A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Carlos Ruiz Zafón is a Catalan-Spanish writer, who has done much to popularise literature in translation in many Anglophone cultures, including the UK, where the book scene is reputed to be somewhat insular. If this is a rather dated view, this must be partly due to Ruiz Zafón and writers like him. He combines a flair for spooky atmosphere with a respect for the reader, understanding that we don’t want, or need him to lay out his stall immediately and the drip-drip approach works much more effectively.
The Angel’s Game is the second in his Cemetery of Forgotten Books series – so far a trilogy- coming after Shadow of the Wind, also set in Barcelona, but some years before it. The Angel’s Game can therefore be read as a standalone novel. It has an eerie, disconnected atmosphere, in keeping with the time it is set in and its unreliable, first person narrator.
David Martin is a young writer, cast adrift without a family or many friends, in a world that is increasingly dangerous and unstable. His father, a damaged war veteran, was murdered when David was a teenager, while his mother abandoned them both after his father’s return home. He is, moreover, in a state of apparently unrequited love for a woman who he feels has betrayed him with one of the few friends he has. In setting out his narrator’s life like this, Ruiz Zafón immediately questions David’s credibility. We are forced to ask how far the events in the book are real, and how far they are a product of David’s disordered imagination. There is no doubt that he had a dreadful childhood and came to maturity in a country in an ugly state of turmoil, inching towards civil war. Furthermore, Spain is embedded in the fate of its neighbours and Europe is entering a horrific phase in its history. No country is going to escape the cataclysm ahead.
The Angel’s Game has a plot that is convoluted, occasionally ridiculous and strewn with enormous conspiracies and dead bodies. How they got that way has a level of ambiguity that is easier to see once the reader steps away from David’s perspective. He’s anxious, paranoid and quite possibly suffering from physical and mental illness, but it’s a theme of Ruiz Zafón’s novels that paranoia doesn’t mean no-one’s out to get you. Someone quite possibly is, especially in a corrupt state teetering into all-out war with itself. However ridiculous David’s point of view is, it’s nothing compared to the grotesque dramas unfolding in the world outside his head.
Looked at objectively, the plot is ridiculous. David develops a form of brain cancer that is cured overnight when a mysterious benefactor comes on the scene. This individual goes by the name of Andreas Corelli. He is described as a French publisher, although he has an Italian name; whatever his national origins he is definitely creepy. There is something unwholesome about him, but by the time David realises it, he is committed to the book Corelli wants him to write. It is ostensibly about religion, but David suspects a malign agenda, connected to the increasing turmoil that Spain is falling into. At the same time, Corelli presents as kind, generous and cultured, much like many of the terrible people manoeuvring themselves into positions of power all over Europe. It is one of Ruiz Zafón’s strength’s as a writer that he doesn’t bash the reader over the head with the history and politics. He allows his plot and characters to work for him and perhaps even more, that spooky atmosphere, of a city on the edge of something unspeakable and terrifying.
As a writer, Ruiz Zafón is committed to the beauty and power of the written word, but he is in no doubt as to its dangers as well. We are with David as he realises the full horror of what Corelli has asked him to do and feel his sense of entrapment as he tries to find a way out. However, Ruiz Zafón would not be the writer he is if he only traded in fear; he also allows his narrator to fall in love with books; Dickens is mentioned and the novel itself has many Dickensian features, including a loveable bookseller, a disappointed aristocrat and some rather villainous publishers and journalists. Moreover, he depicts Barcelona as vividly as Dickens does London. I don’t know the city, but imagine this book would be a treat for someone who does. However, unlike Dickens, Ruiz Zafon doesn’t engage in caricature. His policemen are chilly, without a trace of bumptiousness and his villains rarely experience epiphanies. He has a view of human nature that is ultimately quite pessimistic, but given the time he writes about, that is understandable. As Europe enters a new period of uncertainty, it might be helpful for Ruiz Zafon and writers like him to be more widely read. We should be wary of assuming that what happened in the 1920s and 30s could not happen again; there is no reason for us to believe that we are better people than they were.
Phoenix, London. 2009. ISBN 978-0-2978-5589-7. 531pp.