In the wake of the phenomenal success of Shadow of the Wind, there has been a great deal of anticipation, in the literary world, for the second of Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s books to be translated into the English language. Indeed, there has been a modest amount of caution. Appearing at the 2009 American Booksellers Association Winter Institute, held in Salt Lake City, Zafón was reserved and genial, but the advanced copies of the new book, The Angel’s Game, tentatively due on bookstore shelves next week (June 16), were conservative in number and were distributed with great reserve.
Set in a dark, mysterious Barcelona of the 1920s, the novel explores the familiar artistic convention of striking a bargain with the devil. However, Zafón’s book, unlike many others that play with this scenario, makes use of these familiar elements in a fresh and interesting way. When a book is written, he suggests, part of the author’s soul remains within. This is not a new concept, and can be traced to two pivotal sources.
The idea of the author existing as an individual distinguished from the larger body of the society in which he lives can be traced back to William Wordsworth’s Preface to the 1802 edition of his Lyrical Ballads. The author, he writes, is one “who, being possessed of more than usual organic sensibility, had also thought long and deeply” about work presented to society at large. Our modern notions of authorship are, largely, taken from Michel Foucault’s now famous 1969 essay “What is an Author?” In this writing, the notion of authorship is distilled to “the privileged moment of individualization in the history of . . . literature.” Writers, Foucault suggests, leave the impression of their own imperfections on the ideas they channel into their work. In short, part of the author’s limited and unique self is to be forever found in his or her work. It is just this unique self with which the protagonist of The Angel’s Game gambles.
After having written a series of pulp novels for purely economic reasons, David Martín, the book’s central character, decides that he wants to write a work of literature, a book of substance that will establish his place in the literary world. Unfortunately, it is an utter flop. Enter a Parisian publisher, a man of wealth and taste, who offers him an extraordinary sum of money to write a religious treatise for which “people will live and die.” The contract is sealed, and Martín begins to work on the new book with a preliminary reserve that transforms, over the course of the novel, into a fevered obsession. As he becomes more and more steeped in the work of the contract, he begins to lose his grip on the world around him and begins to question the motives of the dark stranger into whose hands he has placed himself.
Although lacking the weight and complexity of the novel that used these conventions best, Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, Zafón manages, nonetheless, to effectively strike the same chord of supernatural menace and invoke the same modest, albeit eerie, sense of claustrophobia found in the earlier masterpiece. Unfortunately it is not as sustained. Zafón’s Corelli is neither as sinister nor as conniving as Bulgakov’s Woland, nor is he as voracious as Cormac McCarthy’s judge, the subtle devil of Blood Meridian. In fact, Corelli seems to do very little but linger in the novel’s periphery. This is what redirects us to David Martín.
The questions the book grapples with, after all, seem to focus on the act of writing and the nature of the writer in the role he or she must occupy. Zafón’s Corelli, like Bulgakov’s Woland, is the principal antagonist of order. He exists to tempt the weak and to seduce the righteous, and the reader must question the writer’s reaction to such delicious diversions as robust advances or significant contracts, and consider the attention that is left to the artistry and the art. The Steps of Heaven, David Martín’s self-pronounced literary opus in the book, is, after all, quickly forgotten as he turns his attention to his new commitment.
Temptation is always the Devil’s Game and, although Corelli’s seductive appeals are not made as overtly as the temptations of Lucifer in John Milton’s Paradise Lost or Nikos Kazantzakis’ The Last Temptation of Christ, it is, ultimately, the response of the tempted party that really matters.
About two thirds of the way through the work, in his hunt for the truth of his circumstances, Martín meets with a seller of magical tricks, Señor Damián Roures. Roures explains that, in his line of work, he encounters a great many clients who are “seriously unbalanced,” and that he exercises a great deal of caution regarding the type of service he renders. “We offer our services,” he tells Martín, “to people who come to us looking for a bit of fun, or some excitement and comfort from the world beyond.” The supernatural encounters he sells have a great deal of entertainment value, laced with an edge of excitement. It is precisely this that The Angel’s Game has to offer its readers, and I think that it is through Cormac McCarthy’s dark judge that we can best appreciate Zafón’s new novel. At the conclusion of Blood Meridian, he tells us, through the demonic character, that “the participants will be apprised of their roles at the proper time. For now it is enough that they have arrived. As the dance is the thing with which we are concerned and contains complete within itself its own arrangement and history and finale there is no necessity that the dancers contain these things within themselves as well.” Whether we travel by way of Andreas Corelli’s chauffeured Rolls-Royce, a “cathedral on wheels” that races through the dark city “barely touching the ground,” by way of flying pig, or by turning the pages of this book, The Angel’s Game is a great ride. – Aaron Cance, Doubleday, $26.95