When writers write about writing, it's usually a safe bet to avert your eyes. In The Angel's Game, however, a standalone narrative with a few satisfying ties to The Shadow of the Wind, bestselling Spanish export Carlos Ruiz Zafon demonstrates once again how to do meta-fiction right.
Too often, pseudo-biographical books about books descend into a self-referential quagmire of ego and indulgence, but however many authors Zafon tips his hat at over the course of his second novel for mature readers — Dickens being the most singular influence amongst them — The Angel's Game retains the clarity of voice and purpose that made its 2004 predecessor such a standout.
In the opening few chapters, Zafon sketches a memorable portrait of Barcelona in the early 1900s. The cast of characters who inhabit its extravagant streets and seedy alleyways are wonderfully drawn, but the first flourish of The Angel's Game is the city itself. The ominous Barcelona this author presents quickly and effortlessly evokes the tone and the atmosphere that pervade the entire remainder of the text.
Zafon is also at the top of his game in drawing the players of David Martin's twisting first-person narrative. His touch is delicate, yet disarmingly direct. With just a few words the author of this excellent modern fable/cautionary tale is able to perfectly render his quirky, charismatic characters without ever threatening to overload this impeccably mysterious tale. It takes him only moments to bestow upon David's distant love interest the impossible chasm set between them; listen closely and you'll be able to hear the booming intonations of Pedro Vidal, father figure to the protagonist, as if he were monologuing in the next room rather than from a book set in Barcelona nearly a hundred years ago.
When David's strange benefactor, Andreas Corelli, offers the sick and struggling writer an escape from his woes that seems heaven-sent, the reader soon understands exactly what an insidious deal with the devil has been struck. It takes our protagonist rather longer to see the light, but the journey toward that belated revelation is of no less significance than the destination — and it's a great trip. As soon as Zafon has set the pieces in motion, the reader can only hold tight as the layers of intrigue and suspense build inexorably towards a destructive climax.
Sadly, the last act disappoints. The secrets of The Angel's Game are revealed in a morass of conspiracy and confusion exacerbated by the relentless action that comes to dominate the final chapters of Zafon's otherwise excellent novel. The very confrontations the author has so deliberately prepared for are there and then gone in a blur of increasingly unlikely sequences more becoming of Jason Bourne than the bookish hero of this carefully constructed slow-burner.
The epilogue, at least, is an ambiguous, ethereal return to form that goes far towards redeeming the unfortunate spasms that almost undermine the book's climax. Would that its author had taken such care with the 50 pages preceding it.
Despite such missteps, The Angel's Game is hardly in need of saving. Zafon's impressive sophomore effort takes a handful of genres — from crime to romance to thriller to mystery — and makes them its own with a flair and directness rarely matched in modern fiction. Besides which, it is among the very funniest novels I've read in recent memory. You will laugh out loud as David's temptress apprentice lectures her literary master on the finer points of religion, life and love. The author's acerbic wit positively tears through the pages of this tome, translated with obvious respect and affection by Lucia Graves; its biting sense of the absurd and the inappropriate takes in irony, slapstick, sarcasm and hits all the other high-points of humour along the way.
The Angel's Game is meta-fiction at its very best, but never does that reductive label threaten to overwhelm the rip-roaring experience readers will have with it. Zafon's latest narrative is thoughtful, mysterious and impossibly fun — if it doesn't quite reach the dizzying heights of The Shadow of The Wind, it's only because some summits can only be scaled once.