Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s new novel is the third in his series about hero-narrator Daniel Sempere, a passionate lover of literature who works in his father’s bookstore in Barcelona alongside his friend and protector, Fermin. Like the earlier novels, this one, which is set mostly in the late 1950s, centers on a phantom book and is haunted by memories of the Spanish Civil War and the still-ongoing nightmare of Franco’s fascist dictatorship. Zafón takes pleasure in overripe melodrama and the kind of gaudiness that would make many less-assured writers blush. (No other novelist working today is as likely to bring on a character described as “the man with the jet-black hair” who announces, “Allow me to introduce myself. I’m Armando the Gypsy.”) He doesn’t just love it, though: Like filmmakers Pedro Almodóvar and Guillermo del Toro and the late novelist Manuel Puig, he sees a defiantly over-the-top imagination, fueled by movies and pulp fiction, as a means of escape from fascist tyranny. If Zafón and some of these other artists have a shared credo, it might be, “Dreaming is a political act.”
This time, Zafón goes farther than many successful writers would dare in linking bully-boy politics to cultural snobbery, the better to celebrate the soul-restoring power of the popular art of the masses. A good chunk of the book consists of a flashback to Fermin’s experiences, beginning in 1939, as an inmate at a castle used to house political prisoners. There, he meets the book’s villain: the ambitious head of the prison, Valls, a failed novelist and poet so twisted by anger over his own mediocrity that he makes the Salieri of Amadeus seem like a good fellow to have on the party-planning committee. Valls’ pet prisoner is David Martin, a beloved writer whom Valls sneers at for “writing rubbish for the ignorant masses who lack all intellectual guidance.” Meanwhile, he blackmails Martin into rewriting Valls’ manuscripts, hoping he can turn them into something publishable.
Martin and Fermin—who, naturally, is a big fan of Martin’s City Of The Dead series—strike up a friendship, and Martin enlists Fermin in an escape plan he’s developed but has no interest in using for himself. Since the fanatical Valls has banished anything fun to read from the prison library, including Dumas and Dickens, he’s ill equipped to anticipate Martin’s plan, cribbed from The Count Of Monte Cristo. This isn’t a spoiler, because Zafón telegraphs his homages far in advance, just to make it clear that they are homages, not rip-offs. (In a funny, self-aware moment, the starving, post-escape Fermin accepts a meal from a priest, who catches him eyeing the silverware and says, “I’ve also read Les Misérables, so don’t even think about it.”)
Zafón’s voice is still extremely likeable, and he gets off his share of snappy lines; every character actor in Hollywood would probably seize on at least one of these characters as written with him in mind. But Zafón’s imagination is running on fumes. He uses devices—such as a mysterious stranger whose appearance kick-starts the plot—that he’s already worn to the nub in his other novels. And the prison scenes fill in the background of Fermin’s character, but also diminish his appeal. (He’s Zafón’s most entertaining character when he’s just being world-weary and dropping fatalistic aphorisms and wisecracks, but the background material here ennobles him to the point where he threatens to become almost as dull as the hero.) Zafón leaves so many big questions unanswered and so many connections fuzzy that by the end, the novel just feels like a 318-page trailer for the next book in the series. It’s arguable that imagination is a functional defense against political oppression, but most of the imagination on display here doesn’t even make a good defense against boredom.