Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s first novel, The Prince of Mist, was published in 1992 as a young adult book, along with his three subsequent novels. But, as Zafón, a past Zócalo guest, writes in an introductory note to the book, “I like to believe that storytelling transcends age limitations.” Below, an excerpt from The Prince of Mist.
Max had once read in one of his father’s books that some childhood images become engraved in the mind like photographs, like scenes you can return to again and again and will always remember, no matter how much time goes by. He understood the meaning of those words the first time he saw the sea. The family had been traveling on the train for over three hours when, all of a sudden, they emerged from a dark tunnel and Max found himself gazing at an endless expanse of ethereal light, the electric blue of the sea shimmering beneath the midday sun, imprinting itself on his retina like a supernatural apparition. The ashen light that perpetually drowned the old city already seemed like a distant memory. He felt as if he had spent his entire life looking at the world through a black-and-white lens and suddenly it had sprung into life in full, luminous color he could almost touch. As the train continued its journey only a few meters from the shore, Max leaned out the window and, for the first time ever, felt the touch of salty wind on his skin. He turned to look at his father, who was watching him from the other end of the compartment with his mysterious smile, nodding in reply to a question Max hadn’t even asked. At that moment, Max promised himself that whatever their destination, whatever the name of the station this train was taking them to, from that day on he would never live anywhere where he couldn’t wake up every morning to see that same dazzling blue light that rose toward heaven like some magical essence.
. . .
While Max stood on the platform watching the train ride away through clouds of steam, Mr. Carver left his family standing beside their suitcases outside the stationmaster’s office and went off to negotiate a reasonable price for the transportation of luggage, people, and paraphernalia to their final destination. Max’s first impression of the town, judging from the station and the few houses he could see, their roofs peeping timidly over the surrounding trees, was that it looked like one of those miniature villages, the sort you got with train sets, where the imaginary inhabitants were in danger of falling off a table if they wandered too far. Max was busy contemplating this variation on Copernicus’s theory of the universe when his mother’s voice rescued him from his daydream.
“Well, Max. What’s the verdict?”
“It’s too soon to tell,” he answered. “It looks like a model, like those ones you see in toy-shop windows.”
“Maybe it is,” his mother said, smiling. “But don’t tell your father,” she went on. “Here he comes now.”
Maximilian Carver was escorted by two burly porters whose clothes were splattered with grease stains, soot, and other unidentifiable substances. Both had thick mustaches and wore sailor’s caps as if this was their uniform.
“This is Robin and Philip,” the watchmaker explained.
“Robin will take the luggage and Philip will take us. Is that all right?”
Max wasn’t clear who was Philip and who was Robin, and he wondered if they could even tell themselves, but he chose to keep his mouth shut. Without waiting for the family’s approval, the two men walked over to the mountain of trunks, and each hoisted up the largest ones as if they weighed nothing. Max pulled out his watch and looked at the face with its curving moons. It was two o’clock. The old station clock said half past twelve.
“The station clock is slow,” muttered Max.
“You see?” his father replied excitedly. “We’ve only just arrived and already there’s work here for us.”
His mother gave a faint smile, as she always did when Maximilian Carver had one of his bursts of radiant optimism, but Max could see a hint of sadness in her eyes, that peculiar light that, ever since he was a child, had led him to believe that his mother could foresee events in the future that the rest of them could not even dream of.
“Everything’s going to be all right, Mum,” he said, feeling like an idiot the moment he’d spoken.
His mother stroked his cheek.
“Of course, Max. Everything’s going to be fine.” Suddenly, Max felt certain that someone was looking at him. He spun around and saw a large cat staring at him through the bars of one of the station windows.
The cat blinked and, with a prodigiously agile leap for an animal of that size, jumped through the window, padded over to Irina, and rubbed its back against her pale ankles, meowing softly. Max’s sister knelt down to stroke it, then picked it up in her arms. The cat let itself be cuddled and gently licked the little girl’s fingers. Irina smiled, spellbound, and, still cradling the animal in her arms, walked over to where her family was waiting.
“We’ve only just got here and already you’ve picked up some disgusting beast. Goodness knows what it’s infested with,” Alicia snapped.
“It’s not a disgusting beast. It’s a cat and it’s been abandoned,” replied Irina. “Mum?”
“Irina, we haven’t even got to the house yet.”
Irina pulled a face, to which the cat contributed a sweet, seductive meow.
“It can stay in the garden. Please . . .”
Alicia rolled her eyes. Max watched his older sister. She had not opened her mouth since they had left the city; her expression was impenetrable and her eyes seemed to be lost in the distance. If anyone in the family was not overjoyed by the promise of a new life it was Alicia. Max was tempted to make a joke about “Her Highness the Ice Princess,” but decided not to. Something told him that his sister had left behind much more in the city than he could possibly imagine.
“It’s fat and it’s ugly,” Alicia added. “Are you really going to let her get her own way again?”
Irina threw a steely glare at her older sister, an open declaration of war unless the latter kept her mouth shut. Alicia held her gaze for a few moments and then turned around, sighing with frustration, and walked over to where the porters were loading the luggage. On the way she passed her father, who noticed her red face.
“Quarreling already?” asked Maximilian Carver.
“What’s the matter?”
Irina presented the cat to her father. The feline, to its credit, purred adoringly. Never one to falter in the face of authority, Irina proceeded to make her case with a determination she had inherited from her father.
“It’s all alone in the world. Someone’s abandoned it. We can’t leave it here. Can we take it with us? It can live in the garden and I’ll look after it. I promise,” Irina said, her words spilling over each other.
The watchmaker looked in astonishment at the cat, then at his wife.
“You always said caring for an animal gives a person a sense of responsibility,” Irina added.
“Did I ever say that?”
“Many times. Those exact words.”
Her father sighed.
“I don’t know what your mother will say. . . .”
“And what do you say, Maximilian Carver?” asked
Mrs. Carver, with a grin that showed her amusement at what had now become her husband’s dilemma.
“Well . . . we’d have to take it to the vet and . . .”
“Pleeease . . . ” whimpered Irina.
The watchmaker and his wife exchanged a look.
“Why not?” concluded Maximilian Carver, who could not bear the thought of starting the summer with a family feud. “But you’ll have to look after it. Promise?” Irina’s face lit up. The cat’s pupils narrowed to a slit until they looked like black needles against the luminous gold of its eyes.
“Come on! Hurry up!” said the watchmaker. “The luggage has been loaded.”
Holding the cat in her arms, Irina ran toward the van. The creature, its head leaning on the girl’s shoulder, kept its eyes nailed on Max defiantly.
“It was waiting for us,” he muttered to himself.
“Don’t just stand there in a daze, Max. Move it,” his father insisted as he walked over to the van, hand in hand with his wife.
Max followed, reluctantly.
Just then, something made him turn around and look again at the blackened face of the ancient station clock. He examined it carefully. Something about it didn’t add up. Max remembered perfectly well that when they reached the station the clock had said half past midday. Now, the hands pointed at ten minutes to twelve.
“Max!” his father called from the van. “We’re leaving!”
“Coming,” Max said to himself, his eyes still riveted to the clock.
The clock was not slow; it worked perfectly but with one peculiarity: It went backward.
From the book The Prince of Mist by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. Copyright © 1993 by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. English translation copyright © 2010 by Lucia Graves. Reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Company, New York, NY. All rights reserved.
*Photo courtesy Dru!