A complicated story that’s worth reading
Ever have those days when you’re running against the wind, sprinting through the minutes and hours, arms and legs pumping away, sucking air, and still feeling like you just can’t keep up? No matter how you push yourself, no matter what you do, each day finds you falling behind in the race to complete your obligations.
That pretty well sums up my last two months. “Summertime and the living is easy” wasn’t part of the equation.
So why in the name of Apollo, god of the arts, did I pick an 805-page novel for review when I could have chose another volume a quarter that size?
I have no real answer except to say that I was previously smitten by a couple of novels by Carlos Ruiz Zafon, thumbed through The Labyrinth of the Spirits (HarperCollins Publishers, 2017, 805 pages), and found myself hooked once again into visiting Barcelona and the “Cemetery of Forgotten Books.”
Like its three predecessors, The Labyrinth of the Spirits is connected to the Spanish Civil War, the Sempere family, and books. (For those lunatics from the Left and the Right advocating a second American Civil War, please read Zafon’s novels, Hemingway’s For Whom The Bell Tolls, Gironella’s The Cypresses Believe in God, or some histories of the Spanish conflict. Ugly, brutal, revolting: these words only begin to describe a real civil war. As my mother used to say, “Be careful what you wish for.” And for those haters who endorse killing others for their political or religious beliefs, let me suggest you turn off your electronic devices, get out of the basement, and take up badminton.)
The Labyrinth of the Spirits offers a complicated plot. The story goes back and forth in time between the Civil War and the 1950s and early 1960s. It is a tale of violence, revenge, betrayal, fiery romance, fierce loves, and family devotion. Again and again, we see how the evil of the past infects the present, with the wartime crimes and horrors committed by Republicans and Nationalists in the thirties creeping into the Spain of the late 1950s. Graft, corruption, imprisonment without cause, murder, and even the killing of parents so that those in power could adopt their children: these were not fictions. They were living realities.
The number of characters in The Labyrinth of the Spirits adds to the complexity of this tale. The book-selling Sempere family appears, of course, but so do a cohort of policemen, secret agents, murderers, writers and journalists, women of the night, mothers and children. Labyrinth aptly describes this tangle of names and events, and for once I wished the author had included one of those lists found in some older novels, brief biographies of the actors in the story.
What struck home for me, what made the Gordian knot of The Labyrinth of the Spirits worth untangling, were the struggles of Alicia Gris, the witticisms of Fermin, a friend of the Sempere family, and the themes of family and memory.
Zafon has wisely named his chief protagonist. Alicia means “noble one,” and Gris is Spanish for gray. Alicia possesses a nobility of character and carriage, yet she works in the shadows for the secret police. Orphaned during the Civil War, crippled by a wound during a bombing raid, Alicia eventually falls under the spell of Leanaro Montalvo and becomes one of his undercover investigators. She is beautiful, streetwise, deadly if crossed, and unrelenting in her search for evidence, facts, and truth. Her perseverance, her unwillingness to compromise or to turn away from that truth, drive this complex tale.
Then there is Fermin, a man who saved Alicia’s life during the Civil War, a lover of literature like the Semperes, a wit whose aphorisms and insight into human nature bring to mind Don Quixote’s Sancho Panza, with the difference being Fermin’s urbanity. Here are just a few of Fermin’s adages:
“A good liar gives fools what they want to hear and allows them to free themselves from the facts at hand and choose the level of self-delusion that fits their foolishness and moral turpitude.”
“The ways of the Lord may be unknowable, but they’re often a pain in the butt.”
To his friend David Sempere about falling in love: “The heart is an organ that pumps blood, not sonnets. With a bit of luck some of that circulation reaches the brain, but on the whole it ends up in the gut, and, in your case, in the loins — which, if you’re not careful, will take over your brain until you reach your twenty-fifth birthday.”
To a wounded Alicia: “Who said anything about hospitals? That’s where people go to die. Hospitals are statistically the most dangerous places in the world. Rest assured, I wouldn’t take a bunch of lice to a hospital.”
As for the importance of family and memory in relation to our humanity, The Labyrinth of the Spirits is shot through with such lessons. Here again an example must suffice. Near the end of the novel, Julian Carax, a once famous writer who exiled himself from the literary world, leaves these words to his young protégé: “Take care of your parents and of all the characters in our narrative. Tell our stories to the world and never forget that we exist so long as someone remembers us.”
As long as someone remembers us … The Labyrinth of the Spirits remembers and pays homage to the many victims of a bloody war, but it also reminds us that the memories we leave to our loved ones are our greatest legacy. The example we set and the memories we bequeath may sustain the living in their trials and give them joy in their triumphs.