|Carlos Ruiz Zafón|
Carlos Ruiz Zafón obituary
Sunday 21 de junio de 2020
Carlos Ruiz Zafón, who has died of colon cancer aged 55, became famous with his 2001 literary thriller set in melancholy 1940s Barcelona, La Sombra del Viento (The Shadow of the Wind). Ignored at first by critics, it prospered by word of mouth. Now published in more than 40 languages, it has won numerous prizes and sold around 20m copies.
The Shadow of the Wind was inspired by the great 19th-century novelists, “Dickens, Balzac, Victor Hugo … the grand sagas with characters that stay rolling round the reader’s mind,” in the author’s words. He abhorred the 90s’ “snobby postmodern” fiction. It is a 500-page epic of mystery, terror, tragedy and romance. Its strengths are several memorable characters, its rhythmic prose and an original, complex plot.
The opening grips the reader by the arm (or throat): the 10-year-old Daniel, anguished because he can no longer remember the face of his dead mother, is taken by his father, a bookseller, to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, a secret labyrinth in Barcelona’s Gothic quarter.There the books lie unloved in dust until someone comes to choose one. Daniel’s destiny is set: he will search for the author of the book he selects, the elusive Julián Carax. The weather reflects the novel’s gothic gloom: Barcelona becomes an unreal city of “ashen skies”, drizzle and fog swirling through chilly streets.
Whereas The Shadow of the Wind was a slow starter, its prequel El Juego del Angel (The Angel’s Game, 2008), set in the 20s, had an initial print run in Spanish of one million copies and had a rock-star launch in front of 150 journalists in Barcelona’s grand opera house, the Liceu.
Two more big-selling sequels to The Shadow of the Wind followed: the lighter, more humorous El Prisionero del Cielo (The Prisoner of Heaven, 2011) and El Laberinto de los Espíritus (The Labyrinth of the Spirits, 2016), to make up the quartet The Cemetery of Forgotten Books. Ruiz Zafón’s editor at Planeta publishers, Emili Rosales, explained that the writer had the four books mapped out in his mind from the very start. The quartet, wrote Rosales, is “a homage to books as a refuge of knowledge and sensibility, against the claws of cruel, insatiable power”.Carlos Ruiz Zafón was born in Barcelona. His mother, Fina Zafón, was a housewife and his father, Justo Ruiz, was a successful insurance broker from a poor background. Believing in education, his parents used contacts to get him into the elite Jesuit Sant Ignasi school in the suburb of Sarrià.
The neo-gothic architecture of the building stimulated Ruiz Zafón’s imagination. A dreamer in his classes, aged 16 he sent a 600-page novel to several publishers. Francisco Porrúa, the famous Argentinian publisher of A Hundred Years of Solitude, responded. Porrúa invited the teenager to his office, told him to take his time and encouraged him to write just what he wanted.
Ruiz Zafón started a university course in information science (which included journalism and publishing), but left to work in various Barcelona advertising agencies. “For a young man, apart from organised crime or rock’n’roll”, it was the best way to earn money, he said. After eight years the lifestyle palled. He left at New Year 1992 and wrote a young adult novel, El Príncipe de la Niebla (The Prince of Mist, 1993). In his own words, writing it was “an attempt to recover the feelings of adventures, mystery and magic that had always attracted me.” The novel won the Edebé prize, paying 4 million pesetas (24,000 euros).
At this time he married MariCarmen Bellver, a translator whom he had met when they both worked in advertising. He and she became, in his words, “a nation of two”. She was always his first reader. With the Edebé prize money they took the bold decision to uproot their lives to California. In Los Angeles he wrote two more young adult novels and Marina, a personal novel of his years in Sarrià. A fan of films all his life, he wrote scripts for Hollywood, but found there were thousands of aspirants like him.
Towards the end of the 90s, a visit to a hangar full of old books gave him the idea for The Shadow of the Wind. Distance brought focus: he was writing about the lure of ancient books in the Mediterranean old city of Barcelona whilst living on the Pacific coast, seduced by the Mecca of cinema. He was one of the few émigrés to Hollywood to achieve his dream – even though not in films.
Ruiz Zafón protected his and MariCarmen’s privacy skilfully, while he travelled the world on book promotions in a blaze of cameras and interviews. His translator from Spanish to English, Lucia Graves, who knew him well, told me: “He was witty, kind, with a quick, clear mind and we talked about his characters as if they were living friends.”
The couple tried Barcelona again for two years in the early 2000s, but returned to California, where in 2008 they bought a house in South Beverley Hills, named like all his houses Dragonland. He had a collection of some 400 dragon images and sculptures. Like dragons, he was a night creature, often working till dawn. He was a piano-player too, even performing for his public at book launches.
Ruiz Zafón is survived by MariCarmen.
• Carlos Ruiz Zafón, novelist, born 25 September 1964; died 19 June 2020