Carlos Ruiz Zafón The Prince of Mist
Orion Children’s Books 2010
Translated from the Spanish by Lucia Graves
(El principe de la niebla 1993)
The fiction of Ruiz Zafón reminds me of dreams bordering on nightmare. Everything is vague: geography (even when set in a well-known city like Barcelona), supporting characters (especially when they appear able to anticipate the protagonist’s mood and thoughts) and time (even when we’re given a specific year and month in which the story takes place). Disjointed places and sequences cause confusion and disquiet in dreams; in novels they can also be frustrating and irritating. Ultimately I found The Prince of Mist — the author’s first novel, in this instance for a young adult readership — as unsatisfying as the dream-like adult novels he is more famous for; unsatisfying because they are full of manufactured mysteries as insubstantial to the grasp as shadows, winds and mists. But I’m getting ahead of myself here.
It is June, 1943, and it is Max Carver’s 13th birthday. His father Maximilian, a watchmaker, gives his family some unwelcome news: they all — Maximilian and wife Andrea, along with Alicia, Max and Irina — have to leave the city and relocate to a small village on what appears to be the Atlantic coast. At journey’s end, after three hours on the train, they arrive at a seaside station — only to be joined by a mysterious stray cat, who seems to have adopted them.
Further mysteries await: the early 20th-century house was built by the Fleischmans, a couple whose long-awaited son drowned; they left behind an old film projector with several reels of really odd home movies; and up the hill from the house is a curious enclosure which, to Max at least, is too eerie for words, swathed in mist and apparently full of statues of circus performers. To add to the family’s woes, young Irina has a strange episode which leads to a coma and hospitalisation. Will Max and his older sister Alicia’s growing friendships with Roland (a young man about to be called up to the forces) and with his adoptive grandfather — who is also the lighthouse keeper — help to return some normality to their lives?
I found it quite hard to locate this book’s setting. You’d expect, what with Ruiz Zafón being Catalan, that the action takes place on the Mediterranean coast. Or, to keep the Spanish aspect, that it could conceivably be set in Galicia, on the northeast tip of the peninsula. But I could equally imagine it in a Cornish setting (there’s little to suggest that it couldn’t) and I’m not the only reviewer to sense a Famous Five vibe here (albeit much darker than anything that Blyton would have envisioned). The pan-European names also add to the deliberately disorienting narrative: for example, many of the names are German (Maximilian, Kray, Fleischman), Irina is Russian, Carver is an English surname, Eva Fleischman née Gray has a German forename and an English last name, Roland is French. In fact, the most notable absence is any obviously Spanish name. Maybe this is deliberate, an attempt to give a European flavour to the novel so as to appeal to a wider readership. What it also does is to add to the disorientation the story has already conjured up.
Here’s what really pulls the ground from under our feet: the introduction of so many spooky elements in a novella of only some two hundred pages of largish type. We have a sinister looking cat; a six-pointed star in a circle; a watch (a “Time Machine”) that Max is given by his father but which never seems to tally with normal time; that mist-shrouded enclosure and their shifting figures; the weird home movies; Irina’s sudden illness; the wrecked ship in the bay; the lighthouse keeper with a secret; the mystery of what happened to the Fleischman boy; approaching thunderstorms; and the repeated mention of a fortune-teller called Dr Cain. They must all be related, but how? Many of those links suggested though less rarely explicitly stated, resulting certainly in a tale of terror even if logical connections fly out the window — all, as we’re now familiar with, typical Ruiz Zafón fare.
And here’s one possible way through what appears to be a dark landscape of figures occasionally made vivid by bright lightning flashes: Ruiz Zafón is currently a scriptwriter in the States, where he has been since the nineties. His stories are characterised by strong images, crucially important in the writing of screenplays, and my guess is that his stories would work better as films — in which “Show, don’t tell” is ever the byword. Lucia Graves appears to have done a good job conveying those images in her translation.
I don’t want to give the impression that I found this as unsatisfying as I’ve so far suggested. The way in which the author deals with burgeoning young love is sensitively done, as is the sadness visited on a couple who couldn’t — or wouldn’t — have a child. Some characters have enough about them that one longs for them to re-appear in a sequel, but though The Prince of Mist is the first in a trilogy (The Midnight Palace and The Watcher in the Shadows follow) I’m not sure that that they ever did. The key question for me, as always, is ‘Would I read this again?’ I think you may already know the answer to that.