Monday, April 22, 2013

Book review: The Angel's Game

The Angel's Game, by Carlos Ruiz Zafón, serves as prequel to that author's successful novel, The Shadow of the Wind.

The Angel's Game is set in Barcelona in pre-Civil War Spain of the 1920s and 1930s. It's the story of a young writer, David Martín, who works his way up from errand boy at the local news rag to become a successful novelist. Although Martín is widely-read and prolific, for various murky (and sinister) reasons, his name is unknown to most of his readers. As he struggles to find his identity, Martín is approached by a mysterious Faustian figure, Andreas Corelli, who promises to make him famous and wealthy if Martín will use his writing skills to help Corelli "invent a new religion."

No sooner does Martín accept Corelli's bargain than a series of mysterious events --gruesome murders, unexplained fires, destroyed careers --begin to occur around Barcelona, all of them somehow connected to Martín and his literary ambitions.

Just as with the earlier book in the series, The Angel's Game is populated with colorful, well-drawn characters (even minor characters are well-described and as often as not, completed with elaborate backgrounds that provide depth and insight). Zafón has a penchant for complicated plots that weave and twist like the alleyways of Barcelona's Raval Quarter, where much of the action takes place.

But unlike the earlier novel which seemed to jump between comedy and horror, The Angel's Game is more cut-and-dried Gothic horror. There is less humor and more darkness, less levity, more foreboding.

Which is not to say that The Angel's Game lacks Zafón's trademark witty, sharp-edged dialog. Much of the book's menace and satire occurs between quotation marks. And nearly every exchange between characters includes some pearl of homespun wisdom.

In addition to his dialog, though, Zafón is a master of narrative voice. Consider this excerpt:
A writer never forgets the first time he accepted a few coins or a word of praise in exchange for a story. He will never forget the sweet poison of vanity in his blood and the belief that, if he succeeds in not letting anyone discover his lack of talent, the dream of literature will provide him with a roof over his head, a hot meal at the end of the day, and what he covets the most: his name printed on a miserable piece of paper that surely will outlive him. A writer is condemned to remember that moment, because from then on he is doomed and his soul has a price. 
My first time came one faraway day in December 1917. I was seventeen and worked at The Voice of Industry, a newspaper that had seen better days and now languished in a barn of a building that had once housed a sulfuric acid factory. The walls still oozed the corrosive vapor that ate away at furniture and clothes, sapping the spirits, consuming even the soles of shoes. The newspaper’s headquarters rose behind the forest of angels and crosses of the Pueblo Nuevo cemetery; from afar, its outline merged with the mausoleums silhouetted against the horizon—a skyline stabbed by hundreds of chimneys and factories that wove a perpetual twilight of scarlet and black above Barcelona.

On the night that was about to change the course of my life, the newspaper’s deputy editor, Don Basilio Moragas, saw fit to summon me, just before closing time, to the dark cubicle at the far end of the editorial staff room that doubled as his office and cigar den. Don Basilio was a forbidding- looking man with a bushy moustache who did not suffer fools and who subscribed to the theory that the liberal use of adverbs and adjectives was the mark of a pervert or someone with a vitamin deficiency.

Any journalist prone to florid prose would be sent off to write funeral notices for three weeks. If, after this penance, the culprit relapsed, Don Basilio would ship him off permanently to the "House and Home" pages. We were all terrified of him, and he knew it.
Sets things up nicely, doesn't it?  But apart from the opening paragraph of this excerpt, Zafón doesn't write much about the exaltation and the sense of fulfillment that comes from producing a successful piece of writing. (And by "successful," I mean something that the writer feels adequately conveys his thoughts, rather than "successful" in the commercial sense.)

As Zafón describes it, being a writer is a hellish existence. He covers well all the fear, the guilt, and the doubt that comes with the calling.  His descriptions of Barcelona evoke images of Hell itself, and the ending leaves the reader with an ominous foreboding that the worst is yet to come.

There is a third book in the series, The Prisoner of Heaven. It's on my list. I can't wait.

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