Father Fernando says he first became friends with Carax because they were both from poor families. Fernando’s father worked in the kitchens, and Carax obtained his spot through Mr. Aldaya, who was a customer of Fortuny’s shop. This was in the days when family dynasties were incredibly powerful, unlike today, when nebulous political parties control the city.
Ostensibly, Barcelona’s politics shifted completely after the Civil War, transitioning from a quasi-feudal government to an authoritarian regime. However, both forms of government privilege an upper class while exploiting ordinary citizens, showing that they’re really not so different.
Carax’s other early friend was Miquel Moliner, a wealthy, gifted, and extravagant boy. After graduating, Father Fernando drifted away from Miquel, who missed the departed Carax dearly. He is unaware that Miquel seems to be married to Nuria Monfort.
This revelation means that Nuria must know a lot more about Carax than she was letting on. Daniel wanted to think of her as a typically sentimental and passive woman, but she’s determined to play her own, independent role in this mystery.
As Father Fernando relates the story of Carax meeting the Aldayas, another nested narrative begins, with Father Fernando narrating. In 1914, Don Ricardo Aldaya was one of the most powerful men in Spain, a titan of industry. One day he ordered several hats from Fortuny’s shop, promising to recommend the shop to his powerful friends if the commission was executed satisfactorily. Mr. Aldaya then takes a liking to Carax, because he isn’t afraid of him and talks back frequently.
Father Fernando’s mini-narrative is different from that of Mr. Molins, because he’s lucid and unbiased even in his ordinary conversations. However, within this narrative he’s able to tell accurately about events he never witnessed and make incredibly perceptive insights about his friend. Speaking through literature, Father Fernando can present a more complex truth than he could through mere conversation.
Mr. Aldaya tells the disbelieving Fortuny that the boy is a genius and that he will secure him a place at San Gabriel’s and pay his tuition. He whisks Carax away to show him his fancy car and library full of rare editions. Although he should be pleased with the social advancement, Fortuny senses that this turn of events will drag his son away from him. He takes out his rage by yelling at Sophie.
Fortuny has always seen fatherhood as an exercise in control and power, and when it’s clear that Mr. Aldaya has more control and power than he ever will, he feels defeated. This is a marked contrast to Daniel’s relationship with his father, which is based on unconditional love and remains strong even though Daniel has various male mentors who are more conventionally powerful than Mr. Sempere.
Carax is astonished by his sudden change of fortunes, by the palatial Aldaya compound, and by Mr. Aldaya’s plans to buy him a new wardrobe and turn him into a banker. Mr. Aldaya also introduces Carax to his own son, Jorge. Mr. Aldaya speaks slightingly toward Jorge, which Carax can tell upsets Jorge. Jorge takes to Carax, though, because he’s not pretentious.
Just as Fortuny was only interested in Carax when he thought he could mold the boy into his own image, Jorge’s differences from his father have incurred Mr. Aldaya’s dislike. Both fathers only love their sons as long as the boys help inflate their egos.
As Jorge is showing him around the house, Carax glimpses the thirteen-year-old Penélope, the most beautiful “vision” he’s ever seen, although Jorge dismisses her as his “nutty” little sister. Carax can’t think about anything else for the rest of the visit, and he concludes that his meeting with the Aldayas was fated. He believes he has dreamed of the same girl on the same staircase many times.
While Daniel only hints at a sense of destiny in his connection to Bea, Carax is convinced that his meeting with Penélope was destined to occur, even invoking the supernatural element of his dreams. The fact that their affair seems predetermined suggests that it’s inherently positive and will lead to a happy ending.
At his new school, Carax is an outcast among the wealthy boys, who disdain him, with the exception of Miquel, who stands up for him. Carax befriends him as well as Javier, another lower-class outcast with a strange habit of making complicated woodcarvings. Javier’s father, Ramón, is a weak man married to an odious woman with “delusions of grandeur and the looks of a scullion” who calls herself Yvonne. Yvonne constantly plots for her son to ascend into the upper classes, and regularly embarrasses him in front of the other boys. Carax tries to include Javier in their games, but Miquel warns that Javier is obsessed with Carax and potentially dangerous.
Carax is very conscious of his status as a member of the working class, just as Daniel is, especially once he becomes involved with the much wealthier Bea. While most characters experience tension with their fathers, Javier’s odd habits seem to be the result of his mother’s inappropriate behavior instead. Notably, even the sympathetic and open-minded Miquel seems to believe that Javier is inherently threatening. His character is both the clear result of an unhealthy family life and something intrinsic to him that can’t be changed.
In fact, Javier had also glimpsed Penélope when she visited the school one day with Mr. Aldaya and her governess, Jacinta. He was immediately enthralled by her, and stays out late making a carving of her face. When he finally gets home, his mother calls him a “little shit”—a moment that he remembers until the day he eventually shoots his mother, joins the secret police, and becomes Inspector Javier Fumero.
Miquel’s assertion of Javier’s inherent malevolence is especially important given that Javier is actually Inspector Fumero, who appears throughout the novel as a general representation of evil. Importantly, both he and Carax have essentially the same reaction to Penélope, seeing her once and falling in love. Yet while this is presented as a legitimate passion for Carax, it’s a dangerous obsession for Fumero.
The nested narrative ends, and Daniel and Fermín are horrified that Fumero is so entwined in the story, although they deny knowing him to Father Fernando. Father Fernando says that he has read all of Carax’s novels, but that one night someone entered his house and burned them.
Just as Fumero is a constant presence in many narratives, the book-burner Coubert seems to turn up everywhere. Although he shares his name with the devil, it’s Fumero who seems more malevolent and threatening.
Father Fernando believes the culprit is Fumero, since Fumero also tried to kill Carax during their last year of school after spying on him and observing him kiss Penélope in secret. Only a lucky shove from Miquel saved Carax. Daniel tells Father Fernando what they know about the identity of the book-burner Laín Coubert.
Father Fernando believes Coubert and Fumero are the same person. While they share an apparent antipathy for Carax, it’s important to remember that they’re separate men with separate motives.
All three men realize they need more information about the mysterious Penélope. Father Fernando believes her governess, Jacinta, might be able to provide it. Jacinta currently lives at the Santa Lucía hospice. Father Fernando says no one saw Penélope after 1919.
While most of the novel’s active characters are men, Penélope takes female passivity to another level by seeming to literally disappear.