The Angel’s Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafón
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I came to Zafon a bit late, but I’m starting to love his trademark Gothic romances which exude a sense of doomed optimism around its permanently scarred characters. That may sound oxymoronic but it is perfectly apt for his stories.
This tale is a sort of prequel to his most famous book, The Shadow of the Wind, and was the best-selling book in his native Spanish. Suffice to say, if you loved Shadow, this will be right up your alley; else you may be better served staying away. Personally, I was captivated from the first page where we are introduced to the somber protagonist, David Martin.
Living a meager existence on the fringes of a Barcelona of the early decades of the twentieth century, David spends most of his time at the ramshackle offices of the newspaper ‘The Village Voice’. He gets along writing and doing the odd task, till his rich and influential benefactor, Pedro Vidal, brings him to the notice of the editor there. The editor, a severe but fair man, offers Martin opportunity to contribute more regularly and prominently to the newspaper if he can impress him. Impress he does, and Martin’s stature grows in the general reading public’s eyes, while inviting the scathing jealousy of his erstwhile friends at the paper. Eventually, he is forced out of the paper. Once again, Vidal comes to his rescue and gets Martin a job as a writer (under a pseudonym)with two notorious publishers, dishing out penny dreadfuls by the month.
A self-confessed admirer of his, Andreas Correlli, reveals himself as a publisher in Paris and tries to tempt Martin by arranging a hallucinatory erotic experience with a lady who mirrors the creation from his stories. Meanwhile, Martin moves into a creepy and crumbling mansion which he has long desired and which no one else in their right mind seems to want to go near to. He finally decides to sever ties with his publishers and take up with Correlli, who basically wants him to provide an account which can form the basis of a new religion. Another constant in his life is his hitherto un-satiated desire for Vidal’s chauffeur’s daughter, Cristina.
Martin soon realizes that the house he has inhabited holds dark secrets of its own and comes across information on its previous occupant who died in a supposed accident/suicide. The mysteriously sinister figure of Andreas Correlli seems to be an ambiguous link between both of them.
Zafon once again uses the crumbling grandeur of his native Barcelona around the early part of the last century as his setting and it provides a suitably melancholy atmosphere for this book. David is plagued by a sense of impending doom and is destined to lose those he loves. The machinations of Vidal and Cristina, intentionally or not, unwittingly pull all of them into a web of entangled emotions from which none of them will emerge unscathed. We are also reacquainted with the wonderful idea of ‘The Cemetery of Forgotten Books’ which was first encountered in Shadow, and along with David we feel the effect of its allure. David’s obsession with the previous inhabitant of the house and his own unravelling life will set him on a path down a gloomy and unresolved past which may have multiple casualties before we are done. All through, the deceptively menacing figure of Andreas Correlli waits in the background, holding David to a contract which maybe bound by more than the hard cash he has paid him.
As with ‘The Shadow of the Wind’, there is a certain predictability to certain events, and it is possible to get weary beyond a point with the persistently despondent atmosphere. Here also he does introduce a character, similar to Fermin in Shadow, who seems to conveniently appear out of nowhere and goes on to become integral to the protagonist’s life. In this case, a young runaway lady (and budding writer) by the name of Isabella, who nevertheless goes on to be an endearing part of the book and provides some light relief by manner of her interactions with David.
However, it is this familiarity, which is so well written and set among some lovingly vivid descriptions of a grand old city, which attracts a fan. And that I definitely am now.
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