Pulpy, melodramatic and compulsively readable, The Angel's Game is the second of a proposed four books set in Barcelona. Ruiz ZafÃ³n spoke to TIME about his obsession with storytelling, the e-book revolution and why the media don't care about literature.
These books are set in early to mid-20th century Barcelona. What is it about that time period that intrigues you?
I'm fascinated by the period that goes from the Industrial Revolution to right after World War II. There's something about that period that's epic and tragic. There's a point after the industrial period where it seems like humanity's finally going to make it right. There were advances in medicine and technology and education. People are going to be able to live longer lives; literacy is starting to spread. It seemed like finally, after centuries of toiling and misery, that humanity was going to get to a better stage. And then what happens is precisely the contrary. Humanity betrays itself.
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Hardly surprising given that its author is Carlos Ruiz Zafón whose previous novel was bestselling The Shadow Of The Wind.
Set in post-war Barcelona this magical mystery is the most successful book in Spanish publishing history after Don Quixote.
Zafón intended The Angel’s Game to take place within the same “fictional universe” as its predecessor.
So we return to the Cemetery of the Forgotten Books and the antiquated Sempere & Son bookshop, except that we’ve gone back in time 25 years.
One never escapes the sense of déjà-vu in The Angel’s Game and it leaves one wondering whether Zafón’s “fictional universe” is up to producing another two novels. On the whole the characters are sketchily drawn and the Faustian plot a little tired.
But perhaps that doesn’t matter. A lucrative Hollywood deal is probably just around the corner as Zafón is a former screenwriter and it shows. The Angel’s Game starts off as an intelligent literary thriller but morphs into action-packed adventure with a hefty body count.
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In his much-loved "The Shadow of the Wind" and in this new offering, no trope of popular fiction is off limits, and nothing succeeds like excess. You will either nod approvingly when someone bangs typewriter keys until his fingers bleed or an old widow croaks, "This city is damned. Damned," or else you will strap yourself down for a minimalist drip of Raymond Carver and Ann Beattie.
Word magic is Zafón's subject and also his MO, and he's not particular about where he finds it. The hero of "The Angel's Game" is a penurious young author named David Martín, who spends his days churning out Grand Guignol penny dreadfuls. His one true love, Cristina, has been claimed by David's mentor, the rakish Don Pedro Vidal, who dwells in a grand villa in the hills. David, by contrast, molders in a gloomy, funky-smelling tower in Barcelona's oldest and darkest quarter. He's being bled dry by his publishers, he has almost no friends and no life to speak of. Did I mention he's got terminal brain cancer?
And if you think I've given away too much of the story, please know that it's just beginning and that you are in exceptionally good hands the whole way. Zafón can write up a storm. In fact, he can write up all sorts of storms: rain, ice, fire. It's hard, really, to find anything missing from his arsenal: zesty atmosphere, crackling dialogue, arresting epigrams ("Theory is the practice of the impotent. . . . Sooner or later, the word becomes flesh and the flesh bleeds.") Plus a lively troupe of players, notably Isabella, the shopkeeper's daughter who barges her way into David's house and our affections.
Best of all: 1920s Barcelona, a city whose blend of old-world rot and modernist aspiration makes it ideally suited to the author's purposes. Zafón gets full mileage from the brothels and Gothic piles and numberless necropolises and mausoleums, and for good measure, he devises a resting place all his own: an underground Cemetery of Forgotten Books, where visitors are encouraged to adopt some obscure tome and keep it alive for future generations.
It's safe to say "The Angel's Game" won't be forgotten anytime soon, if only because it offers such a glut of reading pleasure. Only a churl -- that is, a reviewer -- would ask himself: At what point does excess become excessive? For me, the question arose somewhere after the 12th or 13th corpse. I couldn't quite figure out why all these people were dying in such hyperbolic fashion. (Something to do with curses and imprisoned souls and the Witch of Somorrostro.) More worrisomely, I couldn't figure out what stake I had in any of it.
Perhaps he is just, like Zafón, a sucker for the printed word. "Every book, every volume you see, has a soul," intones Barcelona's caretaker of forgotten books. "The soul of the person who wrote it and the soul of those who read it and lived and dreamed with it. Every time a book changes hands, every time someone runs his eyes down its pages, its spirit grows and strengthens."
I gently beg to differ. Not every book has a soul; not every book cries out to be remembered. As for the spirit of literature growing and strengthening . . . well, to quote another fictional sojourner in 1920s Spain: "Isn't it pretty to think so?" In the end, we are best advised to treat "The Angel's Game" as a dream from which it would be imprudent to awake. But it's nice while it lasts.
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