Perhaps with just a bit of hyperbole the Washington Post's Manuel Roig Franzia introduced an evening session with the exquisite novelist and story teller, Carlos Ruiz Zafón, at the elegant ballroom of the Former Residence of Spanish Ambassadors on 16th St., Wednesday, 9/28, by stating that with over 30 million books sold Zafón is, 'Spain's best-selling author since Cervantes'.
Whether or not that is the case, it is unquestionable that Carlos Ruiz Zafón is among the foremost Spanish novelists of our time. Presented by Spain Arts and Culture, with a prologue from the active and peripatetic Spanish Cultural Attaché Maria Molina, the event was unique and intriguing, much like Zafón's books. If you've never read the work of CRZ you are in for a treat -a thick, rich, mesmerizing treat. His novels are very much like the proverbial onion with layer upon layer of meaning, sub-plots and asides. I found myself reading and re-reading passages to bask in the encyclopedic mastery of storytelling contained on those pages.
His stories remind one of Jorge Luis Borges, gothic intrigues with unexpected outcomes and, though they border on the phantasmagorical, plausibly real and rational. When asked by Roig Franzia about his influences and what books he read as an adolescent, he responded with a dizzying array of authors and titles. The breadth of Ruiz Zafón's scholarship is such that he even mentioned, among the crime mystery writers he follows, our very own George Pelecanos and the crime stories he creates about present day DC. Very much an acolyte of modern English and American fiction, Zafón credits among others William Faulkner as an inspiration. However, the one author I was moved to revisit after listening to Zafón was Guy de Maupassant. There is a 'naturalist' vein in CFZ's work, a stylized high-realism, fantastic strain of writing inherited from that period and Maupassant in particular. He fits gently into the naturalist school of writers, who "depict human lives and destinies and social forces in disillusioned and often pessimistic terms". You can hear echoes of Cormac McCarthy in Zafón's oeuvre.
Most fascinating about the evening was the author's emphasis on process and how he creates his stories and characters. Zafón confessed that he first maps out extensive outlines and charts before he begins to put a final version down on paper. He spoke of his beloved Barcelona and how there are now tours of that city that use his locations as a point of departure. His identity is tied to the gothic quarter, a touching tribute to Catalonia's history.
Although Carlos lives in California he is above all a Catalan, and he pleasures himself a sophisticate with a high sense of style and a skeptical outlook on society. His owlish glasses and hesitant, shy movements cover a fierce mind and an iron willed intellect. Barcelona is, in his books. the center of the universe and he represents the summit of its culture and thought. He claims not to be political, but one has only to read his passages about the Spanish Civil War to understand he is a Catalanista and a critic of the current reality on the Iberian peninsula.
As an aspiring writer, what was most endearing about the evening was when CRZ spoke about the influence of music on his creative process. An accomplished pianist, he sat down at the piano to perform snippets of his compositions inspired by his characters that help him move through the process of creating them. The compositions seemed mostly dreamy, soft, surreal pieces reminiscent of Debussy or Chopin. His performance on the piano reminded me of a misty midnight stroll through Paris or a foggy day in London. Performing them at the former residence only reinforced his scholarly and multifaceted genius. He urged the audience to go to his website if we wanted to hear more.
Come November the fourth and final installment of his quartet of novels under the rubric of the 'Cemetery of Forgotten Books', entitled, "Labyrinth of the Spirits" will be published and Mr. Zafon will move on to new literary endeavors. Whatever his future holds his place in the pantheon of great living authors has been consecrated by these novels. He is a wunderkind of the literary world and we will surely be hearing of him for a long time to come.