THE PRISONER OF HEAVEN
Carlos Ruiz Zafon
When George Orwell worked in a London bookshop in the 1930s, he found the ''sweet smell of decaying paper'' nauseating. Books, he wrote, ''give off more and nastier dust than any class of objects yet invented''. Not at Sempere & Sons, Barcelona, the bookstore hub of this novel. Nor more generally in Zafon's universe, a place heady with ''the perfume of books'' and aglow with the joy of literary pulp.
This is the third in a series of staggeringly popular novels - the first, The Shadow of the Wind, has sold 15 million copies - which trace the fate of a group of writers and bibliophiles in Barcelona during and after the Spanish Civil War. You can start here, though, since the stories are entwined rather than sequential, and anyway, Zafon stuffs long chunks of catch-up exposition into his dialogue with an unabashed glee that is, like almost every other storytelling trick he tosses into this paella of a yarn, hard to resist.
Young Daniel Sempere, our narrator, takes up the saga in 1957. Daniel's bookshop colleague and closest friend, Fermin Romero de Torres, wishes to marry his beloved but can't - he has no legal name. His is an identity he stole from a bullfighting poster in 1939 and which, in an involved bit of bad luck the novel goes on to recount, ''died'' a year later in the notorious prison of Montjuic Castle.
Back we go to 1939, where the cards of Fermin's future ''were being dealt out among lunatics, thugs and dying men''. In the next cell is David Martin, the titular Prisoner of Heaven, and - as readers of Zafon's The Angel's Game will know - a novelist of great but unregarded talent. His nemesis, and soon Fermin's also, is prison governor Mauricio Valls, a wannabe novelist and regime lickspittle who, ''like all untalented men of letters, was, deep down, as practical as he was conceited''.
It would be unfair to say any more about the plot, except to note that, once revealed, the drama of 1939-40 will change everything in 1957 and deepen mysteries in Daniel's own past in ways that are touching, darkly funny and outrageously unlikely.
The unlikely is Zafon's specialty. His work openly revels in a tradition of popular storytelling that goes back to Cervantes and Dumas, whose The Count of Monte Cristo provides the yeast starter for the plump loaf of melodrama Zafon has baked here. There are echoes of Umberto Eco and Arturo Perez-Reverte, too, in all the lost secrets, maze-like streets and Zafon's almost deranged passion for old books. Unlike them, however, Zafon disdains the occult, preferring to haunt his characters with the real ghosts of the Spanish Civil War. In 1940, Barcelona is a city of squalor and misery. It's worse for Fermin than most, but this ''unconditional supporter of lost causes'' is determined to share Spain's fate. ''I always tell myself that having direct access to serrano ham makes up for everything.''
This isn't history, though. The past merely provides the atmospherics for a rip-roaring adventure inspired by other books, and no one's pretending otherwise.
This novel derives much of its charm from the way Zafon relishes the conventions of popular fiction, flagrantly manipulating stock characters and concealing mysteries inside mysteries - usually inside books.
And that's perhaps the most improbable feature of Zafon's (literally) escapist world: here, nothing matters to people as much as old books and the secrets they keep. It's a romantic fantasy for book lovers, but in the digital age, it answers a nostalgia for the dear old paper book that is only going to grow stronger.