Some spoilers included. #JustSaying
Carlos Ruiz Zafon is a sculptor of antagonists. Demonic, degenerate and devoid of humanity, these are the creatures you can only imagine encountering in hell or worse, in a nightmare that has demons crawling across the walls and ceiling.
The scariest is Mr Cain, a magician/clown/maker of deals from The Prince of Mist. It may have something to do with his insane pursuit for his pound of flesh or the fact that he often appears from – wait for it – mist.
Then there’s Lain Coubert from The Shadow of the Wind, a disfigured creature with neither eyelids nor lips who carries the smell of burnt paper everywhere he goes.
And now in Marina, his latest book in translation, Zafon has outdone himself with Mijail Kolvenik, born in the tunnels of Prague, raised in the operating room of his adoptive father, a doctor and now, obsessed with cheating death even if it means stalking children with his claw-like hands and feeding off his own young. You’d be wise to avoid tunnels, dark alleys and abandoned Gothic structures for a while after reading this book.
One can’t deny that Zafon has a special gift with antagonists. Now if only he focused as much time and effort on his protagonists.
Marina is about a boy named Oscar who lives in a boarding school in Barcelona. This school obviously has really lax rules because all Oscar seems to do is leave the premises after class every day and explore the dark streets of the city. Fascinating and wondrous, he soon encounters a rambling house one evening and finds himself mesmerised by its occupants, a one-time famous painter named German and his daughter Marina.
The girl quickly becomes the object of his affection though she responds to his advances in hot and cold bursts until she breaks his heart. The similarities between Pip and Estella from Great Expectations are uncanny but without the breathless charm. Moreover, this isn’t a story about adolescent love even though Zafon hints at its significance through mysterious illnesses, an oscillation between optimism and depression and a bit of stalking, on Oscar’s part, even the occupants of the house are clearly not at home.
The real truly story starts with the discovery of an unnamed grave in a secret cemetery and a veiled woman who visits it on the last Sunday of every month. On following her the kids find themselves ensnared in a mystery that revolves around Mijail Kolvenik, a man who made a fortune in mechanised prosthetic limbs during the war. But as with all good things this too ends in tragedy with nothing to show for it except a demonic new avatar that wants nothing more than to replace every part of himself in order to live forever.
Zafon’s a master of the sinister novel. His descriptions of situations, places and people transcend language. But at some point he started to lose the plot… literally. In Marina, it’s as though he’s confused between focussing on the best story he’s ever written and the chemistry between these two stupid kids – I mean, who returns to a warehouse filled with mysterious life sized puppets dangling from ropes on the ceiling? A strong indication of this is how he’s titled the book – Marina – rather than the choicer ones that hint at mysterious characters – The Prisoner of Heaven, The Water in the Shadows, The Prince of Mist…
I’m not a big fan of forced emotional scenes. Especially those that are drawn out for pages and pages well after the story has ended. Zafon claims that Marina is one of his favourite books among all his titles. I really can’t see why. Neither story, the forced one featuring Oscar and Marina or the more absorbing one of Mijail and Irene, satisfy Zafon fans sufficiently. He should have sent Marina to where it really belongs – The Cemetery of Forgotten Books.