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Unlocking the past

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CARLOS RUIZ ZAFON: Author of one of the highest-selling Spanish books of all time

For Carlos Ruiz Zafon, the city of Barcelona, the city of his birth and the city in which his famous Cemetery of Forgotten Books quartet is set, will always be haunted. "Nowadays people tend to see it as a very chic, touristy playground. But that's not Barcelona to me at all. It's very striking of course, but the city has a dark soul. " In many ways, he admits, his sentiments about Barcelona are shared by Daniel Sempere, his fictional protagonist of Shadow of The Wind. In this, the first novel of the
Cemetery of Forgotten Books quartet, the novel that sold 15 million copies worldwide and turned Zafon into a global publishing phenomenon, Sempere says, "The memory of this city will pursue you and you'll die of sadness. "

Zafon shows no signs of dying of sadness just yet. There's even a palpable sense of ebullience about the 48-year-old novelist, screenwriter and composer as he speaks of The Prisoner of Heaven, the third novel in the quartet, and his sixth to date. Of the way it thrusts Fermin de Torres, a picaresque character from the margins of Shadow Of The Wind, into the central role. "I always saw him as the moral centre of the quartet, and he's been holding a secret which defines what is at the heart of the four books, " says Zafon.

But there's no doubt that the memory of Barcelona pursued him from across the ocean when he went to live in Los Angeles in 1994. "LA is a place where there is no evidence of history. Actually, it is a city that is much older than it seems but it has that strange effect in which you feel an ongoing destruction of memory, of the past. And coming from Barcelona where you can walk for 20 minutes and touch the stones of 20 centuries, I found that very interesting and very odd, " he says.

But it wasn't until he began frequenting California's cavernous second-hand bookstores, filled with cheap books and few customers that he seized upon the idea of writing Shadow of the Wind, the first in a projected quartet of books in which Barcelona itself is a character. "It was this sense of neglect of what was a treasury of beauty and knowledge along with this destruction of memory, this erasure of the past that made me think of this idea of this labyrinth of books, this sanctuary where all books could be preserved. To me this was a metaphor not just for books, but for people, for ideas, for history, for all the things that make us human. "

It's a metaphor that lies at the heart of the quartet, along with the mythical cemetery of forgotten books itself, a labyrinthine structure grafted onto the ruins of a necropolis beneath the maze of streets in Barcelona's gothic heart. "From the beginning my intention was to create this kind of labyrinth of a story that would have four different doors. My idea was that a reader could enter this labyrinth from any direction, or book, and depending on which direction they take, their perception, their experience would be different, because each of these books, when combined with the others, rearranges the story and changes the way you interpret it - like a Chinese box or puzzle that is constantly rearranging itself. And I think this has become more obvious now with The Prisoner of Heaven because it heavily influences the way a reader who is familiar with The Angel's Game, the second book for instance, may interpret that book. "

Zafon has often said that writing these books has not only brought him success, but saved his soul as a writer. Indeed, despite his previous success in Spain as an author of young adult fiction, he says at the time he conceived of his extraordinary quartet.

"I felt very lost. I had been a few years in LA working as a screenwriter and I felt that I had betrayed myself. That I had completely lost my way and I decided to give myself one last chance to do something that had meaning, that had value according to myself. I just wanted to do Shadow Of The Wind, and it was tough because nobody wanted it. It was published without any hopes. Nobody thought the book would do anything but it has become, mostly through word-of-mouth, the most successful Spanish novel of all time, " he says.

Its phenomenal success and that of The Angel's Game, which dominated bestseller lists around the globe, has not only confirmed his faith in readers but his unwavering belief in the novel itself as "the supreme way of storytelling. " For this and for the very reason on they are about the writing and reading of books and the relationship between reality and life, he refuses to allow the quartet to be adapted to the screen. "If I wanted to write them as movies I would have. Nothing tells a story with the complexity and richness that a novel does, " he adds, "and I think that the really few redeeming qualities this world has are its beauty and knowledge, and literature is a great source of both. "

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