I had intended to simply glance at the first page of The Angel’s Game and then set it aside to finish other books I was reading, but the first paragraph ensnared me:
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 surely will outlive him. A writer is condemned to remember that moment, because from then on he is doomed and his soul has a price.
The Angel’s Game follows up on the promise of its first paragraph with great skill. The book is a fantasy, a mystery and mainstream fiction about a writer’s life all at once. It is an iteration of the legend of Faust, but it seems wholly new in the hands of Carlos Ruiz Zafón and his talented translator, Lucia Graves.
The narrator of the book is David Martin, who first gets paid for his writing in December 1917 by a newspaper. He had been hanging around the paper since he was a newly orphaned child. First he merely brought coffee and cigarettes to the writers, but in recent years he has acted as assistant to Pedro Vidal, the star crime writer and a member of Barcelona’s rich aristocracy. Vidal informs the editor of the paper that David can write crime stories, and the editor decides to give him a chance. David is soon established as a crime reporter by day and a crime fiction writer by night, “burning up my brain.”
Before long, a mysterious admirer sends David a note inviting him to a “surprise” at a particular address. When David arrives, he finds he is in a particularly high class bordello, and the prostitute whose services have been engaged for him bears a striking resemblance to the “ineffable femme fatale Chloe,” the heroine in his ongoing fiction series. He spends an incredible night with her, losing his virginity in the process (he is 19 years old). But when he tries again a few days later to find the same bordello, he learns that the building in which he spent his night of ecstasy burned down 15 years earlier. How was this possible? And who is the mysterious “A.C.” who bought him the evening of pleasure?
All of this is essentially by way of preface. David goes on to describe how he comes to write for a pair of publishers named Barrido and Escobillas, who run a shady operation but publish David’s City of the Damned, written in “the baroque, bloody and delirious Gran Guignol tradition.” Martin buys a house that has long fascinated him and begins writing at a furious pace.
But “A.C.” hasn’t disappeared forever. To the contrary, he soon reveals himself as Andreas Corelli, a character that haunts the remainder of the book — and David, for the rest of his life. Ultimately he offers David a writing contract, stating that he is a French publisher — but the project he has in mind is definitely a very strange one, one that could change the shape of the world if it is completed appropriately. Corelli offers David something he can’t refuse in exchange in a dream sequence — or is it a dream? — that seems to effect on David a physical change that lengthens his life past his allotted span of years, the most explicit echo of Faust in the book.
Things do not go well for David once he accepts the contract, however, even though some things inexplicably seem to start going very well indeed. Obstacles to his writing seem to fall away, though not naturally; in fact, violence suddenly seems to start haunting David’s footsteps. What is Corelli’s role in all this? And who, exactly, is he? David can’t explain completely, not even when he becomes the focus of a police investigation. In fact, whether Corelli actually exists comes into some doubt.
There is much more to the story. For instance, David meets Isabella, who loves his writing and wants to write herself; she becomes his secretary, but the relationship is much more complicated than that. David is in love with Cristina, a beautiful young woman who is the daughter of Don Pedro’s chauffeur, and Cristina seems to return his affections, but she clearly believes she has obligations elsewhere. And David’s house seems to haunt him with its history of another writer, apparently also encouraged and employed by Andreas Corelli. The Cemetery of Forgotten Books, which Zafón first wrote about in his earlier work, The Shadow of the Wind, makes an important appearance. And Barcelona, in all its magnificence and tawdriness, is as much a character as is any human in these pages.
I was fascinated by The Angel’s Game from cover to cover. It held me in thrall for the entire week over which I read it; I lived there far more than I did in the world where I was going about my usual business. I am still puzzling over the ending, fascinated by the way Zafón manages to wrap up all the threads — but doing so the way a magician makes a scarf appear and then disappear again, leaving one to wonder just exactly what one has just read.
The Angel’s Game lies on the borderline of many different genres: mystery, fantasy and mainstream literature. It is beautifully written (and kudos to the translator, who managed to preserve Zafón’s lovely language) and utterly engrossing. Few writers can trip among the genres so sure-footedly in a single work, but Zafón does it with such grace that his work is irresistible.