Tag Archives: Spain

Carlos Ruiz Zafón, El juego del ángel


This is the third book of the cycle called The Cemetery of Forgotten Books that I have read, although it was the second one published. So I have not quite read them in the order published but as they are not sequential, it matters very little. I do have the fourth one awaiting my attention on my Kobo; it was published just last year in Spain, but will only come out in English in 2018.

I did not like this third book as much as the other two, or is it that I felt pressed for time reading it? The plot was (as for the others) very, very complex, with a multitude of subplots. If I was to summarize in one sentence, I would say that a very cruel, mysterious man plays with the life of a poor writer, like a cat with a mouse, with negative consequences for many people who cross paths with the writer and for the writer himself who loses everything that a man can lose save his life. It does not end well; there is no redemption for the poor writer and he ends up wandering the earth for 15 years. The final events in the epilogue do not give us any certainly that the future hold peace or happiness for him, only a hint that his torments may never be over.

If you want to get into a book where you essentially watch a character that you get to like from the beginning get flogged daily, then read The Angel’s Game. It is a nasty game.


Ruiz Zafón, Carlos. El juego del ángel. Planeta, 2009.

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SPAIN BOOK REVIEW: ‘The Angel’s Game’ (El juego del ángel) by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

Carlos Ruiz Zafón, La sombra del viento


It is a rather odd thing to finish this book on Halloween. This is a book full of shadows and dread; unhappy events abound and scary characters keep coming back to haunt  those only trying to go on living, in  a Spain in the throes of a civil war and through the grayness of the Franco era. This is my second Ruiz Zafón novel. I had a first read El prisionero del cielo last year, one of the novels from the “Cementerio de los libros olvidados” cycle, which will reportedly include four novels, with three published so far. One is supposed to be able to read the novels in any order, as each has a self-contained plot. This is how this idea is presented:

Este libro es parte de un ciclo de cuatro novelas que se entrecruzan en el universo literario del El Cementerio de los Libros Olvidados. Los relatos que lo forman están interconectados a través de personajes e hilos argumentales que tienden puentes entre las tramas, aunque cada uno de ellos es completamente independiente y ofrece una historia cerrada y contenida en sí misma. Las novelas del El Cementerio de los Libros Olvidados pueden leerse en cualquier orden o por separado, permitiendo al lector explorar y acceder al laberinto de historias a través de diferentes puertas y caminos que, completado el cuarteto, le conducirán al corazón de la narración.

I am not sure that I agree that each book is completely independent as the same characters do come back and in the case of the two I have read so far, the back story is consistent and the complex relationships between the protagonists has been preserved. I can see some interest though in not prescribing an order for the reading of the books in that the reader will learn of certain facts and relationships at different times and there make different connections between the stories, thereby leading to different reading experiences. That, in itself, is not a bad idea. In any case, I think it is always true that the story is in part created by the interaction of the reader with the text, the interaction of the reader´s background, knowledge base, imagination and sense of adventure.

In this book, we find again Daniel, the son of the bookseller who ends up working with his father in his bookstore. But we meet him as a young boy and his father introduces to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, a kind of secret library that one can only access accompanied by someone who is in on the secret. On that fateful visit, Daniel is authorized to pick up a book to bring him. This book, a novel by one Julian Carax, totally fascinates him, although we never really find out what the book is about. What we do find out is that others have an interest in this book either as collectors, or to destroy it. This is where we meet the first devilish figure of the book, a terribly disfigured burn victim called Laín Coubert (although this is actually the name of a character in the book that represents the Devil). This character smell of fire and smoke (literally!) and has been linked to several instances where books by Julian Carax have been lost in fires.

On a parallel story, Daniel meets Fermín, at that time a homeless man plagued by terribly nightmares. He befriends him and his father offers him a job in the bookstore based on his great erudition and his ability to locate rare books. Daniel tells Fermín about the Carax book and they both start investigating its origin and the life of its authors. They find tragic stories of lost loves, of violence and betrayal, and of duplicity. They also encounter the other devilish character of this book, a police inspector of remarkable cruelty who had been a school mate of Julian Carax (Inspector Fumero) but who is also investigating the murky past of Daniel´s friend Fermín. He shows up at many points in the story to proffer threats.

Ruiz Zafón has said he did not want his books to be turned into movies, and I can see how that could seem an impossible project given the complexity of each novel (I have really said very little above, there is much, much more going on in the book). But if there were to be movies, I would be curious to see the portrayal of Laín Coubert and Inspector Fumero…


Ruiz Záfon, Carlos. La sombra del viento. Barcelona, Editorial Planeta, 2001.

Rosa Montero, La ridícula idea de no volver a verte


I bought this book because I loved the title and the picture on the front cover, not that they seem to be related. I was surprised by what I found inside. This is not a novel, nor is it a classical biography (in this case, of Marie Curie!), although it does describe Marie Curie’s life pretty much from beginning to end.

What the author did is far more engaging: Based on her initial encounter with Marie Curie through a journal she wrote after a husband death, sent to her by her editor when she was in a writing slump, following the death of her own husband of 20 years, she started writing about her own experience by contrast with Marie Curie’s.

So, she explores the life of a woman who lived at a different time but she also uses that to explore her own processing of her husband’s death. She also explores the place of women in society (in science, in academia), between independence and duty, as well as the need to honor once parents. She also discusses guilt, happiness, ambition and detachment, the sources and consequences of these feelings and orientations. The author makes a smart use of hashtags (not something I had seen in a book yet) to highlight what theme she is discussing. There is an index of hashtags at the end.

The book also includes a Spanish translation of Marie Curie short diary written in the first year following her husband’s death.

This book does offer a fascinating review of Marie Curie’s life. I did read the biography written by one of her daughters when I was young; I have a very clear memory of that, I was so fascinated by it.

I was quite entranced by Rosa Montero’s writing and will gladly look for her fiction.


Montero, Rosa. La ridícula idea de no volver a verte. “Biblioteca Breve”. Seix Barral, Barcelona, 2013.

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María Dueñas, Misión Olvido


Blanca, a Spanish linguistics professor, is suddenly set adrift by her husband’s sudden decision to leave her for a younger woman. She decides she needs to get away, to go some place where no one knows her. An administrator at her university helps her find a grant to do some research work in California for a few months. Within 9 days she arrives at her new home away from home.

The work she has to do is no way related to her usual academic pursuits but she sets out to do the best she can: She has to organize the papers of a professor of hispanic studies, Andrés Fontana, who passed away some thirty years ago. As she does this, she finds herself getting interested in what he had been doing towards the end of his life: finding the “forgotten mission”, Misión Olvido, that a renegade Franciscan brother is suspected to have founded without permission from the authorities after establishing the last official mission of the Franciscan order in Sonoma.

While she is doing this work she becomes acquainted with several members of the department, as well as with Daniel Carter, a former student of Professor Fontana, and himself a professor of hispanic studies. She finds herself attracted to Daniel, but given the recent changes in her life circumstances as well as her doubts about his motives for helping her, she keeps her distance.

It turns out that Daniel Carter is behind the dummy foundation through which Blanca received the grant, and that his intent was both to rehabilitate his former mentor’s memory and to find more information about the forgotten mission. We learn quite late in the book that his wife was killed in the same car accident as Professor Fontana, while doing some research with him. When Blanca finds this out, she pushes Daniel away, accusing him of having betrayed her trust.

In the end, they do work together to resolve the mystery of the forgotten mission and the information they find is key in stopping a local commercial development that Daniel was actively opposing. As the Christmas break approaches, Blanca must face her return to Spain, spending the holidays with her grown children and resolving the situation that her husband’s departure has left her in.

This book was an interesting read, especially the life story of Andrés Fontana and how he ended up in the US, as well as how Daniel Carter met his future wife while on a trip to Spain and how he manage to convince her family to let her marry him. The description of life in Spain around the civil war and after is also quite interesting. However, as with El tiempo entre costuras, I found the characters’ descriptions to be quite shallow. In addition, the resolution of the moments of tension is often too smooth, “too good to be true” (well, of course, they are not true as this is fiction). María Dueñas does take on a lot, given the amount of historical ground she covers. So far, this is what she does best but her fiction would gain in strength if the psychology of the characters gained in subtlety and if the plots lines were more realistic. Many comments I found on the web also fault the novel for being too long and for meandering too long, and essentially for just not being as good as her first one.

This book was published in English under the title The Heart Has Its Reasons and it is possible to read a preview here.


Dueñas, María. Misión Olvido. Atria Español (Simon & Shuster), 2012.

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Arturo Pérez-Reverte, El tango de la guardia vieja


Max Costa has had a complicated life. Starting from humble beginning in Buenos Aires, he becomes a charmer and swindler, and makes his money taking advantage of rich women and stealing jewelry. While he has mostly managed to stay out of trouble, he has done some time in prison. At the beginning of the book we find him living in the Naples area and working as a chauffeur for a well-to-do doctor. Now in his early sixties, he finds himself living humbly again.

One of the most significant encounters in his life occurred much earlier, about 30 years before. While working as a professional dancer on a transatlantic ship, he meets a Spanish couple, a composer and his wife. The composer is interested in the tango. His wife Mecha is a superb tango dancer and she often dances with Max. When they arrive in Buenos Aires, Max takes them to places where the “original” tango is being danced so they can experience its raw sensual power. The composer ends up composing a tango that becomes a famous piece of music, done on a dare from Ravel after he wrote his Bolero. Max is entranced with Mecha but leaves abruptly apparently stealing a very valuable pearl necklace.

They do not meet again for several years but cross paths in Nice shortly before World War II. Max is doing well enough. Unexpectedly, he is contacted by two men who claim to work for the Italian secret service. They require his services to recover some letters from the safe of a rich Spanish man currently in exile in Nice. The letters have some political value. Max gets himself invited to a high society dinner held at the house occupied by the said rich Spaniard, where he runs into Mecha. She is somewhat suspicious of him but they renew their acquaintance. Mecha is living alone in Nice and her husband’s whereabouts in Franco’s Spain are unknown.

Max manages to crack the safe and steal the letters sometime later. However, giving the letters to the Italian guys proves to get complicated as a third party gets involved and two or three guys are killed. Max gets stabbed in the process and calls on Mecha for help. She is rather angry with him but helps him leave so he can take himself somewhere he might be safe for further pursuit from whoever is after the letters or interested in the deaths he is associated with. This very much looks like unfinished business between them. As passionate as some of their encounters have been, both are reluctant to give it any meaning.

The next time they meet, they are in their sixties. Mecha has been widowed, remarried and divorced and her adult son is a chess grand master. Max sees her fortuitously in Sorrento where her son is playing a chess tournament against a Russian grand master. As Max’s boss has just left for several days, Max borrows some clothes and accessories as well as one of the cars he has in his car in his job as chauffeur and manages to install himself in the same high-end hotel. It is unsure to what end he does all this at the beginning and his motivations shift as time goes by. He does reconnect with Mecha, and through some fairly convoluted events, ends up stealing the Russian grand master notebooks to give Mecha’s son the upper hand. The Russians do find him out though and try to get him to say where the books are. In spite of a severe beating bordering on torture, Max keeps his mouth shut.

The book ends with Max again on the run and no resolution to his and Mecha’s relationship.

Convoluted, you say? Maybe so, but the details of the plot are skillfully revealed quite parsimoniously, the settings are quite interesting, and many of the characters intriguing. There is a good pace to this book, and the writing is quite fluid.

It was quite a good story to read. I had never read any book by Pérez-Reverte; I had only seen the movie adaptation of El maestro de esgrimas. As he has written at least 2 dozen books, there might be a few more interesting ones.

Carlos Ruiz Zafón, El prisionero del cielo


This is the kind of mystery I like: it starts in a bookstore and it ends in a library… Well, not quite literally but almost. This is the third in a series of books called “El cementario de los libros olvidados” (The cemetery of forgotten books). The author states that the three books in the series share characters and plot elements but that each book is self-contained. Therefore, they can be read in any order and form a labyrinth of stories that can be accessed though different doors and pathways that can all take the reader to the heart of the story. Well… that’s nice theoritically. I look forward to reading the others books in the series (La sombra del viento, El juego del ángel) and seeing where the links are and whether knowledge of the other books does change my perception of this one.

At the center of El prisionero del cielo is the story of Fermín Romero de Torres who wants to marry the beautiful Bernarda but is afraid he cannot because he does not have legal existence. Most of the book is devoted to telling the story of how he came to be declared dead and of how his life is closely entwined with the life of his best friend Daniel. All this is set in mid-20th century Spain, during World War II and the Franco dictatorship. In the end, Daniel and some associates do succeed in getting some legal papers so Fermín can get married and Daniel comes to terms with the murder of his mother that occurred when he was a small child.

Zafón, Carlos Ruiz. El prisionero del cielo. Vintage Español, Nueva York, 2011.

María Dueñas, El tiempo entre costuras (Seamstress)


While I had trouble getting into this book, after I got through the first 100 pages, I could hardly put the book down and completely got sucked in by the story. Sira, the main character, is a young seamstress working for a designer, along with her mother, in Madrid. She is engaged to a nice, young government employee. She meets another man, Ramiro, quite dashing and seductive and breaks off her engagement. He sweeps her off her feet and takes her to Morocco with promises to start a business and dreams of a great life together. He then abandons her in Tangier with unpaid debts and steals all her money and jewels. Sira attempts to run away to Tetuan but has a miscarriage on the bus and ends up in the hospital. The police catches up with her because of the denunciation from the hotel in Tangier where Sira and Ramiro had an unpaid bill. Through a kind police inspector, a debt repayment plan is negotiated and Sira finds a room in a humble pension in Tetuan.

The story is set in the mid-1930s, just as the Spanish Civil War is about to start. Due to the circumstances she finds herself in, Sira is stuck in Tetuan. When she recovers from her miscarriage and with the help of the pension owner, she starts sewing again and develops a clientele of rich expatriate wives, one of which is the British lover of the Spanish High Commissioner. They become friends and through some twists, Sira is reunited with her mother who is taken out of war-torn Spain and brought to Tetuan. Further twists take Sira back to Madrid where she opens a business and becomes a spy for the British.

While Sira is a fictional character, many others in the book are historical figures, among which we find Juan Luis Beigbeder, the Spanish High Commissioner, Rosalinda Fox, his lover, Serrano Suñer, a relative of Franco, who visits Tetuan and later becomes Beigbeder’s rival when both of them are ministers in Franco’s first post-war cabinet.

So this would qualify as a historical novel, given the large part that description of the life and events of those times take in the novel. Rather interesting to compare with the portrayal of life in civil-war Spain in Poniatowska’s Tinissima.

Some more stuff to look into:




There is no shortage of information on these historical figures on the web (well, maybe not so much about Rosalinda Fox).

Now, about the book again: There are quite a few questionable plot twists in this story and you could well question the plausibility of a young seamstress becoming a valuable spy to the British without having any training. If you are willing to suspend disbelief to some extent, then the story is indeed entertaining.

This book has been translated into multiple languages and has been turned into a television mini-series in Spain. Segments of the mini-series can be watched (in Spanish) on YouTube.

Friday Night Ramblings: Can’t go to the gym so I might as well write something


I had minor surgery on Wednesday and I have to take it easy for a couple of days, so the usually Friday night at the gym is out. So let me tell you about what I’ve currently got in process and what I’m thinking of reading next (mind you keep in mind that I am easily distracted by new ideas and what is to be read next keeps changing quite rapidly but I still like thinking about it).

I made a commitment to myself to read some Dickens this year. I had taken a stab at book such as Hard Times and A Tale of Two Cities when I was younger and my English was not so good, and I found I had little patience to wade through the dialogues. In general, my knowledge of English is quite good now and my tolerance for dialogue written in the vernacular has certainly gone up. So I am about one-fifth into Great Expectations and I am quite enjoying it. I am looking forward to the way in which Pip is going to evolve as he grows up. At the point where I am in the book, he is living with his sister and her husband who took him in as he was an orphan. He was invited to “play” at the home of an eccentric woman, Miss Havisham, and I wonder where this is going. There are all sorts of ways in which this could turn really weird…

In parallel, I am reading the third and latest novel by Ildefonso Falcones, La reina descalza, published in 2013. Falcones made his name with is first book, La cathedral del mar (The Cathedral of the Sea), which was quite a bestseller in Spain when it came out in 2006. I had picked up that book while browsing in a bookstore in Madrid on the tail end of a business trip. Falcones is a Barcelona-based lawyer with four children who writes big, thick historical novels in his spare time. La reina descalza focuses on the lives of gypsies in 18th century Spain. One of the main characters, Caridad, is a freed African slave that somehow came from Cuba to Sevilla and comes under the protection of an old gypsy man. The storytelling is quite smooth and this is an easy, fun read, not too challenging, although I do need to resort to the dictionary once in a while.

I have another stack of books I have been reading and put aside and I am just waiting for inspiration to get back into them. And then there are the stack of books on the living room window sill.

  • Mort-terrain by Biz: Biz is the rap singer who leads the band Loco Locass, who are quite well-known in Québec. The story is set in a mining town. Of course, I definitely have to read that.
  • Sous l’arche du temps by Hélène Dorion : this is a series of essays and interviews with my favorite Québec poet. I read it in small chunks. I am also reading through the large volume of her collected works from 1983 to 2000 and I have never written about that. Her poetry is just gut-wrenching.
  • Un été avec Montaigne d’Antoine Compagnon: I love Antoine Compagnon, the no-nonsense literature professor from the Collège de France. His inaugural lecture at the Collège de France was about why we should read… Un été avec Montaigne is a series of commentary about Montaigne’s Essays that were originally written for a summer radio series for France Inter. I am not sure I would have the patience to read Montaigne but which such an introduction to his work, who knows?
  • Le départ des musiciens by P.O. Enquist: I have to get into the next one, don’t I?
  • I still have some Giller Prize-related reading to do: The 2013 Giller Prize winner, Hell Going, by Lynn Coady, and well as the Dan Vyleta novel who was on the short list. Officially, I bought them as a present for my husband, so he gets to read them first. So he read the Coady and he quite liked it although, like me, he is not much of a short story reader. He preferred her novel The Antagonist, and I seem to remember it was about hockey, which would be timely given we are in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
  • I also have a volume of the complete tales and poems of Edgar Allan Poe sitting on my desk. It is an old musty-smelling book. It has an inscription on the first page, “To Alex, Best Wishes, from Tsia, Xmas 1944”. From one of my husband’s aunts to her sister… Both dead now, but I was lucky enough to know them in their last years. They never married, remained independent, lived together their whole lives, loved travelling, and of course, loved reading.

Gioconda Belli – El pergamino de la seducción


Gioconda Belli – El pergamino de la seducción

Première phrase du livre: Manuel dijo que me narraría la vida de Juana de Castilla y su locura de amor por su marido Felipe el Hermoso, si yo aceptaba ciertas condiciones. (p. 5)

La première phrase introduit donc dès le départ trois des personnages principaux du roman. La narratrice est Lucía, une jeune orpheline de 17 ans qui vit depuis l’âge de 13 ans dans un couvent en plein Madrid, à deux pas de la gare d’Atocha et du jardin botanique. Elle a été placée dans ce couvent par ses grands-parents suite au décès de ses parents dans un tragique accident d’avion. Manuel est un professeur d’histoire d’une quarantaine d’année qui rencontre Lucía par hasard (je crois qu’ils se sont rencontrés au musée El Prado qu’elle aime bien fréquenter). Manuel commence à lui parler de Jeanne de Castille (ou Jeanne La Folle), un personnage historique que le fascine. Au fil des conversations, Manuel lui parle d’elle et la convainc de venir chez lui, de revêtir un costume de style renaissance et de s’imprégner de l’histoire de Jeanne La Folle qu’il lui raconte par étape. Il veut se servir des perceptions et de l’intuition de Lucía pour mieux comprendre  la vie de Jeanne La Folle d’un point de vue subjective et non historico-objectif.

Le tout se passe dans les années 60 et on comprend bien que la société espagnole d’alors est très, très conservatrice et qu’on s’attend à un comportement irréprochable de la part d’une jeune couventine comme Lucía.

On peut se demander que fait un professeur célibataire de 40 ans avec une jeune fille de cette âge, surtout avec les scènes d’habillage répétées, bien évidemment précédées de scènes de déshabillage que l’auteure nous décrit. Lucía en vient assez rapidement aux rêveries amoureuses au sujet de Manuel…

Il y a donc plusieurs lignes narratives: (1) l’histoire de la relation entre Lucía et Manuel, (2) l’histoire de Jeanne La Folle, de sa relation avec son marie et les intrigues politiques auxquels ils sont mêlés, et (3) l’histoire des parents de Lucia, de son père qui trompe sa mère et dont le décès survient au moment d’une tentative de réconciliation.

Sans vouloir tout révéler du dénouement, Lucía tombe évidemment enceinte, ce qui mène à une une stratégie un peu échevelée pour la soustraire au risque d’un scandale au couvent et l’obsession de Manuel pour Jeanne la Folle l’amène à une découverte surprenante sur son passé, avec des conséquences tragiques tout-à-fait imprévues. Donc, plusieurs surprises vers la fin.

On croit retrouver certains thèmes déjà vu chez Gioconda Belli : un intérêt pour les origines historiques, la relation de la femme à son corps, les sources du pouvoir de la femme … Ça donne le goût de relire La mujer habitada.


Références :

Belli, Gioconda, El pergamino de la seducción, Seix Barral, 2005. Primera edición en libro electrónico: 2010.

Belli, Gioconda, La mujer habitada, Txalaparta, 1988.


À voir: http://www.museodelprado.es/coleccion/galeria-on-line/galeria-on-line/obra/dona-juana-la-loca/