Anyone first introduced to the impassioned prose of Carlos Ruiz Zafón through his international bestseller, The Shadow of the Wind, will find it difficult to avoid comparing it to any follow-up to the novel. Where Zafón’s latest release in English, The Angel’s Game is concerned, that is both a good thing and a not-so-good thing. It is also inevitable because page by page and chapter by chapter, we come to realize there’s a reason the new novel is set in the same city, Barcelona, as The Shadow of the Wind, but an entire two decades ahead of it. That reason does not become completely clear until you are able to compare some very specific details on page one of The Shadow of the Wind with corresponding details toward the end of The Angel’s Game (the results of which readers can discover for themselves). If all this sounds slyly amorphous and irresistibly intriguing, that’s because Zafón specializes in literary puzzles and mazes, and The Angel’s Game is an exceptional one.
It’s easy to see the many ways that The Angel’s Game extends the author’s masterful use of the labyrinth as a symbolic metaphor but at the same time the novel is a very different one that abandons the kind of tightly constructed plot line applied in the previous book. Whereas the beginning of The Shadow of the Wind introduces readers to what is clearly an historical mystery in the classic mode that teases and beguiles with every new development, The Angel’s Game starts out more like a literary memoir: “A writer never forgets the first time he accepted a few coins or a word of praise in exchange for a story.”
Such an observation will invite many writers to nod in agreement, and prompt readers to sigh with romantic notions about what it means to be a writer. It hardly seems like a strong enough foundation upon which to build a serious novel of nearly 500 pages. However, it soon enough becomes clear that The Angel’s Game is indeed a kind of mystery that dissects the life and career of one David Martin, steering readers through the turbulence of his youth, the precariousness of his creative genius, and the uncertain motives of the people who populate his life.
A survivor of childhood trauma and abandonment, David grows up as the ward of a newspaper called The Voice of Industry; and, as the chosen protégé of a philanthropist named Pedro Vidal. He receives his “first crack at glory” when the newspaper is on its way to press and the editor discovers he’s short of an entire page of copy, providing David the opportunity to produce his first published story on the spot and launch his literary career in dramatic fashion. The launch successfully establishes David as the writer of a newspaper fiction series called The Mysteries of Barcelona, then later as the author of a series of “penny dreadfuls” (once known in the U.S. as “dimestore novels”) called City of the Damned. For the latter, he is required to write under the name “Ignatius B. Samson,” which he considers “a small price to pay for being able to make a living from the profession I had always dreamed of practicing.”
With the assistance of his mentor Vidal, his work and life appear to blossom in prosperous ways. However, in reality it becomes more like a nightmare than a dream fulfilled. As happy as David is to contribute to the legacies of world literature, regardless of how less-than-brilliant his popular novels may be, the cost of producing them takes a heavy toll on his mind, body, and spirit. Zafón’s description of David as a writer who produces “two hundred pages of typed manuscript a month,” following a literary formula established by his publisher, could serve as the author’s critique of the modern publishing industry, in which preference is often shown those writers willing to produce titles for a specific catalogue series as opposed to taking chances on creative works by independent authors.
The greatest insult added to David’s already injured life occurs when he secretly ghost writes a novel for Vidal, believing his benefactor knows nothing about his extensive contributions to the edits made on his manuscript. At the same time that he works on Vidal’s book, he writes another for himself. The public praises and lauds Vidal for the book bearing his name, even though David in fact wrote it, while simultaneously rejecting the book that bears David’s name. As a result, he ends up placing his own novel, The Steps of Heaven, in the now famous Cemetery of Forgotten Books. The psychological tension between the author’s drive to succeed as a serious literary writer and the exhaustion created by this ambition sends him spiraling in and out of madness and illness.
Continues with Part Two