“Doña Lorena said that the level of barbarism in a society is measured by the distance it tries to create between women and books.” (page 663)
This sprawling epic thriller, weighing in at just over 800 pages, is the finale to Zafón’s Cemetery of Forgotten Books series, begun with The Shadow of the Wind, although it can just as easily be read as a standalone; only the last fifty pages or so, where Zafón ties together all the threads of the four volumes, while presenting a rationale, so to speak, for the tetralogy, might seem a little disconcerting to someone who’s missed the earlier novels, but this concluding section is so beautifully written that it sweeps the reader — this reader, at least — along anyway.
As a child, Alicia Gris was grievously injured during the 1938 bombing of Barcelona, her life being saved by Fermin — a rapscallion who plays a sort of spinal role in the series as a whole. Twenty years later, the wound in her hip still causing her near-constant suffering, she’s a trusty member of the political police in Madrid. It’s a post she wants to leave, but her boss, Leandro Montalvo, persuades her to take on One Last Job: tracking down the whereabouts, alive or dead, of a government minister who’s disappeared, Mauricio Valls. So off she’s packed, with ageing cop Vargas as sidekick and minder, to Barcelona. There she brushes shoulders with Fermin again, while also becoming fascinated by the Sempere family of booksellers — again, central characters to the series.
Valls’s disappearance, she and Vargas discover, is linked to a horrendously cruel plot that involves senior figures of Franco’s fascist regime, powerful people who are not unnaturally keen that the truth should never see the light of day. The two investigators soon become aware that it’s not the criminals involved who’re their greatest enemies: it’s other cops, including their own superiors. But neither of them is a quitter, so . . .
Alicia Gris is, I think, the most bewitching of all Zafón’s creations, a woman whom the people around her find both alluring and terrifying, even repellent, a vampire temptress. Yet she herself, as we learn to know her, emerges as almost an innocent — a very dangerous innocent, to be sure, and one capable of taking lethal action without a qualm when necessary, but someone whose character is formed around a solid core of integrity. Interestingly, she seems best able to bond with people who’re either significantly younger than she is — the Sempere child Julián, the adolescent smitten by her, Fernandito — or significantly older, such as Vargas and the keeper of the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, Isaac. Perhaps both the youngsters and the oldsters see the child in her, the former recognizing her as one of their own, the latter seeing her as a dreamed-of daughter.
The Labyrinth of the Spirits is a very political book, as you’ll have gathered. Just like Alicia, Zafón isn’t keen to go along with the idea that the shameful secrets of the powerful should be left in the shadows until finally forgotten. His loathing for the Franco regime and the misery it inflicted upon Spaniards, for fascism, for corruption among the powerful, for all of the forces and habits of mind that try to extinguish the creative vitality of the human spirit (“When people choose overheated opinion over cold facts, the social order reverts to a moronocracy,” says Fermin at one point) shines clear, and is epitomized in the final fate of Valls, the perfect and perfectly corrupt servant and personification of fascism.
I obviously have no way of knowing for sure how accurate in its particulars Zafón’s historical portrayal of the period and milieu is — Spanish history isn’t exactly one of my areas of expertise — but from my limited knowledge it seems pretty sound, at least in spirit.
For me, the novel carried its great length easily, the grace and vigor of the prose — not to mention the complex yet never unfathomable plot — pulling me along so that the pages flashed by. (The translator, Lucia Graves, must obviously share some of the credit for this.) A Gothic atmosphere suffuses The Labyrinth of the Spirits, as it does the series as a whole; there are times of noirishness, times of adventure, times of stark horror, and even times of hilarity — there’s a family birthday dinner in Labyrinth that had me chuckling so much I worried my wife. The final section, told by the now-adult Julián Sempere, brings a flood of optimism to counter the gloom of much that has preceded it; by then, though, we’ve lost some of the characters whom we’d begun to count as friends — one of the characteristics of Zafón’s fiction, or at least of this series, is that you’ve no guarantee that even characters in whom he’s encouraged you to invest your emotion are going to make it to the end.
The book’s not perfect. There’s the occasional repeated trope; for example, “old man is anguished on meeting younger woman because she seems to be a reincarnation of someone he loved years ago, now long gone.” Every now and then I had to pause for a moment as I tried to work out who someone was. (The book has a huge cast, so it’s to Zafón’s credit that this didn’t happen on more than a handful of occasions.) Fermin’s aphorisms are sometimes a bit too glib. But those are all small things.
It’s been a while since I’ve been so completely absorbed by a novel. The Labyrinth of the Spirits pulled me in, kept me in and, after I’d turned the last page, was reluctant to let me go. In a way it’s a novel in the old style, akin to something by Dickens — Our Mutual Friend, perhaps. I loved it.