Carlos Ruiz Zafón: 'I'm haunted by the history of my city'

The Catalan novelist tells Christian House about the inspiration for the Cemetery of Forgotten Books

The Covent Garden Hotel off Seven Dials, London's 17th-century junction, is a fitting location in which to meet the perpetually inquisitive Carlos Ruiz Zafón. "The stranger who finds himself in the Dials for the first time," wrote Charles Dickens in Sketches by Boz, "at the entrance of seven obscure passages, uncertain which to take, will see enough around him to keep his curiosity awake for no inconsiderable time."

Ruiz Zafón is no stranger to the allure of eerie alleys. In his bestseller The Shadow of the Wind, the master of Catalan gothic seized upon the seductive, sinister nature of Barcelona's maze of avenues and plazas during the chaos of the Spanish Civil War and its Francoist hangover. The Prisoner of Heaven, the third in a projected quartet of tales set around the city's mythical literary haven of the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, is now being published in English.

We settle into the hushed cocoon of the hotel's drawing room, where Ruiz Zafón cuts a gently commanding figure. He's a great bear of a man with a neat goatee and a voice lazing half way between Beverly Hills and the Ramblas of Barcelona. He's the physical opposite of Fermin Romero de Torres, the beanpole hero of The Prisoner of Heaven. Fermin is the skinny bookseller at Sempere and Sons, purveyors of fine volumes; a romantic with a quickstep wit and tango libido. Held in Montjuic castle by Franco's goons, his period of captivity holds the key to earlier mysteries and future retribution.

"What I want is that these stories are arranged as a labyrinth with different points of entry," says Ruiz Zafón. The four quarters that make up this "Chinese box of fictions" each possess a different tone, a different texture, and this is Fermin's tale. "He's always been the moral centre of the stories. He's the guy who holds the truth in his hands. Fermin is also in many ways an homage to the picaresque tradition of Spanish literature. He's been holding a secret which can take us to the heart of this labyrinth."

While his books are immersed in Spain's second city, Ruiz Zafón has lived in Los Angeles for nearly two decades. His Californian lifestyle might seem at odds with the setting of his novels but his prose style has the rattling patter of West Coast authors such as Raymond Chandler. "I always had this childhood image in the back of my mind of this fantastic place where all the things I liked came from; Orson Welles, jazz, all that stuff. Los Angeles is one of those places where somebodies become nobodies and nobodies become somebody," he says. "In Los Angeles you get the sense sometimes that there's a mysterious patrol at night: when the streets are empty and everyone's asleep, they go erasing the past. It's like a bad Ray Bradbury story – 'The Memory Erasers'."

His home town is somewhat different. "The haunting of history is ever present in Barcelona," says Ruiz Zafón. "I see cities as organisms, as living creatures. To me Madrid is a man and Barcelona is a woman. And it's a woman who's extremely vain. One of the great Catalan poets, Joan Maragall, wrote this famous poem in which he called Barcelona the great enchantress, or some kind of sorceress, and in which the city has this dark enticing presence that seduces and lures people. I think Barcelona has a lot of that." In Ruiz Zafón's novels, Barcelona is as enthralling a character as Dickens's London or Isherwood's Berlin.

The author draws on many literary references, from Dumas to Poe, and in The Prisoner of Heaven, Fermin's imprisonment harks back to The Count of Monte Cristo. I'm surprised to learn that Ruiz Zafó is far from a stuffy bibliophile in awe of rare editions. "To me the romance is not these things, beautiful aesthetically as they are, but about the content," he tells me. "The Cemetery of Forgotten Books is a metaphor, not just for books but for ideas, for language, for knowledge, for beauty, for all the things that make us human, for collecting memory."

His progressive views on consuming the written word are, in light of the e-reader, gradually being shaken. He fears that digital distribution and the ever growing power of technological platforms will negate the authority of the creative force. The ramifications of change, or lack of it, are also at the heart of The Prisoner of Heaven. "Franco's regime is interesting because it was the only Fascist dictatorship that survived in Europe. Franco was ruthless. He was a man interested in power; he was not an ideological man," he says. "He died in bed. How many dictators in the 20th century have died in bed? Most of them end up in apocalyptic scenes of horror."

Ruiz Zafón remains transfixed by the ironic calamity of the first half of the 20th century in Europe. "After I don't know how many centuries, humanity seems to be finally getting out of the cave," he says, "and at this very point it betrays itself and the worst extent of the destruction and madness occurs." Yet he has reservations about how far Spain has progressed since the dark days he describes in his books. "The layers of power were laid back then," he tells me. "Of course they're not imprisoning people and killing people. But all the different powers are tied together: the financial, the political and the media are all [still] connected."

Ruiz Zafón and Fermin might seem like creta and Manchego, but they're both ruled by an internal sovereignty. "I'm not a nationalist Catalan. I'm not a nationalist Spaniard," Ruiz Zafón states. "I am me. My country is literature." It is that allegiance to the balm of storytelling rather than a patch of land which lies at the heart of his novels.

The Prisoner of Heaven, By Carlos Ruiz Zafón

Weidenfeld £16.99

"New prisoners were brought in by night .... The vehicles of the political police drove up the old road scaling the slopes of Montjuic and more than one prisoner would relate how, the moment they glimpsed the castle on top of the hill silhouetted against black clouds that crept in from the sea, they felt certain they would never get out of that place alive."