Carax’s room is “infested with crucifixes” which hang all over the room and are even scratched on the furniture and the tiles. On the desks are many notebooks, but they only contain math problems and doodles. In one of them Daniel finds a photograph of the same girl from the first picture, captioned “Penélope, who loves you.”
Religion often seems laughable in the novel; here, through the profusion of crucifixes in the abandoned room, it’s distinctly sinister. Just as “angels” like Clara and “devils” like Coubert are more complex than the conventional imagery suggests, crucifixes don’t suggest an affinity for religion, but instead imply that it’s a largely negative force.
As they leave, Daniel remembers the letter that came for Carax and secretly pockets it, taking it from the cabinet where Doña Aurora left it many years ago. She confesses that she read it and that it was a love letter just like the ones in radio dramas, “only sadder […] because it sounded as if it was really true.”
Doña Aurora’s comment shows popular reliance on radios and soap operas to provide ideals and stories to emulate. However, while literature can be as intense and complex as real life, radio ultimately provides a pale reflection of reality and doesn’t live up to its strong emotions.
After leaving Doña Aurora, Daniel visits Mr. Molins, the decrepit building administrator, who immediately launches into a monologue about Doña Aurora’s beauty as a young woman and his own erstwhile sexual prowess. He gives Daniel the name of Sophie Carax’s lawyer, José María Requejo, as well as his office address and the PO box where they send his mail. After consulting a map, Daniel finds that the lawyer’s address doesn’t exist, although Mr. Molins is too lazy to be perturbed about this.
For Mr. Molins, misogyny is the currency of male bonding, apparently his preferred method of a cementing a new friendship. While his behavior seems obviously crude and unlikeable, it’s important to note that he’s an exaggerated version of much more sympathetic characters like Fermín, who bonds with Daniel by making sweepingly denigrating comments about women.
Mr. Molins describes Fortuny as “ascetic” because he declined the administrator’s invitation to “go whoring.” He also repeats the rumor that Carax wasn’t Fortuny’s biological son. Daniel convinces him to explain everything he knows about the family, and a nested narrative begins, with Mr. Molins as the narrator.
While Mr. Molins is unreliable and crass as a man, his narrative (italicized in the novel to differentiate it) is essentially a small literary manuscript, in which he’s eloquent and has impressive insight into Carax’s family saga. When they communicate through literature, even deeply flawed characters can access a thoughtfulness and truthfulness not available to them in everyday life.
According to Mr. Molins, Fortuny met Sophie Carax when he was getting old and impatient to be married. He chose Sophie, a poor girl without family who gave piano lessons, because she was young and seemed easy to control and likely to conceive. When they returned to Barcelona from their honeymoon, the couple was already on bad terms. Sophie’s friend, Viçeneta, later divulged that when Sophie tried to initiate sex on their wedding night, Fortuny called her a whore and rejected her. A few months later, Sophie told him that she had conceived a child by another man.
Fortuny chooses Sophie for all the wrong reasons, so it’s no surprise their marriage is a disaster. His love for his wife is entirely predicated on his ability to possess and control her, and evaporates completely when he realizes she has even the most basic of independent sexual desires. On the other hand, Sophie’s straightforward confession of her infidelity suggests that she’s not bound by the same regressive expectations for female behavior.
Having grown up in an abusive household himself, Fortuny immediately started beating Sophie, who in turn refused to name the baby’s father no matter how much he hit her. Fortuny decided the father must be the devil, because “sin had only one father,” Satan. To combat the supposed presence of the devil in his home, he hung crucifixes everywhere, throwing Sophie violently out of the apartment and breaking her arm when she objected.
Fortuny is a terrible husband, but Zafón is careful to point out that this is partly due to his own upbringing. Male misogyny and mistreatment of women often stems from the negative and abusive relationships men have with each other. Fortuny interprets religious teachings in a highly literal and simplistic manner, with the result that they’re not very helpful to him.
Sophie delivered the baby with the assistance of neighbors, and begged Fortuny to treat him as a son. He assented, but treated his wife as a servant, rarely having sex with her and feeling consumed with self-disgust every time he did. Although he tried to interest the boy in his own pursuits—religion and hat-making—the young Carax was unreceptive and uninterested in anything except making up fantastic stories. Fortuny interpreted his son’s creativity—including a desire to be a painter and his habit of composing his own music on the piano—as a sign of deviance, and gave up on trying to mentor his son.
Just as he only loves Sophie when he thinks he can control her, Fortuny is only interested in Carax when it seems possible that the boy will come to resemble him. His behavior highlights the extent to which conventional family relationships revolve around the ego of the dominant man. Fortuny is highly reminiscent of Mr. Aguilar, who is hostile to Tomás’s creativity and does his best to repress it.
At the age of twelve, Carax began working his way through the local library’s stock of fiction and poetry. Fortuny was convinced that Carax was a useless idiot and asked God why he had been punished with such a son. Meanwhile, Sophie chafed inside her loveless marriage but saw no way to leave, especially with her son to care for. No matter how often Fortuny resolved to be a better man than his own father, he hit Sophie every time they fought, and the troubled family “became strangers living under the same roof.”
While Fortuny is frustrated that his marriage doesn’t live up to unrealistic expectations, Sophie is much less self-absorbed, committed to a bad marriage because there’s no other way to care for her son. Their miserable dynamic shows the different repercussions of a failed marriage for men and women.
Mr. Molins’s narrative ends and Daniel returns to the bookshop, where Fermín immediately starts teasing him about dating a young woman. After some confusion, Daniel finds out that Bea had stopped by the shop while he was away to say she would see him on Friday. Daniel points out that Bea is engaged, and is his friend’s sister, but Fermín is unconvinced. To distract him, Daniel asks about Bernarda, about whom Fermín talks lasciviously but seems to have good intentions. He says he’ll make her happy “if it’s the last thing I ever do.”
Daniel’s reticence in talking about Bea differentiates him even from sympathetic characters like Fermín, who sexualize women in order to gain standing among other men. However, Zafón suggests Fermín’s bragging is balanced out by his tenderness toward Bernarda and desire to make her happy rather than possess or control her.
Before Fermín leaves to meet Bernarda for the afternoon, Daniel asks him to find out who owns the lawyer’s PO box. Fermín agrees without even asking why Daniel needs the information.
While he’s older than Daniel and acts like a mentor in some ways, Fermín’s unquestioning acquiescence to his request shows that he considers himself more like a friend than a father. This makes him a more appealing confidant than Mr. Sempere.
When Daniel is alone in the bookshop, a strange man arrives and browses languidly, while informing Daniel that reading is for women, who have “nothing to do” with their time. The man giggles and warns Daniel that he and Mr. Sempere are harboring “undesirable characters” in the shop, subsequently alleging that Don Federico visits the shop to buy gay pornography. He shows his badge and identifies himself as Chief Inspector Francisco Javier Fumero. It turns out he’s less interested in Don Federico than Fermín, whom he knows by various aliases and has tracked to the bookstore. Scared but stalwart, Daniel denies he knows him and Fumero leaves, threatening that Daniel has to cooperate with him or suffer the punishment.
In Daniel’s first encounter with Inspector Fumero, the policeman is confusingly interested in many characters, from Don Federico to Fermín to the Semperes themselves. His involvement in so many narratives heightens the sense that events in the novel are liable to repeat themselves. Moreover, Fumero starts to emerge as a sort of universal villain, representing evil without seeming to need much motive. While the mysterious Coubert shares his name with Carax’s devil, it’s Fumero who really emerges as a devil-like figure.
To relieve his anxiety, Daniel goes for a walk. He decides not to tell Mr. Sempere and Fermín about this development, thinking that making them anxious would be playing into Fumero’s game. He runs into Don Federico, a kind and gentle man who gives him an alarm clock to replace Mr. Sempere’s broken one at home. Daniel is uncertain if he should warn Don Federico, but says nothing.
Daniel’s determination to handle this new problem by himself shows his growing conception of himself as a man, as well as his desire for Fermín and Mr. Sempere to perceive him that way. However, Don Federico’s mild helpfulness indicates that strength and independence aren’t the only important characteristics for an adult to have.
When he gets home, Daniel falls asleep until the middle of the night, when he gets up and opens the envelope from the Fortuny apartment. It’s from 1919, and the sender is Penélope Aldaya. In the letter, she tells Carax that she knows he’s left Barcelona and that he probably thinks she betrayed him, since nothing worked out as they planned. However, she has loved him since the first day she met him and will continue to love him forever. She’s writing in secret, since someone named Jorge has promised to kill Carax if he ever turns up at her house again.
Daniel learned from Doña Aurora that Carax fell in with the rich Aldaya family; now he knows that Carax was in love with the Aldaya daughter, Penélope. This is remarkably similar to Daniel’s growing fascination with Bea, the daughter of his own friend’s rich family. Therefore, it’s an ominous sign that Carax’s romance with Penélope clearly ended in tragedy and disaster.