Saturday, September 8, 2012

The Angel's Game

The Angel's Game
By Carlos Ruiz Zafon

It is often said that one must suffer for their craft, whether it is woodworking, sculpture or writing. David Martin, the protagonist in Carlos Ruiz Zafon's vampish, moody follow-up to Shadows of the Wind is such an artist. A writer of popular gothic tales, Martin is the very embodiment of the suffering artist, though it is left unclear whether it is a suffering of his own design or whether a certain element of fate is involved in his grotesque descent into darker realms.

Despite fair warnings from his friends, Martin somehow becomes involved with a silver-tongued Parisian publisher by the name of Antonio Corelli who commissions a very specific project, one rife with peril. Over the course of the novel Martin 's relationship with Corelli sours as strange and unfortunate incidents begin occurring within Martin's circle of friends and family. Corelli manifests himself as some sort of incarnation of Satan, and Martin, in a tragic bit of irony, becomes embroiled in a mystery every bit as melodramatic and macabre as the "penny dreadfuls" that he seems to write at the conveniently regular pace of 6.66 pages per day.

The Angel's Game is, in essence, a literal tale about the creation and sale of art. The notion of an artist selling their soul to the devil for material gain is hardly new. 

“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.” 

Any writer who has made money from their stories has, in a sense, has sold a portion of their soul in the form of their writing, leaving it in the hands of others to do with it as they may. Zafon hardly conceals the notion that a novel is a part of a writer's soul and the publisher plays the part of the devil in the literary transaction. To be sure, my favorite portions of The Angel's Game were the discussions between Martin and Corelli about the nature of good and evil and the political necessity of organized religion as a way in which to direct human faith toward political gain.

But let's not let Faustian imagery get the way of a good story, shall we? Zafon certainly doesn't. He's not interested in waxing intellectual on the philosophical nature of good and evil. A light dusting of critical thought on the subject as color for his narrative is more than enough to satisfy his whims. And although the The Angel's Game pays homage to dozens of classic works of fiction including Faust and Great Expectations, it is, at its heart a lurid romp through the streets of pre-Civil War Spain. He rarely stops long enough to chew the heavy issues fully, opting to wipe the slate clean and steam ahead with the narrative at hand. In this way, The Angel's Game is every bit the work of David Martin as it is that of Carlos Ruiz Zafon. 

Although there are moments in this novel that beg the reader pause for thought:

“It seems that in the advanced stages of stupidity, a lack of ideas is compensated for by an excess of ideologies.” 

As mentioned before, it is unclear whether the descent of David Martin is a construct of fate or of free will, and such ambiguity give the novel an esoteric theme. But one cannot help but feel a certain level of pleasure from witnessing Martin become a victim of his own brand of gothic fiction. Unlike the adorable Daniel Sempere in Shadows of the Wind, David Martin is an unlikable and smug knave who seems to deserve all the pain and punishment inflicted upon him. And as the body count increases toward the end of the book, Zafon seems unafraid to take the novel to its unbearably tragic end. In this sense, The Angel's Game is delicious vision into the mind of a man intent on taking his troubles to the end of the line.

The narrative itself is long, convoluted and braided. It weaves through the dark corners, sinister alleys and saturnine houses of 1920s Barcelona, making stops at both Sempere & Sons Bookshop and the Cemetery of Forgotten Books (familiar locales for anyone who has read Shadows of the Wind). Zafon is a modern master of tone and mood, plotting his story through an relentless parade of eccentric characters who inhabit impossibly rank settings. I found myself time and again comparing the structure and pace of this novel to the work of Umberto Eco (and specifically Foucault's Pendulum). Confusion simply for the sake of confusion (and a good story). So long as the confusion remains plausible to the reader, we are willing to follow along the increasingly convoluted trajectory.

I got the impression that Zafon was trying to convey that writers can talk all sorts of big talk and throw all sorts of themes and styles and form into a story but at the end of the day, it's the story itself that prevails and it's the story that draws the reader in above all else. 

“Everything is a story, a narrative, a sequence of events with characters communicating an emotional content. We only accept as true what can be narrated.” 

And for that, the artist suffers.


Brian Joseph said...

This is very insightful commentary Ryan.

I have not read Carlos Ruiz Zafon but I love Umberto Eco and this story sounds really good. I really enjoy these complicated and moody narratives.

The passages that you quote make me think that I would really like this writer.

Jenny said...

I have several of Zafon's books on my shelf and I've yet to get to them. One of these days!

Man of la Book said...

Wonderful review. I have to be honest, I loved all of Zafón's "Forgotten Books" series including The Angel's Game excellent. This is book is slower than Shadow of the Wind but I loved the prose and cynicism of the story.

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