story would take quite a while to explain, but I shall do my best to keep it as concise as possible. We are first introduced to our protagonist, Alicia Gris, a twenty-nine-year-old investigator who lost her parents when she was nine and the city was bombed by fascists. She wants to leave her work for the secret police of Madrid, but her superior convinces her to stay on for one last case: the disappearance of Spain’s Minister of Culture. With her partner, Juan Manuel Vargas, Alicia sets out on a very long investigation which will lead her to a notorious prison, a rare book, demons from the Second World War, and of course, a vast conspiracy with countless murders and kidnappings tied to the Franco regime. Needless to say, uncovering the sorts of truths Alicia is hunting for puts not only her life, but also those of her friends in great peril, and only together can they hope to overcome the looming darkness which has overtaken the city.
The Threat of Obscurity
As you might expect and hope, the book transports us back to the Barcelona full of Gothic and Noir mystery which we have come to know and love so profoundly. Just like in the previous novels, Zafon’s depiction of the city is enough of a reason in itself for me to recommend this book to anyone who is even remotely interested in literature in general. Every single square inch feels like it comes alive when his description touches upon it, the streets dominated by smoke, shadows and deceit, complemented by the dark and ominous architecture towering over all. Once again, I dare say the city becomes a character in its own right, an ever-shifting ominous force of nature blessing some and chewing through others.
The atmosphere prevalent in the city certainly colours and even governs to a certain extent the path walked by our characters. The author does a magnificent job at keeping things in the dark and illuminating the mystery bit by bit to balance our craving for knowledge. In turn, this also helps to create a sense of danger for our protagonists, a fear of the unknown which follows them as they reach closer and closer to the ultimate disturbing truth. We ultimately let our imagination to a fair chunk of the work, and with the characters themselves we become entranced with all terrible possibilities uncertainty brings with it. I particularly enjoyed Zafon’s approach to depicting the secret police agency on the tail of our protagonists. We always feel as if they could strike down from the shadows at any moment, and the horrors they might inflict would be best left unexplored.
Coming Full Circle with a Love for Literature
In terms of narration and story structure, the whole thing is built in a rather non-linear fashion, constantly transporting us back in time, telling stories within stories which consistently reveal additional small details about the world and its people. In the first half I felt this sort of pacing was a tad bit puzzling, as it felt things were going rather slowly and some of the developments didn’t seem to mean anything on their own. However, as the story unfolds into its second half, all this setting up becomes increasingly rewarding as carefully-planned twists and turns jump at you from every corner. In other words, it’s almost as if the first half of the book was spent building a game and its rules, while in the second half you actually get to play it.
Additionally, this slower first half gives the author time to do something very important: coming full-circle. If you haven’t read the previous books this might not feel like too big of a deal, but there has been a consistent theme of love for literature in this series. In this book, it’s largely expressed through our reintroduction to Daniel Sempere, bookseller and lover of mysteries from the first novel of the series. Through him and his family we explore the beauty which the written word represents, the endless possibilities it holds across time and space for every person. Additionally, we essentially see the story which began in the first book brought to its completion, which in my opinion might make the ending to this book series one of the most satisfying ones I’ve ever had the pleasure of encountering. You’re not really left with any questions at the end, only a mountain of food for personal thought which you might take your whole life to chew through… or possibly even longer.
The Final Verdict
The Labyrinth of the Spirits by Carlos Ruiz Zafon is a spectacular ending to one of the most unique and enchanting book series in recent memory. It builds upon its predecessors in all the right ways while still following its very own original path to greatness. It’s a love song to literature as much as an ode to the Noir side of Barcelona, the end of an unforgettable journey which will certainly find its place amongst the great classics of literature. As you can guess, I strongly recommend you read this book as well as the others in the series; they are some of the few works which stand a chance of defying personal preferences and might appeal even to those of you who shy away from these types of stories. As such, I believe everyone should give them a chance.
Carl Ruiz Zafon is a Spanish novelist whose first work, The Prince of Mist earned him the Edebe literary prize for young adult fiction. His subsequent novels, which included The Midnight Palace and Marina have eventually earned Zafon the the honor of being the most successful contemporary Spanish author, with his books having been published in over 45 countries and translated in 40 languages.