“You don’t get something for nothing”

“Ah Faustus,
Now hast thou but one bare hour to live,
And then thou must be damned perpetually.”
– Doctor Faustus,  Christopher Marlow

Carlo Ruiz Zafon’s debut novel, ‘The Prince of Mist’ originally published as ‘El Principe de la Niebla‘ in 1993, appears to be, on face value, a modern reworking of parts from the Faustian Bargain tale. Protagonist Max and his family move to a new house in the midst of World War Two, and begin to discover sinister echoes of a tragic past, as well as a series of disturbing events which threaten to pervade the lives of the children. Although described as a mystery and horror novel, there is much more to this novel; it is also a tale about growing up, with more universal values, regardless of the era it is set in. Throughout the novel the author establishes the idea of layers – of time, people, and even secrets, which are slowly unravelled through the novel, while alongside this the layers of the main characters are slowly developed as they begin to mature.

Throughout the novel, the author uses a whimsical style, and a gently warming humour, in which the narrative comes across as amiable. Right from the smaller details in the beginning such as the “eviction notice” being served to the spiders in the new house, an appealing atmosphere is created, also depicting a close-knit family. The novel may be set in a serious era, that is, the World War, and the family may be shown as having financial constraints, yet the tone of the novel does not feel burdened by this, preferring to take a lighter tone. Also a point to consider is that although the novel features elements of horror, it also intertwines itself with a gentle romance, which some readers may consider as more realistic and more lasting.

Primarily this novel explores the idea of characters striking a deal with the Prince of Mist to get their desires, but inevitably this comes at a price. Thus the idea of choice given alters the meaning of ‘evil’ applied here, since the characters who make these ‘deals’ are made aware from the start that they will have to fulfill their part. As the saying “You don’t get something for nothing” states, Cain is firm in his belief that he can rightfully claim repayment for ‘debt’. Also something to consider is the idea of “interest” being accumulated on deals to justify murder when the human do not meet their side of the bargain. This also brings into question whether justice can prevail, as well as who is to blame in this situation, as no participant in these deals appear entirely innocent.

Also important to recognise is the feature of scenery and landscape in this novel – such as the shimmering sea, tangled grass, the beach – and is a plot device used by author to set up various moods. Several of these are metaphors that are well recognised in the literary world, such as importance of storms and bad weather, which signifies danger.  Similarly the hidden garden of statues which Max discovers act as a focal point for a hidden reality which allows the supernatural to function. It is here that the statues move, change position and even disappear. There is a sense of the unreal, a space that is removed from the reality of the everyday world, which serves to act as the link to unite the ‘real’ world and the supernatural.
The shipwreck Orpheus further adds to the idea of a Faustian bargain theme, bringing to mind the Greek tale of Orpheus bargaining with the God of Underworld Hades.  Thus the significance of the naming the ship Orpheus takes on a more sinister tone, suggesting that the characters may not prevail in this battle against a cunning entity, perhaps even due to their own human fallacies. Symbolism is also rife throughout the novel, ranging from the motif of the black cat, which is malevolent omen-like, in its infiltration of the family’s home. Also present is the symbol of the six-pointed star, which subtly hints to the darker side of the occult.

The Prince of Mist figure, or Cain, as one of the names he takes on, is presented as inhuman and supernatural, which is heightened by mystery and ‘magic’ – and fundamentally the complete opposite of the human protagonists. However, it can be argued that this rendition of Cain as the ‘devil’ figure is not entirely successful, since it falls a little flat at times, failing to give some  volume to his character. The changing guises of the human presentations of Cain, as a gentleman, a magician, a fortune-teller, clown are all interestingly forms of entertainment, suggesting a superficial front which relies on illusion. Similarly, his supernatural manifestations follow a pattern of haunting omens, such as a cat, a mist, an underwater presence, a symbol of the start, a voice in the dark, the re-animated form of the Orpheus and a statue of the clown. Zafon’s portrayals of Cain is significantly haunting, yet some could argue that some of the embodiments and techniques used are slightly clichéd. There is a significant gothic influence here, yet it does not always follow with the mellow tone of the novel.

This is a deliberate contrast to the ongoing figure of Viktor Kray, who is shown in various scenes and ages, and presents himself as a stable voice of experience, thus embodying human qualities. However, even this character is consumed by his past and this prevents him from moving on with his life onto more positive aspects. This is also reflected in the identity of Roland, one of the main characters in the novel. There is a constant underlying sense of mortality emanated, due to war and that fact that he is due to be conscripted soon. Roland too, like Max, is at an age verging on adulthood, which complicates his perceptions when faced with tough decisions.

The ongoing theme of time woven throughout the novel, which adds an element of unrealness, suggesting that the events that occur are outside the barriers of time in both the past and presence. It is no accident that Max’s dad is a watchmaker, and there are other elements shown in the novel, such as time going backwards with the Town clock, as well as the significance of Max’s pocket watch. Time going back causes a sense of anxiety, and the Prince of Mist certainly takes advantage of this. Cain’s assertion that “Time, dear Max, doesn’t exist; it’s an illusion” only serves to underline this issue. It can be argued that Cain’s belief of this ‘illusion’ keeps him impervious to it, acting as a medium to keep him immortal even when he is physically (and perhaps logically) meant to be dead. Time does not prevent him from reaching out over time and through different generations, suggesting that those who have a debt with him are not protected within the traditional confines of time. By making time a fluid concept, Zafon is able to heighten the mystery, having the effect of inescapability.

Ultimately, although we are left with a sense of impending sacrifice, the novel focuses on the closer bonds in the brother and sister in the novel. We are left with the conclusion that they have left their childhood behind, and lives have been changed forever. Max’s perspective adds sense of innocence, such as in the case of his sister Alison’s and Roland’s budding relationship, but this does not mean he is stupid or naive, and it is this which is admirable in the author’s portrayal of the characters. The events which occur, are ironically during a time of major upheaval and loss in the War,yet the focus is not on this. Above all, the readers are left agreeing that this was “a summer in which they had discovered magic together”.

Carlos Ruiz Zafon, The Prince of Mist, (Wiedenfeld & Nicolson: London 2010) pp. 202, £9.99

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