By Carlos Ruiz Zafón
Harper. 176 pp. $26.99
– – –
Long before his manifestly unfair death from cancer in 2020 at the age of 55, the Spanish conjurer of wonder and mystery, Carlos Ruiz Zafón, was already thinking about what would happen with his much-loved novels when he was gone.
On a visit to Washington in 2016 he told me that he was pondering placing a condition in his will dictating that “The Shadow of the Wind,” one of the world’s best-selling works of fiction, and his other books would never, never, never be made into films. He not only disliked the idea of someone else interpreting what he deemed complete and unalterable – he considered it a “betrayal.”
Ruiz Zafón was one of those artists who worried over every syllable. He was an epic reviser. By the time he submitted his books to the publisher he felt so assured that they were precisely as they should be that even the most minor suggestions would be pure torture.
“I write it and rewrite it and rewrite it a million times. Then I do it again. Then I re-edit,” he said. “I’m extremely hard to edit. Almost impossible to edit. Because I’ve already done that.”
So when I heard the news that an English-language version of “The City of Mist,” a collection of Ruiz Zafón’s short stories, would be posthumously published this winter, I was uneasy. It isn’t uncommon for a posthumously published book to get at least a bit of tinkering after the author’s death. Take John le Carré’s “Silverview,” for instance, which got a little refreshing from his novelist son before it hit bookstores in October.
Thankfully, the “about the author” section notes that Ruiz Zafón prepared the short story collection himself before his death.
Ruiz Zafón’s many fans – his works have been translated into more than 50 languages and he’s believed to be the best-selling Spanish author since Cervantes – are sure to find his collection of short stories both familiarly satisfying and poignant. In the early pages of “The Shadow of the Wind” a young man laments that he can no longer remember his mother’s face. In “Blanca and the Departure,” the first of 11 stories in the collection,” Ruiz Zafón once again toys with the idea of memory.
“I’ve always envied the ease with which some people are able to forget – people for whom the past is only a set of last season’s clothes or a pair of old shoes that can simply be condemned to the back of a cupboard to ensure they’re unable to retrace lost footsteps,” the narrator says.
It’s impossible to read those opening lines without wondering whether this sly and witty author is prompting us to reflect on how we might remember him – a bit of a tease since he surely knew his works would be impossible to forget.
Readers of Ruiz Zafón’s four-book Cemetery of Forgotten Books cycle (he wouldn’t call it a series because he engineered them so that people could start with any of the books, rather than reading them in order) will once again luxuriate in his florid descriptions of his hometown of Barcelona that bring to life that magical and mysterious city. He writes of gargoyles and “ancient lanes” that “intertwined to form a knot of incomprehensible passages, arches and curves where the sun barely penetrated more than a few minutes a day.”
Readers will encounter new characters but also find familiar names, offering fresh perspectives on fictional lives we already know so well. He revisits many of his signature themes, such as desperate youthful love and its consequences, as well as class prejudice. There are frightening angels, a malevolent dragon and a pendant that holds a tear supposedly shed by Christ.
But, as he was wont to do, Ruiz Zafón playfully offers some mind-bending architecture to make us think. Eight of the stories are brought to life in English by his longtime translator, the gifted and eloquent Lucia Graves, who has always seemed to me like a true partner to the author. But, as if winking at us, Ruiz Zafón – who lived for many years in Beverly Hills, Calif. – wrote two of the stories in Spanish, then translated them himself. And he wrote the final, slim story in the collection in English.
One of the stories he translated imagines Antoni Gaudí, the brilliant, obsessive, self-destructive architect of Barcelona’s famed and perpetually uncompleted basilica, La Sagrada Familia, traveling to New York City to discuss designing a skyscraper in the middle of Manhattan.
The final story in the collection, “Two Minute Apocalypse,” is the one that stayed with me the most. It centers on a man who chances upon a redheaded woman with special powers who looked like “a bride of Dracula fresh from a Goth shopping spree.”
She grants him three wishes. He says he wants to “fall in love,” know the “meaning of life,” and find out where he can find the best chocolate ice cream ever. Her kiss “tasted of all the truth in the world.”
The story ends with the couple hand-in-hand watching a tide of crimson clouds.
“I cried,” the narrator says, “happy at last.”
We can only hope that in the end, the couple’s creator was, too.
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