The Count of Monte Cristo finds justice—after a fashion, anyway, and by the most roundabout of routes.
Daniel Sempere leads a life of bookish desperation in a Barcelona still reeling from the years of the Franco dictatorship. His father is even more desperate; no one is buying his wares, and there are always bills to pay. It’s with considerable if very temporary relief that, while his father is away from their bookshop, Daniel sells a rare copy of The Count of Monte Cristo to a shadowy stranger who uses it to send a message to a helper in the store: “For Fermín Romero de Torres, who came back from among the dead and holds the key to the future.” Who is the stranger, and what does his dark message mean? Will Daniel’s long-suffering wife run off, leaving the book retailer for a book publisher? Will anyone in our time read Dumas père’s book without having to be assigned to do so? For that matter, why did Franco ban Dumas, and what kind of trouble is Daniel in for because he has a copy for sale? From those promising if murky beginnings, Ruiz Zafón’s story takes off, resembling a Poe story here, a dark Lovecraft fantasy there, a sunny Christopher Morley yarn over there. The influences of those authors, to say nothing of Dumas and Balzac, are everywhere, though it’s a little disconcerting to find a street girl talking like Oliver Twist: “It’s me tits....A joy to look at, aren’t they, even though I shouldn’t say so.” But Ruiz Zafón’s story soon takes twists into the fantastic and metaphorical, heading underground literally and figuratively, to places such as the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, a place that only good and diligent readers ever get to visit, and in which the solution to the mystery is lain.
Ruiz Zafón narrowly avoids preciousness, and the ghosts of Spain that turn up around every corner are real enough. Readers are likely to get a kick out of this improbable, oddly entertaining allegory.