“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.