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The Angel’s GameThe Angel’s Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“I stepped into the bookshop and breathed in that perfume of paper and magic that strangely no one had ever thought of bottling.”

From the forbidden vaults of ‘Monk’ Lewis to the forgotten labyrinths of Borgian verse emerges ‘The Angel’s Game’, a sinister tale set in 1930’s Barcelona; a city both blessed and damned by the genius of its literary talent. Loosely following on from ‘Shadow of the Wind’, Zafon revisits old haunts like the antique book-dealer Sempere, Barcelo the publisher and the dangerously alluring ‘Cemetery of Forgotten Books’.

At the heart of this story is David Martin, a young man struggling to make ends meet as a crime-reporter by day and a writer of erotic gothic thrillers by night. With a little help from literary patron Pedro Vidal he soon strikes success with his pulp series ‘City of the Damned’. Martin then decides to become a full-time writer, yet living life by the pen means to have a ‘room of one’s own’, and in Martin’s case this means moving to an abandoned tower in the heart of the city. Driven by his growing fame and his literary aspirations, Martin soon begins to lose track of reality. An impending sense of doom begins to creep upon him as the macabre creations that populate his stories begin to show up in real life.

Meanwhile, a letter from enigmatic publisher Andreas Corelli begins a diabolical cycle of events that seem to involve Martin on a level beyond the physical realm, as he comes with an offer that Martin cannot refuse. Andreas Corelli, with his expensive stationary curiously embossed with angels and his devilish charm, wants Martin to write a book to surpass all books; a tome ‘with the power to change hearts and minds’. In return Martin will earn a fortune, and possibly more. But as he begins his undertaking, the shadows of the haunted tower stalk him and they begin to reveal a terrible history that was played out years ago within the walls of the mansion.

I love Zafon’s Barcelona. I say ‘his’, because it is so very different from any other version I have had the pleasure of reading. As a lover of old-fashioned Gothic, I revelled in the sepia-tinted landscapes and decayed, baroque buildings that evoked the bittersweet, naphthalene aroma of nostalgia. Another thing I cannot resist is a book about the terrible power and beauty of books; and that is exactly what rests at the heart of ‘The Angel’s Game’. As in ‘Shadow of the Wind’, Zafon yet again represents Barcelona as a city preoccupied with urban myths which in this novel, veers towards notions of bibliomancy.The characters in the novel (be they main or simply bit-part players) are all beautifully developed. I found myself liking all of them, even the ‘bad’ ones. But upon finishing it I discovered that the real hero here was simply and purely ‘books’, who throughout the story demand and conspire to be brought forth into the world through very innovative ways. In this way the Borgian influence is very apparent, as is the Poe-esque ‘The House of Usher’ flavouring he adds to the architecture. Zafon’s flirtation with Borgian metaphysics comes in the form of an homage by way of the Cemetery of Forgotten Books; a grotesque, cavernous labyrinthine library that one may gain admittance only through recommendation. Readers of Borges will recognise this structure and all its horror from his short story ‘The Library of Babel’ (to read, click on the link).

In short this novel is a bibliophile’s heaven. But anyone who has read ‘The Shadow of the Wind’ will also know of the secret pact one must agree to if they enter the cemetery, and the bad luck that ensues when one ventures to take out a book from the maw of that malicious place.

“As I walked, I ran my fingers along the spines of hundreds of books. I let myself be imbued with the smell, with the light that filtered through the cracks or from the glass lanterns that embedded in the wooden structure, floating among mirrors and shadows.”

What I also like about this story is how Zafon concentrates on a time when the written word still had a magical potency to bless or damn its author. This is a story of intricate secrets, where books are not simply of ink and paper, but are voracious, sentient beings with the capacity to cannibalise both master and reader. In Zafon’s world, books have more than one story to tell. As surely as there is a sub-text to every text, what I call the ‘world within a world’ or the whisper in the shout; there is also another more important story being playing out between each and every person that touches the cover of a single book. It is this personal history of the creation and career of these objects as they are launched into the world that forms the overarching narrative that continues until it is destroyed. The Cemetery of Forgotten Books guards against this literary death, and it is here that Martin witnesses what the cemetery really is: a morgue of human thought.

“Every book has a soul, the soul of the person who wrote it and the soul of those who read it and dream about it.”

However beautifully the plot was crafted and presented, I found this slightly lacking from ‘The Shadow of the Wind’, which earned a 5/5. Zafon tends to leave a few loose-ends to some sub-plots which, while it didn’t detract from the overall story, did annoy me a little. These little imperfections together with its’ ending (which was a bit anti-climatic) meant I couldn’t give it a full house. But all the same, fans of ‘The Shadow of the Wind’ will enjoy revisiting these old places and characters once more. In fact I felt a certain déjà vu in some places, as I remembered similar scenes being played out in ‘The Shadow of the Wind’. It gave me a weird sensation, as if I were watching two films at once. It’s the best experience of dramatic irony I have ever HAD!

I hope Zafon continues to spin tales based around Barcelona, especially if it includes the cemetery of forgotten books. Who is Sempere? Why does he damn people by introducing them to that awful place? And more importantly, what is the history of that awful place? Too many questions. I just hope Zafon can provide us with the answers.

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