I've come to Ruiz Zafón late – beyond the tremendous hype that surrounded The Shadow of the Wind. Many reviewers have panned the sequel The Angel's Game as a weak follow-on to its much greater predecessor, but as I haven't read The Shadow of the Wind, I come to The Angel's Game with fresh, unbiased eyes. With no background, and reading the book as a standalone novel, I was charmed. It isn't really the plot, with its echoes of Eco's (couldn't resist) The Name of the Rose, and Borges' Labyrinths and The Library of Babel, though there are nods to both authors, along with many others, from Dickens to Goethe. It isn't the mystery, which draws the reader in and propels the story forward so that, in spite of the book's size, The Angel's Game reads ultra-fast, as the reader strains towards the conclusion and uncovers pieces that obscure as much as they reveal. What really makes The Angel's Game such a powerful book, is Ruiz Zafón's extraordinary command of language. The novel is rich with poetry and meaning that goes beyond the story which draws the reader into an odd world that remains feverishly believable even as the gothic and supernatural horror builds.
For existing fans, The Angel's Game is set in in Shadow's Barcelona, around forty years earlier, in the 1920s. David Martin is a hack writer, working under a pseudonym and cranking out monthly installments under the City of the Damned banner. The books are a massive success, but Martin wants real literary success and writes a novel under his own name that sinks into obscurity. He then helps a friend turn his awful novel into a much better one, which ends up being highly praised by critics. When his friend also marries the woman Martin loves, Martin begins to descend into a tumorous depression that is only turned around when a strange but dapper publisher, Andreas Corelli, offers him a contract to write a very particular sort of book. Suddenly Martin is caught up in a plot that is as sinister as it is outlandish.
The novel does allow itself some of the excesses of genre that move between occult and mystery, and at times, the labyrinth that Martin is caught up in becomes overwrought, with murder and purple intensity breaking the fictive dream. But the edge of madness, and hints that hover between Corelli's demonic nature and Martin's psychological state are handled with literary subtlety that engages and draws the reader:
"I dreamed that the house was slowly sinking. At first, little teardrops of dark water began to appear through the cracks in the tiles, in the walls, in the relief on the ceiling, through the holes of the door locks. It was a cold liquid that crept slowly and heavily, like mercury, and gradually formed a layer covering the floor and climbing up the walls. I felt the water going over my feet, rising fast. I stayed in the armchair, watching the water."
The Angel's Game has a post-modern self-referential quality that cuts through the heavy handedness of the thriller story, especially as it begins to fall apart towards the latter half of the book. There are many reminders that this story is, above all, about semiotics and the power of words/books. There are so many evocative images and hints about this, from The Labyrinth of the Forgotten Books, the Sempere and Son bookshop, Martin's lost copy of Great Expectations, and the unwritten story of Cristina's childhood. As the story progresses, the narrator becomes less and less reliable, and the reader is drawn deeper into the creative process. Ruiz Zafón is a master of the descriptive, taking the reader past old streets and historic alleyways, while using a liberal use of the pathetic fallacy to create a powerful atmosphere that mingles desire, hunger and humour in equal parts:
"By the time we reached Sarria, dawn had broken with a grey, dull light that robbed the morning of any colour. I climbed the deserted narrow streets of the district towards the lower slopes of the hillside."
The Angel's Game may not have created the frenzy of The Shadow of the Wind, but for those who read it as a standalone book, or as part of a continuing series of interlinked novels that are about far more than simply the mystery contained within the pages, it is simply wonderful. The novel touches on the whole range of human desires, aspirations, on literary pretension, hubris and self-immolation. It's a rich, linguistic treasure whose fast and fancy plot belies the depth. I read it once for the pleasure of the story, which did get a little kooky towards the end, and then, a second time, for the sheer beauty and complexity of it. It is the sort of novel that keeps on revealing something different, the more you explore it.