I've reviewed so many excellent translated books for this blog. Yet with a few exceptions (i.e. Hesse, Murakami), they remain largely unknown in the United States. Considering that just about every contemporary work of international literature I've read makes at least one reference to America or American culture, that lack of awareness in this country (which I'm trying to overcome in my own little corner of the Interwebs) really gives one pause. So needless to say, it's been great to see that everyone seems to be reading Carlos Ruiz Zafón's The Angel's Game (El Juego del Ángel), a Spanish novel translated by Lucia Graves. Ruiz Zafón's previous book, The Shadow of the Wind, to which The Angel's Game is a prequel, was also a major international bestseller that originally introduced the Sempere & Sons bookshop and mythical Cemetery of Lost Books. Both are back for The Angel's Game, which takes us on a tour through the winding streets of Barcelona in the late 1920s, a place where the ancient and modern collided in an uneasy juxtaposition of dazzling technology and decaying grandeur.
The story centers on a young writer named David Martín, the survivor of a lonely and difficult childhood as the son of a damaged war veteran. Following his father's death, a wealthy benefactor named Pedro Vidal lands him a position at a local paper, where David eventually gains a bit of fame as the author of a thrilling crime serial. He then moves on to write City of the Damned, a lurid Gothic series, under the name Ignatius Samson for a pair of shady publishers. When he discovers he is dying of a brain tumor, however, he agrees to accept a vague but highly lucrative offer from the mysterious Andreas Corelli to compose a fictional work with the power to literally inspire humanity and change the world (for better or worse). His tumor magically removed, David soon learns that he has, in fact, been hired to invent a new religion for purposes unknown. Meanwhile, during a visit to the Cemetery of Lost Books, David acquires an obscure volume called Lux Aterna, a veritable "book of the dead" whose hypnotic prose is clearly the work of a madman - one who used to live in the dilapidated mansion David now inhabits. Events soon escalate. As people around him start dropping dead, David finds himself in a struggle with the demonic Corelli for nothing less than his very soul.
If the shadowy atmosphere of pre-Civil War Barcelona seems layered on too thickly, that was probably Ruiz Zafón's intention. The Angel's Game is a work of quasi-metafiction in which the external world mirrors the sensational tales David spins early in his career. "The clock is ticking," a suspicious character says to David, "and instead of telling me what you did with Cristina Sagnier, you persist in trying to convince me with a story that sounds like something from City of the Damned." The Angel's Game contains so many elements typical of the Gothic thriller - such as haunted and ruined mansions, black magic, brooding Byronic hero, ghosts, insanity, family saga (i.e. the "ancestral curse"), melodrama, and an overall sense of corruption and corrosion - that it borders on ridiculousness and satire. Again, however, I think that what seems at first like a multitude of technical flaws is really something Ruiz Zafón did on purpose. Gothic fiction has a long history of self-parody, exhibited most famously in Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey. But what's great about The Angel's Game is that this self-conscious play of genre enables the book to function on two levels. On one, it is a lavish and enjoyable mystery/adventure with broad popular appeal. At the same time, it is also a real intellectual treat.
(And much as a I love European Gothic metal, that is admittedly one music genre also thoroughly ripe for parody.)
The Angel's Game seems to differ, however, in its treatment of the modern (relative to the novel's setting) world. Daphne Du Maurier's Rebecca, which takes place and was written in roughly the same time period as The Angel's Game, has more in common with its inspiration, Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre (1847), than it does with most contemporaneous literature (i.e. Woolf, Hemingway). The romantic suspense of Rebecca and Jane Eyre is timeless. The Angel's Game, on the other hand, takes place in a recognizable twentieth century, with the progressive spirit of the Modernist era vividly contrasting with the powerful sense of Past revealed through crumbling architecture, the trauma of old tragedies, and murky, hidden spaces like the Cemetery of Lost Books. It is very reminiscent of a recent non-fiction work, Dorothy and Thomas Hoobler's The Crimes of Paris, which explores how advances in science, technology, and even the arts both inspired crime and helped combat it pre-WWI France. One innovation the Hooblers discuss is the then-novel idea of a getaway car (and the subsequent car chase), first utilized in a robbery outside Paris in 1911. Speeding through Barcelona is rather frequent occurrence in The Angel's Game; plus, there's that grand car chase near the end.
Also mentioned several times is the International Exhibition, while the avant-garde Modernist style of a lawyer's office (its stark coldness set against that ever-present sense of past) reminded me that many Modernist artists were initially believed to be clinically insane - one critic even called the Armory Show "pathology on display." Again, madness is a pivotal aspect of both The Angel's Game and Gothic literature in general. Victor Serge, a major presence in The Crimes of Paris, wrote a novel in the late '40s called Unforgiving Years, in which he asserts that civilization itself "is a form of schizophrenia," referring to the recent horrors of World War II and the Holocaust, as well as Stalin's current reign of terror in the Soviet Union. While fascism and communism are both secular ideologies, the murderous passion they inspire in their masses of Bacchante (a Euripedes reference) is not unlike the zeal of religion. Says Corelli:
"Nothing makes us believe more than fear, the certainty of being threatened. When we feel like victims, all our actions and beliefs are legitimized, however questionable they may be. Our opponents, or simply our neighbors, stop sharing common ground with us and become our enemies. We stop being aggressors and become defenders. The envy, greed, or resentment that motifies us becomes sanctified, because we tell ourselves we're acting in self-defense. Evil, menace - those are always the preserve of the other. The first step for believing passionately is fear. Fear of losing our identity, our life, our status, our beliefs. Fear is the gunpowder and hatred is the fuse. Dogma, the final ingredient, is only a lighted match."He goes on:
"It's much easier to hate someone with a recognizable face whom we can blame for everything that makes us uncomfortable. It doesn't have to be an individual character. It can be a nation, a race, a group . . . anything."Later, at the close of the book, David is standing on a beach somewhere in 1945, looking back on his life following the events of The Angel's Game. Although he never completed the holy book Corelli had commissioned him to write, he recalls "reading those chronicles about the war in Spain, and then in Europe and the rest of the world," observing that "I've seen how the inferno promised in the pages I wrote for the boss has taken on a life of its own." Serge, in Unforgiving Years, similarly denounces the blind hate and fervor which spawned that age of global calamity.
If all religion is a form of universal fiction, preserved and carried down through society's collective consciousness, then so too can the act of storytelling be the catalyst for friendship and harmony. Despite the darkness closing in, this is seen time and again throughout The Angel's Game, as David forms close bonds with fellow writers and bookworms such as Vidal, Isabella, and the Semperes. Religion is always concerned with the soul; here, Ruiz Zafón argues that fiction is the soul of humanity. It is the creative spirit, the polar opposite of the destructive impulse rising from fiction gone wrong. Ultimately, we all face this choice between the two. David's own internal struggle is precisely that psychological dilemma faced by the lone individual watching the Nazis march into town: collaborate or hide my Jewish neighbors? Should David write a book for Corelli that may well set the world aflame, in exchange for health and money, or should he stand up and defend those around him?
The ending got a little convoluted for my tastes and the character Cristina was annoying pathetic, but really, other than that, this is an awesome book.
Since the idea of the "universal myth" plays such a huge role in The Angel's Game, I thought I'd share this totally awesome "supertrailer" I found on YouTube, which showcases the common elements found in the modern sagas of Star Wars, The Matrix, and The Lord of the Rings. Note that they all deal with a war between good v. evil, a prophesized Messiah, and epic battle scenes. Now compare these to the various major religions, past and present, and you get a pretty good picture of the legends that have driven humanity for time immemorial. LOL, if only this was a real movie!