Martín goes to view the house along with the property manager – who does not hide his disdain for the house – and the auditor. The house has been deserted for twenty years and it definitely shows.
The entrance resembled one of those interior courtyards in the old palaces of the area, paved with large flagstones and a stone staircase that led to the front door of the living quarters. Daylight filtered in through a glass skylight, completely covered in pigeon and seagull excrement, that was set on high.
‘There aren’t any rats,’ I announced once I was inside the building.
He figured that out quite quickly. How would he have known from setting one step inside the building that there were not rats? I thought at first that it was because of the pigeon and seagull pooh, but that is on the outside of the skylight.
They proceed through the front door into the living quarters where it is desolate and dirty and smelly.
I walked up the main corridor, exploring rooms of all shapes and sizes in which old furniture lay abandoned under a thick layer of dust and shadow. One table was still covered with a frayed tablecloth on which sat a dinner service and a tray of petrified food and flowers. The glasses and cutlery were still there, as if the inhabitants of the house had fled in the middle of dinner.
Martín then makes the brilliant observation,
‘It looks like whoever lived here left suddenly, with no time to take anything with them.’
No shit, Sherlock!
They proceed to the study which is at the top of a tall tower. It has four windows looking out over four different parts of Barcelona. Martín is quite taken by this room, but what sells it for him is an old Underwood typewriter which is sitting on the desk in the study.
Once Martín moves in, a lot of work needs to be done to get the place habitable. For one, the house has no electricity and soon the place is crawling with workmen trying to rectify this little problem. Presumably it is the property manager who pays for this all, as Martín is only renting the place, but the workmen are less than pleased as the plans for the house do not match how the house is actually constructed. Martín waves all the complaints away as he is not interested in all that boring, practical stuff. He just wants to get on with his writing.
And he does. He throws himself into writing City of the Damned, preferably writing at night. He is completely obsessed with writing, only consuming coffee and cigarettes. He starts getting headaches, but ignores them, because writing is more important. He even starts speaking of himself in the third person.
He worked all night and collapsed from exhaustion at dawn, possessed by strange dreams in which the letters on the page trapped in the typewriter would come unstuck and, like spiders made of ink, would crawl up his hands and face, working their way through his skin and nesting in his veins until his heart was covered in black and his pupils were clouded in pools of darkness.
I would like to pause here for a moment and make an observation. I think Carlos Ruiz Zafón has a great way with words, as the above illustrates. He is good with images and setting different moods. But I find his characters – and the story so far – lacking. Martín is supposed to be this driven, obsessed young writer, but all I see is a whiney young man who thinks far too highly of himself and does not possess particularly sharp observation skills. I think this is what threw me the first time I read this book. There was this expectation of having to like it – “It’s Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s new book, hurray!” – but I didn’t like it and I couldn’t understand why. I think I am getting a glimpse of understanding now. I’ll come out and say it: I don’t like Martín.
Moving on. We flash forward a year and Martín decides to celebrate by going out into the sunshine. He has been cooped up in the house for months on end he tells us. So did he literally just exist on coffee and cigarettes, because wouldn’t he be dead now? And if not, who did the shopping for him, as we don’t hear about any maids or anything.
Anyhow, he goes out and when he comes back he finds a package from his mystery fan Andreas Corelli.
I stared at the bundle of paper which to me, in a not so distant past, had seemed to contain all the magic and light of the world. The cover still bore my bloodstained fingerprints.
‘Thank you,’ I whispered.
He then takes this package to Sempere to verify the authenticity. Which seems prudent, as it is very strange that Andreas Corelli knows about the book and Martín’s history with it. Especially if it turns out to be the exact same book he had given back to Sempere.
While he is in the bookshop, Cristina is there also. Now I want to point out something that I hadn’t noticed as much before. Whenever Cristina comes into the picture, Martín always hastens to add that she is Vidal’s chauffeur’s daughter. Now that he has learned in a previous chapter that she is also Vidal’s secretary, he introduces her as follows:
Cristina Sagnier, the chauffeur’s daughter and my mentor’s secretary…
I don’t know what this signifies, but it does seem very odd to me. I will ponder on it some more.
Martín just stares at her and Cristina looks up and smiles.
Sempere looked up and when he noticed the silly expression on my face, he took a quick X-ray of the situation.
‘You do know each other, don’t you?’ he said.
How does he make that connection? Martín probably looks at Cristina with lust on his face and if she is as beautiful as Martín makes her out to be, he could just be smitten with a beautiful woman. I don’t see how Sempere could immediately leap to the conclusion that they know each other.
Martín offers to help Cristina carry her order of books to her car, which proves to be very heavy.
Cristina was looking at me unconvinced. I offered her my ‘strong man’ smile.
‘Pure muscle,’ I said. ‘This is just a warm-up exercise.’
I would love to know what a strong man smile is exactly. I find this whole section a bit awkward, but that is probably good, as it was awkward for Martín as well. He is clearly in love with Cristina and she doesn’t really remember who he is.
Semepere teases Martín about his crush.
‘I know your secret now, Martín. I thought you had a steadier nerve in these matters.’
‘Everything gets a bit rusty.’
What nerve would he have had? The only woman who he had ever been with was the fictional Chloé, who we don’t hear about at all anymore. Other than that, he has been locked away in his house writing, so when he would have met another woman to develop a steady nerve is beyond me. But maybe Sempere doesn’t know that.