Carlos Ruiz Zafón, who has died aged 55 after suffering from colon cancer, was thought to be the most widely read Spanish novelist since Cervantes, as the author of the multi-million-selling The Shadow of the Wind (2001).
Although La sombra del viento was not initially successful in Spain, it rapidly became a popular hit throughout the rest of Europe, and in Britain it was in the bestseller lists for more than a year.
Described by Stephen King as “a novel full of splendour and hidden trapdoors in which even the subplots have subplots”, The Shadow of the Wind was a massive saga on the Victorian scale with a dose of the supernatural, intricately plotted but written with cinematic pace and clarity; Zafón’s influences ranged, he said, “from Dickens to Cervantes to Orson Welles to Japanese animation”.
The book begins in 1945, in Franco’s Spain, with 10-year-old Daniel Sempere visiting the mysterious “Cemetery of Lost Books” in Barcelona’s Gothic Quarter. This is a library-cum-mausoleum that harbours hundreds of thousands of forgotten volumes.
Daniel takes home a book, tricksily entitled The Shadow of the Wind; he becomes obsessed with its mysterious, long-dead author, Julian Carax, and discovers that somebody is trying to buy up and burn all extant copies of Carax’s books. Zafón’s novel moves backwards and forwards over several decades, examining the strange ways in which Daniel’s life comes to have parallels with Carax’s.
Published in English in the wake of The Da Vinci Code, The Shadow of the Wind had a similar appeal to the large readership who wanted to explore esoteric ideas about high art and literature in the easily digestible form of a thriller. It was a novel that flattered its readers, averring that people who loved books were superior to those who “allowed life to pass by in afternoons of football and radio soaps, content to do little more than gaze at their navels”.
Zafón emphasised that he was no literary snob, and despaired that so many contemporary literary novelists seemed to think they had to eschew humour, romance and gripping plots to be taken seriously. “The invention of the highbrow and the lowbrow is the greatest cultural fraud of the 20th century,” he complained. “It’s a marketing device.”
Although The Shadow of the Wind was a boon for the Spanish tourism industry – lengthy walking tours of “Zafón’s Barcelona” proved lucrative – Zafón enjoyed an ambiguous relationship with his homeland. When Nigel Farndale interviewed him for The Daily Telegraph in 2005, he had returned to live in Barcelona after more than a decade in Los Angeles, and was far from content.
“I can’t say I feel at home here. I’ve always felt like an outsider in Barcelona,” he admitted. “When I think of home, I think of California … Spain can be narrow-minded, and provincial. In LA you don’t have to justify yourself.” Within two years he had returned to live permanently in California.
The fact that The Shadow of the Wind had been largely ignored by Spanish reviewers continued to rankle: “I think it was perceived as an anti-Spanish book; certainly, in terms of style, it was contrary to commercial fashion.” The critics gave respectful attention, however, to the sequel, The Angel’s Game (2008), which had an initial print run in Spain of a million copies.
Set in the 1920s, The Angel’s Game was a take on the Faust legend, featuring a downtrodden author who sells his soul for success. It was full of honest and entertaining insights into the business of writing – “Emotional truth is not a moral quality, it’s a technique,” observes the hero – but although it was well received it did not have quite the impact of the previous book, perhaps because it explored the power of literature from the angle of the producer rather than the consumer.
Reviewing it in The Daily Telegraph, Lionel Shriver praised “a rollicking, fun read” that “employs a host of pulp fiction conventions, while sending them up at the same time”. Echoing a criticism that was often levelled at Zafón’s books, however, she noted that “at some latter point the tongue withdraws from the cheek … When the book ceases to be self-conscious about its own manipulations, it stops being fun.”
The Shadow of the Wind and The Angel’s Game were the first two volumes in a tetralogy that came to be known as the “Cemetery of Forgotten Books” series, which occupied Zafón to the end of his working life: the concluding books, The Prisoner of Heaven (2011) and The Labyrinth of the Spirits (2016), took the meta-fictional conceit to extremes by casting doubt on the accuracy of the accounts of some of the events in the earlier novels.
Carlos Ruiz Zafón was born in Barcelona on September 25 1964, the youngest of three sons of Justo Ruiz, an insurance broker who had grown up in poverty during the Civil War, and his wife Fina Zafón.
Obsessed by books, music and film, the young Carlos was a loner and found school unstimulating. “I was over-confident, arrogant, a typical youngest child. I went through periods of withdrawing into myself and school psychologists tried to figure me out, work out why I didn’t fit in. I found that irritating, too.”
He made money by selling stories of ghosts and vampires to his classmates, until the principal denounced them as subversive. At the age of 13 he wrote an 800-page Gothic novel, which he sent to several publishers.
He dropped out of university and enjoyed himself working in television advertising for several years, before deciding that he needed to leave and pursue his literary ambitions. His first book, The Prince of Mist (1993), was a horror novel for young adults; it won a prestigious award in Spain, and the prize money enabled Zafón and his wife to move to Los Angeles.
He published three more young adult novels while working as a screenwriter, although none of his projects progressed to film. With time on his hands, he embarked on the ambitious book he had been mulling over for some years, The Shadow of the Wind. “Ironically, being an extremely unsuccessful screenwriter helped me find my true path as a writer,” he recalled.
Zafón was a hard worker who rewrote endlessly and constructed his novels with prodigious care – he described his books as “cathedrals of words”. His advice to aspiring writers was: “You should only become a writer if the possibility of not becoming one would kill you. Otherwise, you’d be better off doing something else.”
His favoured working hours were midnight to sunrise. His hobbies were playing the piano – he would perform at his book launches – and collecting toy dragons, of which he owned more than 400.
He refused to authorise a film of The Shadow of the Wind, insisting that “these books are about literature, writing, reading and everything about the world of books … Nothing can tell a story with the depth, richness, precision and complexity that a good novel can.”
Carlos Ruiz Zafón married, in 1993, MariCarmen Bellver, who survives him. They chose not to have children, Zafón observing that “when you decide to become a writer, you have to accept that you will have to be a bit selfish.”
Carlos Ruiz Zafón, born September 25 1964, died June 19 2020