The OF Blog: A second, revised review of Carlos Ruiz Zafon's The Angel's Game

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

A second, revised review of Carlos Ruiz Zafon's The Angel's Game

The quotes used in this review are from my translation of El Juego del Ángel and likely will not be precisely the same as the English translation edition that shall be released in June 2009. A shorter review of this book, minus most of the quotes, was posted on Amazon's Omnivoracious blog in May 2008.

A writer never forgets the first time that he accepts some money or praise in exchange for a story. He never forgets the first time that he feels the sweet venom of vanity in his blood, and he believes that if he manages that no one discovers his lack of talent the literary dream will be capable of placing a roof over his head, a hot plate for the end of the day and his deepest yearning: his name impressed on a miserable piece of paper which surely will survive longer than he. A writer is condemned to remember that moment, because from then on he is lost and his soul has a price.
With this cautionary introductory paragraph, Spanish author Carlos Ruiz Zafón sets the stage for a tale that differs in many aspects from his 2001 international bestseller, The Shadow of the Wind. Whereas The Shadow of the Wind focuses much more on the impact of the reader and how the interaction of reader and text can transform interpretations of both, The Angel's Game primarily is devoted to the relationships between author and text and how in the process of creating, drafting, and completing a fiction, an author's life can appear to take on elements of a nefarious Faustian bargain.

The story begins in Barcelona in the 1920s. Young David Martín, a novice journalist, is commissioned by his editor to write a serial. This serial begins with some promise, but after a year, readership has dropped and the story is canceled. Despondent, Martín agrees to write a penny dreadful-type serial, The City of the Damned, under a pseudonym. However, this novel too is not successful, although it draws the attention of a mysterious publisher named Andreas Corelli (unfortunately, the English translation will not be able to convey the hidden anagram that A.C. does in Spanish). In a key scene that ties this book in with The Shadow of the Wind, Martín makes the acquaintance of Isaac Sempere, who then introduces him to the Cemetery of Lost Books. The quote below reveals quite a bit of this fantastical book labyrinth's history:

"There are those who prefer to believe that it is the book that chooses him [its owner]...destiny, so to speak. That which you see here is the sum of centuries of books lost and forgotten, books that were condemned to be destroyed and silenced forever, books that preserve the memory and the soul of times and prodigies which none now recall. None of us, not even the most elderly, knows when it was created or by whom. Probably it is almost as old as the city itself and had been growing with it, in its shadow. We know that the building was raised with the rest of the palaces, churches, prisons, and hospitals that some time there could have been in this place. The origin of the principal structure is from the beginning of the 18th century and it has not stopped changing since then. Previously, the Cemetery of Lost Books had been hidden under the tunnels of the medieval city. There are those who say that in the times of the Inquisition knowledgeable and free thinking people hid prohibited books in sarcophagi and interred them in ossuaries which were throughout the city in order to protect them, confidant that generations would disinter them. In the middle of the past century a large tunnel was encountered that led from the labyrinth's entrails up to the cellars of an old library that nowadays is sealed and hidden in the ruins of an old synagogue of the Call barrio [neighborhood]. The fall of the last of the city walls produced a flow of earth and the tunnel remained inundated by the waters of the subterranean torrent which descended centuries ago under that which is the Boulevard today. Now it is impracticable, but we assume that for a long time that tunnel was one of the principal means of access to this place. The greater part of this structure that you can see was developed during the 19th century. No more than 100 people in all the city know of this place and I hope that Sempere has not committed an error by including you among them... "
Instead of Martín emulating Daniel Sempere and his mirroring of the author of The Shadow of the Wind's life, what transpires after he selects Lux Aeturna (by another D.M.) is much more sinister. Serious events begin to occur. Zafón takes great pains to highlight Martín's slow sinking into a near-crazed state as he works on the project that his patron Corelli has requested. As with the previous novel, The Angel's Game often uses dialogue to underscore some of the themes that Zafón wishes to explore. In a scene where Martín comes to know the young, inquisitive Isabella (future mother of Daniel Sempere), the two banter about versimiltude and art as expressed in fiction:

Isabella sighed.

"What is emotional truth?"

"It is sincerity inside of fiction."

"Then must one be an honest and good person in order to write fiction?"

"No. Must have a trade. Emotional truth is not a moral quality, but instead a technical one."

"You speak like a scientist," Isabella protested.

"Literature, at least the good [literature], is a science with the blood of art. Like architecture or music."

"I thought it was something that sprouted out from the artist, like that, suddenly."

"The only thing that sprouts out like that suddenly is hair and warts."

Isabella considered those revelations with scant enthusiasm.

"All this you say in order to discourage me and for me to leave the house."

Zafón, who earlier worked in references to Charles Dickens' Great Expectations (to underscore the type of relationship that Corelli was developing with Martín), has now shifted to exploring just how art (and literature) spring forth from its human creators. Is art something fully realized when it is created? How does inspiration come to be? Can the connection between "truth" and fiction be harmful to the writer? As he builds to his climatic scene, Zafón keeps working in more and more explicit connections of writer and work:

I abandoned the work for the patron that same morning. While Cristina slept I went up to the studio and I put away the binder that contained all the pages, notes, and outlines of the project in an old trunk that was there next to the wall. My first impulse had been to set it on fire, but I didn't have the courage. All my life I had felt as though the pages I was leaving behind were a part of me. Normal people bring sons into the world; novelists bring books. We are condemned to leave our lives in them. We are condemned to die in their pages and sometimes even to let them end our lives. Among all the strange creatures of paper and ink that I had brought into this miserable world, that one, my mercenary offering to the promises of the patron, was without doubt the most grotesque. There was nothing in those pages that merited anything else but the fire and, however, it stopped not being blood of my blood and I hadn't the courage to destroy it. I abandoned it in the bottom of the trunk and left the studio heavyhearted, almost ashamed of my cowardice and of the murky sensation of paternity that manuscript of darkness inspired [in] me. Probably the patron had known to appreciate the irony of the situation. For me, simply, it inspired nausea.
Instead of having an explicit Faustian bargain where the author negotiates with the Devil in order to have some desired talent or wealth, what is occurring within this passage and the ones preceding it is much more insidious. If, as the opening paragraph states, that one is "lost and his soul has a price" when his/her work is brought into the light of publication, then how consuming must a work be if it a commissioned piece, especially one that seems to suck at the soul of the writer, drawing it out, splaying it out like a pinned butterfly for all to read and behold?

It is at that point that the hundreds of pages of dialogue interspersed with vague plot development comes to life. One of the weaknesses of The Angel's Game is that the reader has to have something invested in the reading. Without a foundation in the stories that Zafón likes to reference on occasion (Dickens, Henry James, Christopher Marlowe in particular), the tension perhaps might be slower rising than what many readers might desire. However, if a reader is well-versed in those authors and their stories and if that reader is willing to contemplate the metaphorical qualities of the characters and their roles in the story, then the suspense is ratcheted up gradually until it explodes in the final 150 pages of the novel. It is this climax, where Martín has to confront the realities of his situation and what his association with Corelli has wrought, that makes The Angel's Game a very dark, absorbing read that might lead many readers to raise the question of just how far the links between the author and their texts go and if such links might have had insidious effects on the writer.

Publication Dates: May 2008 (Spain, US - Spanish edition). Hardcover, Tradeback.

June 16, 2009 (US - English translation). Hardcover.

Publisher (US): Random House/Vintage.


Anonymous said...

What's the AC anagram? Or would that be giving things away?

Larry Nolen said...

Unfortunately, it'd be giving things away to a degree. But perhaps this will help - there's a Rolling Stones song that begins with "Please allow me to introduce myself" - does that help a bit?

Mihai A. said...

Very nice review, Larry and damn I am more eager now to read this novel. I have a feeling that Carlos Ruiz Zafon will set a strong print in my preferences (I believe he already did it :D).
Anyway I have hopes for the translation in Romanian, because being in close realtionship with Spanish might make things good.

As for AC I think that you can give that away. I think that will only stir the interest for the book further on ;)

Anonymous said...

Thanks Larry, I have a very hard choice to make now. I can get this book in Portuguese next week or I can wait until June for the English. I thought the English translation of Shadow was very good - very lyrical and I am scared the Portuguese translator won't be as good. Having said that, I am not sure I can wait until June. ARGH. Decisions, decisions.

One question: how does it compare to Shadow of the Wind? (is it even fair to make this comparison though?)

ediFanoB said...

Your review even more makes my mouth water.

I definitely need to read this book within this year!

Anonymous said...

I finally started to read The Shadow of the Wind today! :-) Soon I´ll tell you my opinions... but I´m already liking it a lot.

Ana, the Brazilian Portuguese translation is pretty good and accurate. I´m finding it lyrical as well.

Liviu said...

For me Angel's game was both stronger and weaker than Shadow, but overall I think I liked it slightly more. The main weakness is the prequel setting, so you know the fate of some characters and quite a lot of tension and plot possibilities go away. If you start with this and then read Shadow, I think you would enjoy much more.

The other weakness is the repetition of motives (dual couples separated by time but with similar story though not necessary outcome, corrupt policemen and rich guys) so again reading Angel first would add to the enjoyment

The strengths are - better and tighter writing, darker tone, more interesting characters; overall if you can forget the content of Shadow, this would have been a superb A+++ book on its own - reading it after the Shadow, takes a bit away and I will rate it only an A+

Anonymous said...

Fabio? REALLY?

Ok, that is settled then. I am buying it!!

Eileen said...

This book sounds amazing and I love your review! There are a lot of book blogs out there and I've decided to focus largely on contemporary international literature to distinguish myself. It's really sad how little Americans know about foreign writers. I went to Barnes & Noble the other day and couldn't find a single Open Letter Press release.

Thank you for letting me know about this great-sounding book. I'll have to add it to my list.

(Oh, and Metropole is on the longlist for Best Translated Book of 2008! I really think you'll love it.)

Larry Nolen said...

I placed my order for it yesterday, but it might be a month or two before it arrives, according to Amazon. I agree about the need to cover more international literature, as I do that a lot with the more speculative literatures being released today. Glad you and others here have enjoyed the review and are eager to read the book, as I think it'll be interesting to hear what people make of it and how they'll compare it to The Shadow of the Wind (Ana, I purposely didn't want to talk too much about the two books, other than to note a few differences in focus because the tone is different in many regards; Zafón is a good stylist in Spanish at least, however).

But then again, I might not be teaching strictly cultural history anymore (now that I'm back teaching at the high school level), but I never can quite remove my cultural historian's biases and "talking points" from certain reviews, alas! :P

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