Learning to play the Angel’s Game

The Angel’s Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. Doubleday, 2009. 470 pages.

A few days after completing The Shadow of the Wind, I discovered a copy of Carlos Zafon’s new novel, The Angel’s Game. When I sampled a few pages to see if it had the same extraordinary imagery and cadence of its predecessor, I found that its setting was the same: Barcelona in the ‘20s, a visit to the “Cemetery of Forgotten Books,” treks through fog-shrouded graveyards, and the wonderful Sempere Bookstore, the place where star-crossed love, madness and murder converge.

However, The Angel’s Game is not a sequel. Daniel Sempere, the protagonist in The Shadow of the Wind is relegated to the role of a minor character in this tale of unholy alliances, paranoia and obsession. It is as though while Daniel Sempere’s anguished tale of love and redemption was unfolding, another doomed protagonist, David Martin (who just happens to lives nearby) is also beginning his own dark journey through “the city of the damned.” Although the two men are friends, they have very little in common ... except a love of books.

Zafon, a master of provocative beginnings, lets David tell his own story which begins with a badly beaten child who enters the Sempere Bookstore clutching a blood-stained copy of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations. The child (David Martin) begs Sempere Senior to keep the book safe since Martin’s abusive father intends to destroy it. Sempere not only hides the book; he also becomes David’s protector and advisor, assisting the boy in achieving his wish to become a writer.

In time, David Martin becomes a journalist and a successful writer of a series of blood-and-thunder pot-boilers, The City of the Damned. Although the books are extremely popular, David feels that they are cheap melodramas and dreams of writing a work that will win the respect of the literary world. David confides his dream to his friend, Pedro Vidal, a highly successful journalist, and in time, he begins work on his great opus, The Steps of Heaven. When he meets Christina, the daughter of Vidal’s chauffeur, David feels that he has an established career. He decides to terminate his contract with the shady publishing firm that distributes The City of the Damned and devote himself to his new friends and his writing. It is at this point that something goes terribly wrong with David’s life.

Within a few short weeks, David discovers the following: he is entangled in a lawsuit with his former publishers, Barrido and Escobillas; he learns that Christina is involved with his best friend, Pedro Vidal, and when his new novel is published, the critics judge it to be a hopeless, amateurish work. At the same time, Vidal publishes a novel (written by David) and it is declared a literary masterpiece. Finally, when recurring headaches and nausea force David to consult a doctor, he is told that he has a brain tumor which will kill him in a few months.

When David Martin is at his lowest point, he meets Andreas Corelli, a mysterious publisher “of religious texts,” who offers to solve all of David’s problems if he will agree to write a book in accordance to Corelli’s dictates. Martin agrees and suddenly, miraculously, the deadly tumor is gone. Corelli gives David 100,000 francs “as a starter.” Shortly afterwards, David learns that the lives of Barrido and Escobillas have been snuffed out in a mysterious fire which had also destroyed all documents and contracts. David moves into an abandoned but luxurious mansion in the heart of Barcelona ... a house that he has always coveted, and begins work on Corelli’s book.

Obviously, David Martin has made a Faustian bargain, and although there is much in Corelli’s demeanor to suggest the demonic (he appears to be ageless and his eyes are reptilian), the division between Good and Evil wavers and changes frequently. In time, Martin discovers that he is only the latest of Corelli’s “authors for hire,” and that each of his predecessors has died tragically — in fact, one of them lived in the same house that Martin now occupies. Nor are the authors the only victims. All that they love, including wives, lovers and children are doomed.

But what about the book? What is the subject? The strange mythical tale that David creates is a kind of religious fable; the kind of “folk tale” that can serve as the basis for a religious belief that has the power to capture the imagination of millions. As David writes, he often appears to be a conduit, a mere instrument for verbalizing a fiendish tale that is being dictated by Andreas Corelli. At other times, Zafon suggests that perhaps Corelli exists only as projection of David Martin’s own corrupt soul. Regardless, David senses that the book he is writing may have the power to plunge the world into an apocalyptic war.

Regardless of who is responsible, someone is definitely creating havoc in David Martin’s world. The Angel’s Game is filled with hapless victims who are driven mad or die in random accidents. In addition, as the action of this novel accelerates, the narrative is littered with corpses: murdered policemen, mutilated lawyers, drowned paraplegics and lovers. As this Grand Guignol of a novel winds down, the reader is left with a singular suspicion. Is it possible that David Martin and Andreas Corelli are one and the same? If not, is it possible that the protagonist is “becoming” Corelli?

Without a doubt, The Angel’s Game contains one of the most remarkable “poetic chapters” that I have encountered in recent literature. This one deals with the death of Sempere Senior, the bookstore owner who is a major character in both The Shadow of the Wind and The Angel’s Game. As Sempere’s friends gather (mostly patrons of his bookstore), the funeral service turns into a kind of eulogy for all book lovers... those people who avoid churches and religious cant, but treat books with the kind of respect and awe that is normally expended in churches. Sempere is buried with David’s copy of Great Expectations beneath his clasped hands.

Although I liked this book tremendously, I was occasionally distressed by melodramatic passages characterized by a kind of hysterical rant that appears at odds with Zafon’s usually superb style. David Martin frequently shreds the scenery like a ham actor, posturing and proclaiming cliches. I was especially distressed by his constant use of the words “venomous” and “poisonous,” and the tremendous number of unpleasant waiters, desk clerks, and government officials that populate Barcelona. Given the remarkable quality of Zafon’s writing in The Shadow of the Wind, I can only conclude that the patches of bad writing in The Angel’s Game are the result of a bad translation. I learned recently that The Angel’s Game will be reissued with a new translation this year. I sincerely hope that is true.
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