Tuesday, April 27, 2010

THE ANGEL'S GAME by Carlos Ruiz Zafon - Review by Gary Carden

The Angel’s Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafon
New York: Doubleday Publishers - 2009
$26.95 - 470 pages

“Do you want to set fire to the whole world and burn with it?
Let’s do it together. You fix the price.”
- Andreas Corelli, p.128

A few days after completing The Shadow of the Wind, I discovered a copy of Carlos Zafon’s new novel, The Angel’s Game. When I sampled a few pages to see if it had the same extraordinary imagery and cadence of its predecessor, I found that its setting was the same: Barcelona in the 20’s, a visit to the “Cemetery of Forgotten Books,” treks through fog-shrouded graveyards, and the wonderful Sempere Bookstore, the place where star-crossed love, madness and murder converge.

However, The Angel's Game is not a sequel. Daniel Sempere, the protagonist in The Shadow of the Wind is regulated to the role of a minor character in this tale of unholy alliances, paranoia and obsession. It is as though while Daniel Sempere’s anguished tale of love and redemption was unfolding, another doomed protagonist, David Martin (who just happens to lives nearby) is also beginning his own dark journey through “the city of the damned.” Although the two men are friends, they have very little in common ... except a love of books.

Zafon, a master of provocative beginnings, lets David tell his own story which begins with a badly beaten child who enters the Sempere Bookstore clutching a blood-stained copy of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations. The child (David Martin) begs Sempere Senior to keep the book safe since Martin’s abusive father intends to destroy it. Sempere not only hides the book; he also becomes David’s protector and advisor, assisting the boy in achieving his wish to become a writer.

In time David Martin becomes a journalist and a successful writer of a series of blood-and-thunder pot-boilers, The City of the Damned. Although the books are extremely popular, David feels that they are cheap melodramas and dreams of writing a work that will win the respect of the literary world. David confides his dream to his friend, Pedro Vidal, a highly successful journalist, and in time, he begins work on his great opus, The Steps of Heaven.When he meets Christina, the daughter of Vidal’s chauffeur, David feels that he has an established career. He decides to terminate his contract with the shady publishing firm that distributes The City of the Damned and devote himself to his new friends and his writing. It is at this point that something goes terribly wrong with David’s life.

Within a few short weeks, David discovers the following: he is entangled in a lawsuit with his former publishers, Barrido and Escobillas; he learns that Christina is involved with his best friend, Pedro Vidal and when his new novel is published, the critics judge it to be a hopeless, amateurish work. At the same time, Vidal publishes a novel (written by David) and it is declared a literary masterpiece. Finally, when recurring headaches and nausea forces David to consult a doctor, he is told that he has a brain tumor which will kill him in a few months.

When David Martin is at his lowest point, he meets Andreas Corelli, a mysterious publisher “of religious texts,” who offers to solve all of David’s problems if he will agree to write a book in accordance to Corelli’s dictates. Martin agrees and suddenly, miraculously, the deadly tumor is gone. Corelli gives David 100,000 francs “as a starter.” Shortly afterwards, David learns that the lives of Barrido and Escobillas have been snuffed out in a mysterious fire which had also destroyed all documents and contracts. David moves into an abandoned but luxurious mansion in the heart of Barcelona... a house that he has always coveted, and begins work on Corelli’s book.

Obviously, David Martin has made a Faustian bargain, and although there is much is Corelli’s demeanor to suggest the demonic (he appears to be ageless and his eyes are reptilian), the division between Good and Evil wavers and changes frequently. In time, Martin discovers that he is only the latest of Corelli’s “authors for hire,” and that each of his predecessors has died tragically - In fact, one of them lived in the same house that Martin now occupies. Nor are the authors the only victims. All that they love, including wives, lovers and children are doomed.

But what about the book? What is the subject? The strange mythical tale that David creates is a kind of religious fable; the kind of “folk tale” that can serve as the basis for a religious belief that has the power to capture the imagination of millions. As David writes, he often appears to be a conduit, a mere instrument for verbalizing a fiendish tale that is being dictated by Andreas Corelli. At other times, Zafon suggests that perhaps Corelli exists only as projection of David Martin’s own corrupt soul. Regardless, David senses that the book he is writing may have the power to plunge the world into an apocalyptic war.

Regardless of who is responsible, someone is definitely creating havoc in David Martin’s world. The Angel's Game is filled with hapless victims who are driven mad or die in random accidents. In addition, as the action of this novel accelerates, the narrative is littered with corpses: murdered policemen, mutilated lawyers, drowned paraplegics and lovers. As this Grand Guignol of a novel winds down, the reader is left with a singular suspicion. Is it possible that David Martin and Andreas Corelli are one and the same? If not, is it possible that the protagonist is “becoming” Corelli?

Without a doubt, The Angel's Game contains one of the most remarkable “poetic chapters” that I have encountered in recent literature. This one deals with the death of Sempere Senior, the bookstore owner who is a major character in both The Shadow of the Wind and The Angel's Game. As Sempere’s friends gather(mostly patrons of his bookstore), the funeral service turns into a kind of eulogy for all book lovers... those people who avoid churches and religious cant, but treat books with the kind of respect and awe that is normally expended in churches. Sempere is buried with David’s copy of Great Expectations beneath his clasped hands.

Although I liked this book tremendously, I was occasionally distressed by melodramatic passages characterized by a kind of hysterical rant that appears at odds with Zafon’s usually superb style. David Martin frequently shreds the scenery like a ham actor, posturing and proclaiming cliches. I was especially distressed by his constant use of the words “venomous” and “poisonous,” and the tremendous number of unpleasant waiters, desk clerks, and government officials that populate Barcelona. Given the remarkable quality of Zefon’s writing in The Shadow of the Wind, I can only conclude that the patches of bad writing in The Angel's Game is the result of a bad translation. I learned recently that The Angel's Game will be reissued with a new translation this year. I sincerely hope that is true.


  1. Begging your pardon, but I think you are mistaken; the novel makes it quite clear that "Sempere's son" in this story is the man we know as Sempere Sr. in THE SHADOW OF THE WIND, i.e. the father of Daniel.

    And when you account for the dates - this novel is set in the 1920s, whereas the other novel begins in 1945 - this is the only explanation.

    1. thank you for the explanation! :) I was very confused reading it and comparing the years but now it's clear :)) I looove the both boooks and cant wait reading them in spanish :)

  2. I read The Angel´s Game and it was so gripping that I had to read The Shadow of the Wind as well. I just finished it and it´s apparent that the books are two completely different styles. I felt like The Shadow of the Wind was more mysterious and realistic where the other was more imaginative. There are several holes missing from The Game and I felt like I never really got pulled into the book that Martin was writing for Corelli.
    However I think that Isabella from The Angel´s Game was the mother of Daniel Sempere remembering that she died shortly after her son was born.

  3. I Didn't think The Game & Shadow were meant to fit in seemlessly... I read both as completely different books with only a bookstore in common

  4. Yeah I agree with Adam. I am reading the book now, and I just had to get up and google the Sempere's, because I'm up to the bit where David tells Isabella that Sempere Jr. is just a little older than himself... this made me go... HANG ON... WHAT ABOUT THE GIRL FROM SOTW?

  5. I am reading these comments in June, 2011 and have forgotten much of the details discussed here. I only remember that The Shadow of the Wind was, by far, the superior novel. I will concede that Adam is probably right, although I will say that if I need to read The Shadow of the Wind again, I would find it a totally enjoyable experience.

  6. the whole novel is designed as a riddle with multiple sub-riddles.... it is indeed a game....

  7. if you try and view it discounting any magic... meaning it is not fantasy.... then one is forced to see it from the point of view of the narrator... David... it is his descent into insanity, and one is left deciphering symbolisms and strange episodes in the context of what one can piece together about who David Martin is,,, and what constituted his actual life versus his delusional one. what were the overlaps,,, what did the delusions and dreams mean in the context of who David Martin was as a writer... a very lonely soul, it seems... falling into a dark madness without hope. was David Christina's murderer? did he (neatly) cut her restraints? did he lead her to the frozen lake, the crust of ice he was contemplating, as he arrived in that town? was he the person in the house who surprised Christina reading his manuscript? why did Christina fall into madness? what did she realize? this is a sample of just one thread... what do the riddles reveal?

  8. Adam is deinitely right. Angel's Game predates SOTW and in a sense is a prequel in that we get to know Isabella (the mother of protagonist in SOTW who died when he was 4) and arguably the state of Barcelona/Europe at the time of SOTW is a result of events in Angel's Game. Definitely agree with you about the funeral scene, easily one of the best i've read recently too.

  9. Just finished Angels's Game, having read Shadow of the Wind a few months ago. I much preferred SOTW, especially Fermin's character, but AG has really had me thinking. Is Corelli David's alter ego? Remember the Chief Inspector mentions casually to David that whenever he sees him (David) he is wearing the angel pin - just like Corelli. Do Corelli's appearances from time to time simply conicide with David's delusional episodes? Are these delusional episodes brought about by the tumor? Is there a pattern to Corelli's appearances? They seem to coincide with David's troubles - when he is diagnosed with the tumor, when he tries and fails to find Cristina and, possily most significantly, when he receives the letter informing him of Isabella's death.

    It may be not be as good as SOTW, but there is much to admire and wonder about in AG.

  10. Okay. The Angel's Game takes place before Shadow of the Wind. Sempere Senior in Angels' Game is the grandfather of the protatgonist in Shadow of the Wind. The son is this book is the Father and Isabela is the mother. Did the reviewer read the book? David Martin moves into the house long before beginning work for Corelli: he moved in while he worked for Barrido and Escobillas. And by the way, the author's name is Zafon, not Zafen.

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  13. I read both books really long time ago. I just read prisoner of heaven which has both daniel and david in it. I think this book ties the two together but I have forgotten much of Angel's game. I would definitely recommend this book as well. Zafon also left a room for a 4th book.

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  15. I read SOTW first, POH and just finished Angels Game. At the end of Angel's, David reads a letter from Isabella knowing she was dying, but in POH, she died as being poisoned from the warden of the prison in which David is being held. POH is an amazing book btw, Fermin's past is quite adventurous, in which he meets David and promises to take care of Daniel. I'm confused on the ending to Angel's with Corelli promising to give David back his life in which he took (via an 8 year old girl??).

    1. in POH, it was revealed that David is schizophrenic and while he's in prison, he writes a book entitled The Angel's Game. So some of the events that happened in The Angel's Game may not be true but a product of David's imagination. (which explains some of the bizarre events that happened in The Angel's Game like the ending)