The Angel’s Game
by Carlos Ruiz Zafon
trans. by Lucia Graves
If you like happy-ever-after endings, if your taste is for stories that resolve neatly, all questions answered and evil routed by good, The Angel’s Game is not for you. If you want heroic tragedy or vale of tears, pick up a copy of Romeo and Juliet or Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Should you prefer, however, to be thrilled, chilled and baffled, to read and ponder the immense power of human imagination, where the end is less important than the journey, then read on.
The Angel’s Game is the second novel in Zafon’s cycle of stories set in twentieth-century Barcelona. Although it fits between The Shadow of the Wind and The Prisoner of Heaven in literary chronology, its action precedes that of the former by a quarter century.
In this Faustian tale, Zafon casts David Martin, writer, in the role of Goethe’s hero. Mephistopheles is represented by a mysterious Parisian publisher, Andrea Corelli, while readers familiar with the play may recognise shades of Gretchen in either or both of Cristina and Isabella, the two main female characters. Yet The Angel’s Game is not Faust. Neither Martin nor Corelli may be what they seem. Zafon and his publishers invite us to read the books in any order and, indeed, one may do so without spoiling any of the stories. However, there are both benefits and handicaps in reading them out of sequence, with arguably the greatest enjoyment being had from taking them in historical rather than publication order.
In The Angel’s Game, readers of The Shadow of the Wind will recognise Sempere’s Bookshop and the Cemetery of Forgotten Books. The shop’s proprietor, Sempere Senior, is the grandfather of Shadow’s narrator, Daniel, and it is he who introduces the young David Martin to the cavernous labyrinth of lost literature beneath the streets of Barcelona. We meet a younger Isaac, the Cemetery’s custodian, and we make the acquaintance, if only briefly, with a younger Don Gustavo Barcelo. In Sempere Junior, the younger version of Daniel’s father, we see the beginnings of the shy introvert who, in certain respects, is the one character who draws all three novels together.
Readers of The Prisoner of Heaven will already have met David Martin and may approach the story of his earlier life with confusing foreknowledge. However, one may choose instead to ignore the man he will become and allow oneself to be swept up in the current of mystery, corruption and surreal horror that follows David throughout his narrative.
David Martin makes his living writing cheap literature under a pseudonym for second rate Barcelona publishers. He is in love with Cristina, daughter of the chauffeur to his patron and friend Don Pedro Vidal. Vidal is also an author, but of lesser talent, who is engaged in writing his magnum opus. He makes no headway until David and Cristina conspire to rewrite it for him without his knowledge. The novel becomes an instant success to the detriment of David’s own work, published at the same time. David’s health suffers as a result.
Just when life seemingly has nothing more to offer, Martin receives an offer from Corelli of an obscene sum of money to write a novel about religion. Something is not quite right about both the offer and the man himself, but when the story seems to be taking a turn towards the supernatural, it twists in a new direction. A series of deaths, starting with those of his former publishers, plunges David into danger as a suspect for murder. We are introduced to a host of new characters, corrupt policemen and lawyers, an actress of doubtful virtue, not to mention a witch, before beginning to suspect where the novel is heading – even without the foreknowledge of The Prisoner of Heaven.
Chills and gore there are a-plenty as David follows a carefully-laid trail through dark streets, deserted mansions, graveyards, and an improbable sanatorium towards the resolution of a mystery and a reuniting with his beloved. Sexual scenes are mild and infrequent, but throughout Martin’s relationship with Isabella, there is a latent tension which from time to time threatens to lead to fulfilment.
Zafon explores the no-man’s-land between fantasy and reality with great skill and understanding. His technique, of using Martin as narrator, allows him to blur the actual boundary. But if we study the clues carefully, we see in his protagonist a man who inhabits both worlds. Zafon is master of the gothic. He manages the plot cleverly, leaving us always guessing as to the novel’s underlying genre. Always literary, it borders at times on macabre thriller, low fantasy or parable.
The Angel’s Game is one of the outstanding novels of the twenty-first century. Lucia Graves’s rendering of the original text into English ensures that its deserved success in Spain is replicated abroad, and that the book can be enjoyed by English speakers everywhere.