Carlos Ruiz Zafon Book 2 : The Angel's Game

The Angel’s Game (2008)
By Carlos Ruiz Zafon
Doubleday, 544 pages
* * * ½

An old adage goes: be careful what you wish for, you might get it. The 10th Commandment admonishes against covetousness. More ominously, a considerable body of folklore tells of the eternal consequences of making a bargain with the Devil. (It’s numbers M200-299 in the Folk Motif Index if you’re keeping score.) From Adam and Eve eating from the Tree of Life to Faust, Paganini, and Robert Johnson, the message is clear: don’t meddle with the Devil.

The Angel’s Game is Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s (semi) prequel to The Shadow of the Wind. It is not up to the first book’s standard and, in fact, might even be viewed as a messy sometimes-trite piece of work. It is nonetheless a thrilling, often scary read. Like Shadow of the Wind, this one is set in Barcelona, though slightly earlier: the 1920s and 1930s, the eve of the Spanish Civil War. Parts of it take place in the Sempere bookshop, though they involve Daniel Sempere the elder, not his son. (This detail has confused some readers.) The Cemetery of Forgotten Books also factors into the story. Of these, only the latter is important rather than coincidental, which means you need not read Shadow of the Wind first.

Great Expectations is a clear model for Angel’s Game. David Martin, like Pip, grew up in poverty and suffered the torments of an abusive father. Despite this, David’s natural intelligence, love of literature, and hard work lead him to publisher and surrogate father Pedro Vidal, for whose newspaper he gains modest employment. After a time, David harbors a desire for more things of this world: money, reputation, and residency in a rambling empty mansion called Tower House. He gets two of three; he leaves Vidal for greater opportunity, but is soon pumping out sensationalist stories under a pseudonym that captivate the reading public. He has money and a house with a spooky past, but he’s not viewed as a serious writer. Soon, David is both bored and tired of being looked down upon; he’s not even good enough to court Cristina, the daughter of Vidal’s chauffeur.

David’s life takes a turn when a French publisher named Andreas Cortelli offers David an enormous sum to be his ghostwriter. Cortelli is a stimulating intellect, though an odd individual who wears an angel pin in his lapel and has a habit of consulting with David at irregular hours in unusual places. His commission is stranger still; Cortelli wants David to write a book that will unseat old religious systems and establish a new one. Moreover, it must be such a powerful piece of propaganda that the masses will follow it.

All of this is overlaid by a chilling discovery David makes about the previous owner of his house, the disruption of an adoring but forceful live-in intern, a series of murders for which David is thought a suspect, increasing demands from Cortelli, and the shock of discovering that Christina has married his old benefactor, Vidal. As in Great Expectations, not everyone is whom they appear to be, Cortelli primary among them.

It does not surprise me that not all readers liked (or could follow) this book. It is not clear what we are to make of all this. Is Zafon’s novel a Gothic tale of the supernatural? A murder mystery? Is it an exercise in Jungian psychology? A tale of David’s breakdown? A vampire tale? An overdose of magical realism? Or something more ominous? Zafon does not tell us what is real and what is imagined, thus any one of these readings has merit, though I think he tips his hand by calling Cortelli’s scandalous tract Lux Aeterna (“Eternal Light”).   

I would yield to those who say that Zafon jumped the shark in Angel’s Game. There are too many elements, too many subplots, too many improbable circumstances, and too much ambiguity for the center to hold. Nonetheless, memorable lines such as this enthralled me: “Poetry is written with tears, fiction with blood, and history with invisible ink.” Part of the book, including its conclusion, scared the bejesus out of me. All I am sure of is that this book within a book is also an allegory on Francoism. As for the scariest thing of all, I will end with a prolonged quote from a lecture delivered to David by Cortelli. Zafon wrote these words in 2008, but I’ll excuse you if you thought it was last week.

Nothing makes us believe more than fear, the uncertainty of being threatened. When we feel like victims, all our actions and beliefs are legitimized, however questionable they may be. Our opponents… stop sharing common ground with us and become our enemies…. The envy, greed, or resentment that motivates us becomes sanctified, because we tell ourselves we’re acting in self-defense. Evil, menace–those are always the preserve of each other. The first step for believing passionately is fear. Fear of losing our identity, our life, our status, or our beliefs. Fear is the gunpowder and hatred is the fuse. … It’s not enough that people should believe. They must believe what we want them to believe. And they must not question it or listen to the voice of whoever questions it.

This would be a disturbing yet enlightening book if only for these passages. I’ll leave it to you whether the rest makes sense, just as I will allow you to apply Zafon’s words in an analogical context of choice. I will say, though, that you should exercise great caution before striking a bargain for all you think you desire.

Rob Weir


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