The Angel’s Game, by Carlos Ruiz Zafón
Standing behind the high altar in Prato Cathedral last week, binoculars trained on a fresco some 40 feet above, I found myself puzzling over a barely discernible detail in a scene of the nativity of St Stephen. At the foot of the new mother’s bed a winged figure, knees bent in a gesture of tender genuflection, cradles in his left arm a haloed baby. With his right he touches another baby, swaddled like the first, and lying on a crib. The angel — as he appears to be — has a sorrowful expression, and is an attractive dark green, like the patination of an ancient bronze. Slowly, other details emerge from the gloom to disturb the first engaging impression: he has no halo, his feet are clawed and he sports a tail. Tender he may seem, but he is swapping the baby Stephen for a changeling.
The lucid elegance of quattrocento Italy may at first sight seem a far cry from the gothic extravagances of Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s new novel, The Angel’s Game, set, like his previous blockbuster, The Shadow of the Wind, in 20th-century Barcelona. In one important respect, however, Fra Lippo Lippi and Zafón concur: the most chilling representation of the devil is not the traditional horror manifestation but the fallen angel, the son whose father, in Zafón’s words, ‘rejected me and threw me out of his house’.
Although the ‘son of the morning’ is the pivot of this long and intricately plotted novel, its hero is David Martin, a junior in a newspaper office whose talent as a writer is fostered by well-meaning superiors and leads to a successful career writing grand guignol novels under a pseudonym. The financial rewards of his new life enable him to realise a dream of living in a long-deserted tower house. As time passes, however, Martin becomes obsessed with the house’s previous occupant, a lawyer turned writer, Diego Marlasca, whose life seems to offer curious parallels with his own. From out of the blue appears the sinister Andreas Corelli, a French publisher who senses Martin’s frustration with the limitations of his sub-literary output and offers an extravagant contract to write for him instead. From this the ‘game’ flows — and Martin and everyone he knows or meets is caught up in a devilish web of deceit, betrayal and death.
Readers familiar with The Shadow of the Wind will find themselves back in the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, the echo of Eco where, from a labyrinthine library, volumes seem to select their readers. We meet again the gentle, kindly Sempere family, owners of a Barcelona bookshop, and glimpse in his youth the father of Daniel Sempere, hero of Zafón’s earlier novel. And literature is, again, the driving force of this work — as a boy Martin is given a copy of Great Expectations by Sempere, and it resonates through the book, the title alone a talisman reappearing at significant junctures of the plot. Satis House lurks behind the cobwebs of Martin’s tower home and Estella’s blood is coursing through the veins of Cristina, Martin’s unreachable love. Jane Eyre is invoked time and again and The Picture of Dorian Gray pops up on cue.
But if Zafón nods at the most celebrated gothic elements in mainstream English literature, this dark tale of the supernatural is more in line with Mrs Radcliffe, Monk Lewis and Bram Stoker. Nervous characters are pursued by chill winds and the stench of death, staircases ooze nasty liquids, afternoons spread over the city ‘like blood floating in water’. There are hellhounds with blazing eyes, Igor-like servants and desiccated corpses. There are scenes in graveyards (several) and madhouses, in walled-up rooms and overgrown gardens. There are bodies in stagnant swimming pools and under the ice, bloody footprints in the snow, and so on.
This is all rattling good gothic fun, but there is a danger that this novel takes itself too seriously. ‘Emotional truth is not a moral quality,’ the hero tells his acolyte, ‘it’s a technique … literature is science tempered with the blood of art.’ Whatever that might mean, The Angel’s Game won’t quite bear the weight of Zafón’s endless aphorisms on the nature of truth and evil, his meditations on the formalising of religion, the manipulation of faith and dogma or the ‘sweet poison’ of authorial vanity. As 1.5 million Spanish readers attest, Zafón has undoubtedly found the formula for a best-seller, and no doubt a Hollywood blockbuster is on the way. But for my money the ‘science’ is the fizz and fantastical apparatus of Frankenstein’s laboratory and the ‘blood’ the blood of the make-up department. A good read, but it is the world of Hammer and Dan Brown and not that of Dickens, Charlotte Bronte or Oscar Wilde that Zafón inhabits.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated June 13, 2009