The Prisoner of Heaven by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

  Summary (Amazon): 

Barcelona, 1957. It is Christmas, and Daniel Sempere and his wife, Bea, have much to celebrate. They have a beautiful new baby son named Julián, and their close friend Fermín Romero de Torres is about to be wed. But their joy is eclipsed when a mysterious stranger visits the Sempere bookshop and threatens to divulge a terrible secret that has been buried for two decades in the city’s dark past.

His appearance plunges Fermín and Daniel into a dangerous adventure that will take them back to the 1940s and the early days of Franco’s dictatorship. The terrifying events of that time launch them on a search for the truth that will put into peril everything they love, and will ultimately transform their lives.

My Review (Spoilers!!)

Executive Summary:

This book is our mystery for the year and is also the sequel to the much loved mystery from last year, The Shadow of the WindFrom this book, it’s obvious that Zafon was not just a one-hit wonder. This book focuses itself more on Fermin and Daniel and their story. And it leaves it open for more! If you haven’t read the first book, you should go do that now!

The book begins at Christmastime in 1957 in Barcelona. The bookstore was being passed over by the holiday shoppers until Daniel’s father gets the bright idea to set up a nativity in the window to entice more shoppers. While he’s out acquiring the nativity, a strange old disabled  shopper comes in while Daniel is all alone. The shopper gravitates to the expensive case, and selects a copy of The Count of Monte Cristo. Daniel tries to dissuade him as he doesn’t want such a notable copy falling into such rough hands, but the shopper hands him a 1000 pesata note (3x the asking price) and tells him to keep the change. The stranger then takes the book and writes inside the front cover, “For Fermin Romero de Torres, who came back from among the dead and holds the key to the future. 13”. He then leaves the book and walks out.

Daniel is so intrigued that he allows the man a bit of a start before closing up the shop to follow him. He ducks into a scribe shop, where he learns that the stranger had stopped in earlier the week for some writing. The stranger is missing some fingers, making it difficult to write. The stranger takes off again, and Daniel follows him to a shady rent-by-the-hour sort of establishment, where he asks the porter for information. The porter tells Daniel that the stranger’s name is Fermin Romero de Torres! Daniel hurries back to the scribe and finds that the letter that was written had mention of a key.

Daniel gets back to the bookstore and is relieved that his father isn’t back yet. It gives him time to ponder how to give Fermin the book. Fermin has been in a dark mood recently, and it’s suspected that perhaps it is because of his upcoming (February) wedding to Bernarda, but no one is for certain. Fermin comes in shortly before Daniel’s father returns with the nativity. Once Daniel is alone with Fermin, he tells Fermin about the stranger and shows him the book. Fermin makes Daniel promise to not say anything about it to anyone and then Fermin walks out.

That evening, Bea (Daniel’s wife) tells him that she ran into Bernarda (Fermin’s fiancee). Bernarda told her that Fermin had been refusing to fill out the church papers for the wedding. And that she is pregnant!

To add an extra secret in the mix, Daniel finds a letter in Bea’s jacket from her old boyfriend Pablo in which he professes his love for her and asks her to meet him.

Fermin and Daniel have dinner to discuss their predicaments, and Daniel manages to get Fermin to talk. Fermin does not want to sign the wedding papers, in fact he can’t, because Fermin Romero de Torres is not his real name as he told Daniel in the last book. During the war, Fermin had to abandon his old name and he chose the name of a bullfighter whose name he saw. And the additional problem is that the second, non-bull fighter named Fermin Romero de Torres died in 1940 in the prison of Montjuic Castle, cell number 13. Like the dedication that the stranger left in the copy of The Count of Monte Cristo. 

Fermin proceeds to tell Daniel how that happened. In 1939, Fermin arrived at the Montjuic Castle. When asked for his name, Fermin Romero de Torres was the name he provided. When he is put into his cell, he finds that the previous tenant is still there. In a body bag. He takes the clothes off the dead body on the advice of the person in the neighboring cell, David Martin. Martin is an author and of special interest to Governor Mauricio Valls, who thinks he is also an author. Martin is not faring well in prison, having poor health and many moments of delusion, and is nicknamed “The Prisoner of Heaven” by the doctor in cell 12 who is tasked with keeping him alive.

Martin had come to the prison at the request of the governor himself because of a series of crimes he didn’t commit (a common occurrence). The governor made a proposal to Martin, asking Martin to review his writings as Martin was more in touch with the common man. Martin agrees to protect his friend, Isabella. Isabella and her husband run a bookshop that holds a special place for Martin.

After six months, Fermin gets a cell roommate, Sebastian Salgado. Shortly thereafter, he is taken to speak to the governor. The governor wants him to spy on Salgado because he killed a family of jewelers and stole money and jewels and to spy on Martin for anything unusual, particularly the mention of a cemetery of forgotten books. The governor also tells Fermin to encourage Martin to do the job that the governor has asked so that Senora Isabella, her husband, and her son won’t be penalized.

It’s at this point that Daniel realizes that he is the son that was referred to. His mother’s name was Isabella.

Fermin proceeds with the story. Salgado is taken away for “questioning” (aka torture). When he returns to the cell, Fermin asks him why he won’t just say where the money is, but Salgado insists that the money is his future. However, one morning, Fermin witnesses Salgado taking a key out of his um, internal pocket, and hiding it in the wall of the cell. Meanwhile, Martin is plotting Fermin’s escape. Salgado somehow realizes this and makes a deal with Fermin. Salgado will keep quiet if Fermin will tell Valls an exact story of how to get Salgado’s money. He also makes a deal with Martin that in exchange for his escape, he will promise to take care of Isabella and her family.

Fermin tells Valls that he must go to the old factory at midnight, find the old guards’ lodge and say “Durruti lives.” He also tells Valls the location of the Cemetery is under the Borne Market. While Fermin is talking to the governor, Martin has fainted in his cell. The doctor/cellmate attends to him, and later in the evening, he convinces the jailer to abandon his post to get more medical supplies. During the distraction, the doctor gets a bottle of (presumably) chloroform to Fermin who uses it to fake Salgado’s death. The jailer brings a sack for the dead body. Fermin switches his clothes with Salgado’s, gets the key that Salgado has hidden, and puts himself into the sack.

While this is happening at the prison, Valls has agreed to meet with Isabella. The lawyer that she hired for Martin has told her about the governor’s plan to have Martin write his work. He waits at a diner for her with two cups of tea, one which has been poisoned. She is obviously upset upon arrival and is easily convinced to drink the calming tea. She eventually realizes that something has happened and stumbles out of the restaurant. She lives only a few days more. En route home, Valls and his driver stop at the old factory where the driver, not Valls, follows Salgado’s instructions and is obviously killed.

The gravediggers come to pick up “Salgado” shortly before Valls returns to the prison. Valls is told that Salgado has died, but he demands to go to the cell where he figures out the slip. The gravediggers take Fermin to an open grave filled with quicklime and dump the sack. Fermin gets out as quickly as possible and heads toward Somorrostro, the city of the poor. Fermin rests and recovers there for a length of time, and when he has finally recovered, he find that he has been pronounced dead from falling into a ravine while escaping from the law. The man who attended to Fermin as he recovered also escaped from Cell 13, and he gives Fermin the name of a lawyer, the same one who helped Martin, to help him when he eventually returns to Barcelona.

When Fermin arrives in Barcelona, he goes to find Martin’s address, but it has been destroyed during the war. He decides to sleep in the rubble where he is found by a priest who takes pity on him. The following day, he stands up for Rocito who is being abused by her pimp, and she repays him with food and a place to stay. He finds his way to the lawyer’s office where he learns that Isabella is dead. Martin is still in prison, in solitary confinement. Fermin stays with Brians and helps organize and bring in new clients. One day Brians goes to check on Martin at the prison, but he is no longer there. No one is sure what happened to him. Fermin leaves Brians, returning to the streets where eventually Daniel finds him (book 1).

Back in the present, Daniel realizes that he knows who Mauricio Valls is. He had been the Minister of Culture until recently, well known as the great author and thinker of the time. Daniel is upset and wants to take vengeance on Valls, but he doesn’t know where to find him. Fermin and Daniel’s father both try to dissuade him from doing anything foolish.

Daniel and Fermin go to visit the strange old man who left Fermin the copy of The Count of Monte Cristo which the reader has now figured out is obviously Salgado. Fermin returns the key that he took to Salgado and after a brief head start, they follow him. They follow Salgado to a train station where he removes a case from a locker. He opens it, pauses for a minute, and then walks off leaving the case. Daniel goes to retrieve the case which he finds to be empty while Fermin follows Salgado. When Daniel catches up with them, Salgado is dead. He just keeled over. Fermin believes that the loot was stolen by Valls.

Daniel sends Fermin home while he takes on his second task–getting Fermin’s name restored with the help of Professor Albuquerque and the scribe he met earlier in the book. While speaking to Albuquerque, Daniel inquires further about what Valls has been up to recently, but no one really knows. Professor Albuquerque knew that Valls had set up a publishing house a number of years ago which is still active although no one sees Valls around there any more. Daniel continues digging about Valls and pinpoints the exact last time he was seen in public–1956.

Eventually the day arrives that Bea is supposed to meet her old love, Pablo. Daniel is an emotional mess. He decides to call the hotel where they are supposed to meet, and he finds that Pablo is reserved under a company name. The Ariadna publishing company–the same company that Valls started! Daniel decides to go to the hotel where Pablo is to meet Bea. Daniel finds him, but luckily Bea did not turn up. Upon physical pressure, Pablo confesses that one of Valls’ secretaries convinced him to write the letter, but he doesn’t know why, and he has never seen Valls in person. Fermion arrives and pretending to be an inspector, takes Pablo’s story to protect Daniel from charges.

Daniel manages to get Fermin his papers. He has a rager of a stag night, and first thing in the morning on his wedding day, Daniel takes Fermin to the cemetery of forgotten books. Fermin chooses a book written by David Martin. Isaac, the caretaker of the cemetery, alludes to them that he has seen Martin recently! And the last time that Martin was there, he left Isaac a package to give to Daniel–the book which he had written while imprisoned. It contains a note for Daniel telling him to not seek revenge for his mother’s death because Martin intends to take care of that task for him.

Fermin and Bernarda get married and the book ends with an epilogue showing a potential address for Mauricio Valls. To be continued???

Verdict: 4 stars

Zafon is such a great author. The books are so enchanting and keep the reader engaged to the end. I’m excited to read book 2 (the prequel) and I truly hope that there is a book 4. There are just too many loose ends to not have one!!

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