Once, in my father’s bookshop, I heard a regular customer say that few things leave a deeper mark on a reader than the first book that finds its way into his heart. Those first images, the echo of words we think we have left behind, accompany us throughout our lives and sculpt a palace in our memory to which, sooner or later—no matter how many books we read, how many worlds we discover, or how much we learn or forget—we will return.
I’ve never have had such a devilish time with a book – vacillating between enjoying the subtle pleasantries of the story and being frustrated by it’s melodrama, its various guises and deliberate misdirection of plot points. Coupled with vacuous female characters and incredibly blunt tone with which women were often referred to, this book proved to be an utter disappointment.
Wars have no memory, and nobody has the courage to understand them until there are no voices left to tell what happened, until the moment comes when we no longer recognize them and they return, with another face and another name, to devour what they left behind.
Perhaps my chief issue with the book is that it is a densely romantic novel guised as a mystery-thriller, peppered with tawdry love affairs with women who seem to have no personal purpose of life except to aid men who are either obsessive or violent. Daniel’s bookshop, The Cemetery of Forgotten Books, and the pursuit of riddles surrounding an author’s life are just plot threads willfully inserted to give this inherently romantic novel another dimension. The “love” in question is too aggrandized to have any serious value for the characters. It is the kind of sickly love that makes one act like a love-struck fool, not just for a few moments but for an entire lifetime.
There are people you remember and people you dream of. For me, Nuria Monfort was like a mirage: you don’t question its veracity, you simply follow it until it vanishes or until it destroys you.
Also, how much credit can I, as a reader, really give to this purported mystery story in which in just the first few pages I decoded a fundamental truth about the main antagonist? Moreover, if the primary conundrum has to be unraveled by the main character (of Daniel), why was it revealed through a manuscript written by someone else? To me that seems sloppy and instead of experiencing the excitement of finally acknowledging the deep, dark secrets which have nestled in the bosom of the story for years and years, I felt agitated at the object and source of disclosure. It rendered characters and a chunk of story absolutely futile.
The street was freezing, desolate, suffused in an eerie blue radiance. I felt as if my heart had been flayed open. Everything around me trembled. I walked off aimlessly, paying scant attention to a stranger who was observing me from Puerta del Ángel.
Perhaps the saving grace of this novel is the setting. The description of Barcelona of the 40’s and 50’s is rich and varied and does provide the much needed depth to a host of characters who are very much lacking in intuition and motivation. I was much more enamored by the nightlife of the city, by the paved streets along which common folks walked, by the bus stops in heavy rain, by the shabby nooks and corners of plazas and apartments.
Like all old cities, Barcelona is a sum of its ruins. The great glories so many people are proud of—palaces, factories, and monuments, the emblems with which we identify—are nothing more than relics of an extinguished civilization.
Sentimental and exaggerated romance, banal descriptions of lust, paucity of the world of books, of book-lovers and readers, lack of depth in characters all added to the bitter let-down, much to my dismay. I don’t think I’ll pick up the second installment of this series.
A selection of my favourite passages from the book
On Relationships – Platonic & Romantic
- I wondered what on earth she saw in me that could make her want to befriend me, other than a pale reflection of herself, an echo of solitude and loss. In my schoolboy reveries, we were always two fugitives riding on the spine of a book, eager to escape into worlds of fiction and secondhand dreams.
- The female heart is a labyrinth of subtleties, too challenging for the uncouth mind of the male racketeer.
- Nor had he told me about that bewitchment of pale, tremulous skin, that first brush of the lips, or about the mirage that seemed to shimmer in every pore of the skin. He didn’t tell me any of that because he knew that the miracle happened only once and, when it did, it spoke in a language of secrets that, were they disclosed, would vanish again forever.
- “Sometimes one feels freer speaking to a stranger than to people one knows. Why is that?” I shrugged. “Probably because a stranger sees us the way we are, not as he wishes to think we are.”
- Marriage and family are only what we make of them. Without that they’re just a nest of hypocrisy. Garbage and empty words.
- The nurse knew that those who really love, love in silence, with deeds and not with words.
- Sometimes we think people are like lottery tickets, that they’re there to make our most absurd dreams come true.
- Penélope Aldaya, treacherously absent, was too powerful an enemy for me. She was invisible, so I imagined her as perfect. Next to her I was unworthy, vulgar, all too real. I had never thought it possible to hate someone so much and so despite myself—to hate someone I didn’t even know, whom I had never seen in my life.
- I was raised among books, making invisible friends in pages that seemed cast from dust and whose smell I carry on my hands to this day.
- This is a place of mystery, Daniel, a sanctuary. Every book, every volume you see here, has a soul. The soul of the person who wrote it and of those who read it and lived and dreamed with it. Every time a book changes hands, every time someone runs his eyes down its pages, its spirit grows and strengthens.
- After a while it occurred to me that between the covers of each of those books lay a boundless universe waiting to be discovered, while beyond those walls, in the outside world, people allowed life to pass by in afternoons of football and radio soaps, content to do little more than gaze at their navels.
- I couldn’t help thinking that if I, by pure chance, had found a whole universe in a single unknown book, buried in that endless necropolis, tens of thousands more would remain unexplored, forgotten forever. I felt myself surrounded by millions of abandoned pages, by worlds and souls without an owner sinking in an ocean of darkness, while the world that throbbed outside the library seemed to be losing its memory, day after day, unknowingly, feeling all the wiser the more it forgot.
- Everything on that page spoke of another time: the strokes that depended on the ink pot, the words scratched on the thick paper by the tip of the nib, the rugged feel of the paper.
- “Julián lived within himself, for his books and inside them—a comfortable prison of his own design.” “You say this as if you envied him.” “There are worse prisons than words, Daniel.”
- Bea says that the art of reading is slowly dying, that it’s an intimate ritual, that a book is a mirror that offers us only what we already carry inside us, that when we read, we do it with all our heart and mind, and great readers are becoming more scarce by the day.
Barcelona circa 1945
- Barceló signaled to a waiter of such remarkable decrepitude that he looked as if he should be declared a national landmark.
- The future could be read much more clearly in the streets, factories, and barracks than in the morning press.
- Army, Marriage, the Church, and Banking: the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Yes, go on, laugh.
- From it emerged the proud, majestic, and arrogant figure of Don Ricardo Aldaya, by then already one of the richest men not only in Barcelona but also in the whole of Spain. His textile empire took in citadels of industry and colonies of commerce along all the rivers of Catalonia. His right hand held the reins of banks and landed estates of half the province. His left hand, ever active, pulled at the strings of the provincial council, the city hall, various ministries, the bishopric, and the customs service at the port.
- In today’s radio soaps, it would be called espionage, but in wartime we’re all spies.
- This city is a sorceress, you know, Daniel? It gets under your skin and steals your soul without you knowing it.
On Memory and Childhood
- Barceló also boasted an elephantine memory allied to a pedantry that matched his demeanor and the sonority of his voice. If anyone knew about odd books, it was he.
- One of the pitfalls of childhood is that one doesn’t have to understand something to feel it. By the time the mind is able to comprehend what has happened, the wounds of the heart are already too deep.
- The holes left by machine-gun fire during the war pockmark the church walls. That morning a group of children played soldiers, oblivious to the memory of the stones.
- I remember the dull, terrible impact of the blows raining down mercilessly on my friend. They hurt me still. All I did was take refuge in the policemen’s convenient grasp, trembling and shedding silent tears of cowardice.
- There’s no such thing as dead languages, only dormant minds.
- People tend to complicate their own lives, as if living weren’t already complicated enough.
- “Presents are made for the pleasure of who gives them, not for the merits of who receives them,”
- Our world will not die as a result of the bomb, as the papers say, it will die of laughter, of banality, of making a joke of everything, and a lousy joke at that.
- When one is young, talent—genius, if you like—must be cultivated, or it becomes twisted and consumes the person who possesses it. It needs direction. Support.
- America, he would later say, by way of apology or epitaph, is a mirage, a land of savage predators, and he’d been educated into the privileges and frivolous refinements of Old Europe—a dead continent held together by inertia.
- We make so many mistakes in life, young lady, but we only realize this when old age creeps up on us.
- Time goes faster the more hollow it is. Lives with no meaning go straight past you, like trains that don’t stop at your station.
- The truths of life know no age
- Waiting is the rust of the soul.
- We all do what we’re best at.
Beautifully Constructed Sentences
- I still remember the day my father took me to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books for the first time.
- I, who was never even sure what the time was, nodded with the conviction of the ignorant.
- It was a well-known fact that the richness of buttery foods led to moral ruin and confusion of the intellect. He forbade Sophie to cook with butter ever again.
- Dear friends, life is the stuff of drama, and even the noblest of the Lord’s creatures can taste the bitterness of destiny’s capricious and obstinate ways.
- He sculpted his sentences neatly, measuring them out with a cadence that seemed to promise an ultimate moral that never emerged. Years of teaching had left him with that firm and didactic tone of someone used to being heard, but not certain of being listened to.
- I began to believe that Julián was not a man, he was an illness.
- That was my story. Our story. In Carax’s lost footsteps, I now recognized my own, irretrievable.