Book World: Review of 'The Angel's Game' by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

angel's game
  Enlarge Photo    
By Louis Bayard
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, June 23, 2009


By Carlos Ruiz Zafón

Translated from the Spanish by Lucia Graves

Doubleday. 531 pp. $26.95

Caveat lector: If you believe the only proper place for pulp is in your orange juice, then, for pity's sake, steer clear of Carlos Ruiz Zafón. In his much-loved "The Shadow of the Wind" and in this new offering, no trope of popular fiction is off limits, and nothing succeeds like excess. You will either nod approvingly when someone bangs typewriter keys until his fingers bleed or an old widow croaks, "This city is damned. Damned," or else you will strap yourself down for a minimalist drip of Raymond Carver and Ann Beattie.

Word magic is Zafón's subject and also his MO, and he's not particular about where he finds it. The hero of "The Angel's Game" is a penurious young author named David Martín, who spends his days churning out Grand Guignol penny dreadfuls. His one true love, Cristina, has been claimed by David's mentor, the rakish Don Pedro Vidal, who dwells in a grand villa in the hills. David, by contrast, molders in a gloomy, funky-smelling tower in Barcelona's oldest and darkest quarter. He's being bled dry by his publishers, he has almost no friends and no life to speak of. Did I mention he's got terminal brain cancer?

Along comes Andreas Corelli, a suave Parisian with an enticing offer: He will give David 100,000 francs to write a book or, more precisely, "create a religion." A year's work, and David will be free and clear. Or will he? Our hero is a little slow on the uptake, but the alert reader will note that Corelli has icy cold lips and the leer of a jackal and a taste for midnight meetings and chiaroscuro compositions. He neither ages nor blinks, and his estate is guarded by a trio of dogs, presumably descendants of the three-headed Cerberus.

"You and I, my friend, are going to do great things together," promises Corelli. Sure enough, David's health takes an immediate change for the better, the nasty publishers who've been keeping him on slave wages die in a convenient fire, and even the lovely Cristina shows signs of wanting to return. If David can just finish that book he's contracted to write, he might finally taste happiness.

And if you think I've given away too much of the story, please know that it's just beginning and that you are in exceptionally good hands the whole way. Zafón can write up a storm. In fact, he can write up all sorts of storms: rain, ice, fire. It's hard, really, to find anything missing from his arsenal: zesty atmosphere, crackling dialogue, arresting epigrams ("Theory is the practice of the impotent. . . . Sooner or later, the word becomes flesh and the flesh bleeds.") Plus a lively troupe of players, notably Isabella, the shopkeeper's daughter who barges her way into David's house and our affections.

Best of all: 1920s Barcelona, a city whose blend of old-world rot and modernist aspiration makes it ideally suited to the author's purposes. Zafón gets full mileage from the brothels and Gothic piles and numberless necropolises and mausoleums, and for good measure, he devises a resting place all his own: an underground Cemetery of Forgotten Books, where visitors are encouraged to adopt some obscure tome and keep it alive for future generations.

It's safe to say "The Angel's Game" won't be forgotten anytime soon, if only because it offers such a glut of reading pleasure. Only a churl -- that is, a reviewer -- would ask himself: At what point does excess become excessive? For me, the question arose somewhere after the 12th or 13th corpse. I couldn't quite figure out why all these people were dying in such hyperbolic fashion. (Something to do with curses and imprisoned souls and the Witch of Somorrostro.) More worrisomely, I couldn't figure out what stake I had in any of it.

The leads are partly to blame -- David's a bit of a downer, and Cristina's a simp -- and the book's postlude, intended to evoke love's timelessness, succeeds only in being creepy. Without that secure emotional infrastructure, the chinks in Zafón's edifice gape a little wider. Why does David wait the length of a whole chapter before reading an urgent letter from his mistress? And what's with the long and frankly tedious philosophical debates between David and Corelli? And why does someone with a satanically guaranteed life span worry about being killed? And in a book so rife with texts, why is there not a single passage from the book David has contracted to write? Come to think of it, why does the Devil need a ghostwriter in the first place?

Perhaps he is just, like Zafón, a sucker for the printed word. "Every book, every volume you see, has a soul," intones Barcelona's caretaker of forgotten books. "The soul of the person who wrote it and the soul of those who read it and lived and dreamed with it. Every time a book changes hands, every time someone runs his eyes down its pages, its spirit grows and strengthens."

I gently beg to differ. Not every book has a soul; not every book cries out to be remembered. As for the spirit of literature growing and strengthening . . . well, to quote another fictional sojourner in 1920s Spain: "Isn't it pretty to think so?" In the end, we are best advised to treat "The Angel's Game" as a dream from which it would be imprudent to awake. But it's nice while it lasts.

Bayard's most recent novel is "The Black Tower."

© 2009 The Washington Post Company