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The Angel’s Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafon (Review)

“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 will surely outlive him. A writer is condemned to remember that moment, because from then on he is doomed and his soul has a price.”

The long-awaited followup to Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s Shadow of the Wind is finally on its way – due out on June 16th after almost five years of very patient waiting on readers’ parts. SOTW was a huge grassroots bestseller in indies all over the country in 2004 – and remains so, actually, in my store at least, still anchoring down that bestseller display. The Angel’s Game, the next of Zafon’s books to make it into the English-reading market, came to me hot on the heels of the quintet of mind-numbing manuscripts I read in March and was a welcome recharge to my reader-brain. Translated into English by Lucia Graves, also Zafon’s translator for SOTW – I cannot stress enough the importance of an expert translator for novels in translation. If you’ve ever read one brilliant novel by a Swedish mystery writer and found their next book to be clunky and poorly written, 9 times out of 10 they have different translators. Zafon’s first book soared to unexpected heights in the hands of Ms. Graves – it read with a flow and sentence structure that really seemed as if it had been original to English. The Angel’s Game is equally brilliant, both in translation and originality.

Here’s the skinny: impoverished, orphaned David Martin begins his writing career penning pulp serials for the back page of the floundering newspaper, The Voice of Industry in 1920’s Barcelona. What starts out as a whim on the editor’s part, turns into a lucrative endeavor for all, with Martin developing a devoted following for The Mysteries of Barcelona among the masses. He receives praise from both his benefactor/father-figure, Don Pedro Vidal, as well as from the mysterious French publisher Andreas Corelli, who sends him cryptic, prescient notes at strangely opportune times. When he is released from the paper, he immediately signs a book deal to continue writing in the realm of the pulps and his pen name is met with wild success. He purchases the home of his dreams – “a huge pile of a house” – and cranks out the pulps, all the while beginning to write his decidedly non-pulpy magnum opus, The Steps of Heaven. When his unrequited love interest, Cristina, in the employ of Pedro Vidal, comes to him for assistance in secretly reworking Vidal’s own failing novel, Martin begins a self-destructive path of writing two novels at once, day and night, with only one obvious outcome in store. When “Vidal’s” rewritten novel becomes a huge bestseller, David’s fails monumentally (even his own mother tosses it in the trash, unread), driving him into the depths of despair and self-loathing. Even Cristina seemingly abandons him, opting to marry the new literary darling, Vidal. As if the personal and professional failing weren’t bad enough, David is met with physical failing as well, in the essential death sentence of a terminal brain tumor just behind his left eye. Hovering on the line between sanity and insanity, Martin seeks normalcy and companionship on a visit to his one true friend, the bookseller Sempere. (Booksellers are everyone’s best friend, don’t you know.) Martin desperately asks for help in saving his book – and essentially his own self – leading Sempere to bring him to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books.

The Cemetery featured prominently in The Shadow of the Wind – a magnificent, secret labyrinth of a hidden library below the streets of Barcelona – and Martin’s visit here is the heart of this new novel. Sempere brings Martin there to hide his book – in effect, save it – until someone else comes along to become it’s protector. For every book you leave in the Cemetery, you must take one out with you, acting as it’s protector for the rest of your life. For reasons completely unknown to him, Martin chooses a bizarre religious text called Lux Aeterna by an anonymous “D.M.” Upon his return home, he receives an invitation to meet with the publisher Andreas Corelli, asking for Martin to consider a proposal for work. David, faced again with the desolation that is his life, instead falls back into his own private hell – living in a dream world of pain and misery. Seven days later, Lazarus-like, he awakens, realizes that he has nothing left to lose, and decides to meet with the enigmatic Corelli.

“I want you to bring together all your talent and devote yourself body and soul, for one year, to working on the greatest story you have ever created: a religion.”

In return for his work creating a new religious text, Corelli offers David the promise to “give you what you most desire” and David awakens the following morning pain-free for the first time in months, his tumor seemingly gone. A disturbing series of coincidences then begin to pile up: after meeting with his pair of sleazy publishers, who have no desire to release Martin from his contract of pulp-writing, their office burns to the ground and both men are consumed by flame. Could Corelli be responsible? David then discovers that Lux Aeterna was written on the very same typewriter that he has been using – one he discovered, abandoned, in his home when he first moved in. Has he, in effect, been tasked with writing Lux Aeterna himself? What actually happened to the original D.M.? As the police begin to take an active interest in the deaths of the publishers, (among various other suspicious deaths and disappearances in David’s orbit) David begins to realize the true manipulative nature of Andreas Corelli – could the publisher be something altogether otherworldy and sinister?

As the mysteries begin to surface and the suspicious circumstances that have come to comprise David Martin’s life emerge, Ruiz Zafon’s gift for remarkable storytelling begins to truly shine. The atmosphere of pre-Civil War Barcelona is rich and vivid, it’s culture of literacy leaves the modern reader pining for such days. The clack of the typewriter, the smells of Sempere’s dusty bookshop, the very idea of pulp short stories being printed in the newspaper – all are evocative of a lost era of literature and a culture surrounding the printed page. Even David’s home is a living, breathing (perhaps “wheezing” is more appropriate) entity in Ruiz Zafon’s hands – musty, dark, and filled with whispers of the past, it operates as a character with many secrets central to the tale. Perhaps there are moments where the plot is too labyrinthine – over-populated with twists and second tier characters – and some of the religious imagery and death foreshadowing is a bit heavy handed, yet every element ultimately has its purpose in driving the story towards its conclusion.

The further into this labyrinth David goes, the more the reader questions his decisions, motives, and his sanity. As the storyteller, David feels no need to justify himself to the reader – the tale is his explanation in itself – and offers a reasonable attempt at explaining his actions and motivations to the investigating detectives. But does the explanation matter if no one is actually who they say they are, even the narrator? Is everything we read fabricated to further David’s version of the “truth” or is he just being manipulated by the sinister puppetmaster/publisher? Is he instead just stuck in a writer’s hell, damned for eternity to write this religious text until “Corelli” is satisfied? Therein lies the brilliance to this novel – the questions abound, yet Ruiz Zafon never insults the reader by stooping so low as to fully, categorically explain the answers. You are left to find your own way out of the labyrinth – a pleasant fate for a reader to have to face.


18 comments on “The Angel’s Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafon (Review)

  1. Mary Lestrange
    May 18, 2009

    this is a wonderful book, very well written. Zafon really knows how to captivate the reader and tie us til the grand finale ..
    Great review!

  2. Addicting Games
    October 7, 2009

    Another engaging and beautifully written page-turner from the author of The Shadow of the Wind.


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  3. michele1517
    December 10, 2009

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  4. العاب
    January 11, 2010

    Ruiz Zafon is a great writer, i heard about this book the angel's game and that it's a good one.

  5. Anonymous
    January 20, 2010

    Great read but frustrating to the reader in the end. Not really sure what DID happen and what was in David's mind.

  6. Seth Marko
    January 21, 2010

    I agree – I think I have fonder memories of it 8 months later than I did after I finished. His ability to capture time & place, however, seems to know no bounds. What I remember most about it is the Cemetery, the Gaudi statuary, and David's house. All about the visuals.

  7. persis
    January 25, 2010

    I just finished reading this book and it was sort of disappointing to me after reading SOTW which was absolutely fabulous!

    For the first 300 pages I couldn't see the novel going anywhere. There was no real mystery or suspense like SOTW. Also, the ending was rather vague and I couldn't fit certain parts like the significance of the brothel like place he visits in the beginning of the novel etc.

    I know the author repeated certain characters and themes from SOTC to kind of bind both the novels together but to me, it just made this novel less exciting and slightly repetitive. In the end I just had to skim through the long & descriptive pages to get to a very abrupt and unclear end.

  8. Anonymous
    January 31, 2010

    I had way too many questions…
    Specifically – what was up with the ending??
    And I agree, some of it seemed to gone for ever…
    I blogged my questions and theories at http://www.internetplus.com/thefunkstop/?p=375 (spoiler alert)

  9. Anonymous
    July 27, 2010

    needs to be read on holiday in big chunks for full atmosphere. The basic plot has echoes of the Alan Parker film Angel Heart with Mickey Rourke (Harry Angel) and Robert De Niro as the devil (Loius Cyphre). Corelli's name is not so obviously demonic but Lucifer does get mentioned.
    The parallels of a new religion led not by a sacrificed and weak messiah but by a an agressive and belligerent leader with pennants and uniforms smacks of Franco's or Hitler's facism and is confirmed in the epilogue 15 years after the events: “I have seen how the inferno promised in the pages I wrote for the boss has taken on a life of its own” I thought it was disturbingly brilliant and could not put it down. John Heyes

  10. Anonymous
    December 22, 2010

    What the heck was the end about? I just didn't get it.

  11. zchecketts
    December 27, 2010

    Great book that kept you hanging on until the last page but I really have no idea what happened. What was the significance of the brothel? Was it all in Davids head? If so how come the same happened to marlasca? And how come corelli was able to contact the lawyer? What happened to make Christina go mad? Why did David never grow old? Why was he given Christina in child form at the end. I was hoping all of these questions and more would be answered at the end but not at all and I'm left with a really confused head now.

  12. Seth Marko
    December 28, 2010

    I think the bottom line is that Carlos needs a better editor.

  13. Anonymous
    January 6, 2011

    It wasnt just the end that was confusing…even the fact that he was wearing the Angel Brooch was confusing. Was he the devil himself or was it all a figment of his imagination. OMG this was one confusing book and I read it in 4 days while on holidays!

  14. Anonymous
    January 28, 2011

    Wonderful book. A little dark but a real page turner.
    I believe Martin was schizophrenic. I fact if you read the book a second time with that notion in mind, almost everything/every characters make sense.
    Would make a very good movie.

  15. y
    February 6, 2011

    thanks for the share,u make me feel i am not the only idoit in the world got confused by The Angle's Game. here's my piece of thought: the plot is well planned,like u say, it is all up to the reader to pick which to believe and craft the ending.

  16. Anonymous
    April 27, 2011

    Just finished this book and had a meeting with my book club. Everyone has agreed that there are parts that seem superfluous, such as the brothel for example. Why was that needed? And then there are the questions: Where was the bank account when the police investigated David's story? Why would anyone want David's book from Sempere? Who cut the straps on Cristina's bed? Why did she go mad? And on, and on. I read Shadow of the Wind, and now this, but that's enough. However, the craft of writing as in the use of language is high quality. More like Emily Bronte than Dickens I think.

  17. matthewwolff
    July 25, 2012

    David Martin is not in his right mind, and is most likely schizophrenic. The brilliance of this book is that you cannot trust everything that is revealed in the narrative. The reader is left to decide which of these events actually happened, and which are in David's mind. Also, what horrors David may have committed without knowing. Sure, Zaffon does not spoon feed you the answers, but if you understand that David's narrative is not completely trustworthy, everything falls into place.

  18. Anonymous
    January 23, 2013

    Too much is too impenetrable for the reader to construe any answers. A cancerous tumour induced psychosis is too simple and answer to explain away all the questions and inconsistencies. I think Zafon lost his way in the early going and hoped we wouldn't notice if he just could keep chucking out an ever more perplexing continuation of a narrative that doesn't make any sense, an idea seemingly perpetrated in the lip service of the critics. I wonder how they stay upright slapping each other on the back so hard. I couldn't recommend this book to anyone because I'm sure they would be equally as disappointed with the absence of conclusion.

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This entry was posted on May 6, 2009 by in Carlos Ruiz Zafon, review.
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