Saturday, 13 April 2013

The Angel's Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafón: Book Review

Drink with this

Vermuth de grifo

Vermouth did not originate in Barcelona, but has become a bit of a staple of the city’s bars. It’s served from the tap like beer, and each bar has its own version so you never know quite what to expect. Imagine yourself in a seedy bar down a little winding alley drinking a glass of dry vermouth. Wine macerated with herbs, it sounds vaguely witchy and tastes slightly medicinal. Menacing characters drinking straight from dusty bottles sit in the shadowy corners of the bar. They do not try to hide the fact they are openly staring at you. You choke slightly on your vermouth, its taste growing ever more acidic and unpleasant. You hastily leave, glad you have spent only a drink’s worth of time on this experience rather than the time it might to take to, for example, READ A 600 PAGE NOVEL.

What’s what

I feel tricked by this book. I had a vague idea, which in retrospect evolved from nowhere I can easily identify, that it was Proper Literature. Perhaps it was a combination of the whopping success of its companion book - Shadow of the Wind - the ethereal pastels of the cover and the fact that it was a translation. Also, most of the books I read feature vampires, spies, or teenage vampire spies battling to survive in a dystopian America ruled by evil robotic overlords. This seemed so much more grown-up I think I forgot that it still might be…crap.

By the end of the novel I would have a relished a good teenage werewolf story, and found the love triangle between the werewolf, mermaid and robot overlord a great deal more realistic than the actual plot of The Angel’s Game. Anyway, here’s the premise: David is a troubled writer of trashy pulp crime fiction living in Barcelona in the early part of the 20th C. He makes a deal with a mysterious publisher who is not what he seems.

Grandes went over to the window and gazed at the view of the city, a fantasy of lights and mist, cathedrals and palaces, alleyways and wide avenues woven into a labyrinth of shadows. ‘The city of the damned,’ said Grandes. ‘The further away you are, the prettier it looks.’ Pg 509

This is not a short book people. Perhaps I wouldn’t feel so cheated if I hadn’t read and enjoyed the first three hundred pages, only for them to be followed by three hundred pages of utter rubbish. Everything enjoyable that Zafon had worked to develop in the first half of the book, he then proceeded to trash in the second. If I knew more about football this is where I would say something like “it was a book of two halves” except funnier because I would actually understand that phrase in context instead of something that wee Scottish guy off the radio intoned every Saturday afternoon of my childhood.

The prose admittedly was fabulous - lyrical and sinister, and evocative of dark winding alleys and haunted corners of Barcelona. The book, much like its predecessor, is a paean to reading and writing, and any book lover will enjoy those parts. I also really liked the main character David both, when he was a young, naive wannabe writer and when he was a cynical, disillusioned and lonely man. H e had some great snappy dialogue with Isabella, the only other worthwhile character.

A writer never forgets the first time he accepted a few coins or a word of praise in exchange for a story. He will never forget the sweet poison of vanity in his blood, and the belief that, if he succeeds in not letting anyone discover his lack of talent, the dream of literature will provide him with a roof over his head, a hot meal at the end of the day, and what he covets the most: his name printed on a miserable piece of paper that surely will outlive him. A writer is condemned to remember that moment, because from then on he is doomed and his soul has a price. Pg 3

So what went wrong? I blame the evil of magic realism. The first part of the book reads as a straightforward narrative, realistic if a bit far-fetched at times. The second part is a cryptic puzzle where the reader is forced to wonder confusedly what is happening, who is dead, who exists, and what is mere delusion. By the end I simply did not care. Magic realism is not wrong per se I suppose, but when it’s done badly it seems as if it’s there just as an excuse for the writer to dispense with plot, narrative, and consistent characterization.

‘He said he’d handed his life over to a shadow.’ ‘A shadow?’ ‘Those were his words. A shadow who followed him and possessed the same shape, face and voice as his own.’ ‘What did that mean?’ ‘Guilt and remorse have no meaning. They are feelings, emotions, not ideas.’ It occurred to me that not even the boss could have explained this more clearly. Pg 467

The book was also damaged but an abrupt shift in writing style from slow menacing build-up of suspense to melodramatic and choppy action, which should have been exciting but was in fact utterly boring due to the fact that every single interesting character was dead or crazy or possibly not real. The love interest, whom David spent the majority of the book moping over, was completely devoid of any sort of personality. Her only notable attributes were her beauty and her unattainability. Eventually she dies (SPOILER) and I was glad, although it took another hundred pages for me to be sure that she had in fact died and that scene hadn’t been a dream. But then the book screwed me over with its epilogue. My fury was intensified to a state of burning rage by this cheesy and baffling chapter, which could have been a scene from the outtakes of my most loathed film, the horrifying Benjamin Button. The memory of Brad Pitt’s hotness DESTROYED by this heinously creepy movie was too much, and I turned the last page in angry tears of pure hate.

One of David’s pulp crime novels would have been infinitely more enjoyable than Zafon’s book. Lovely prose and a good few hundred pages can’t compensate for the wreck the story becomes.


Read a nice dystopian young adult novel instead - there are plenty to choose from, they’re all pretty fun, and you’ll save a good few hours of your life which you can never, ever get back.

On the big screen

The plot would only become more convoluted and hard to follow when translated to cinema, and its all too easy to imagine the melancholy atmosphere and sense of poetic doom being leached out of it.


Distinctly middle of the road. The Alchemist meets 100 Years of Solitude meets The Da Vinci Code and together they create a monstrosity.

1 comment:

  1. I was stupid enough to read Shadow of the Wind because it looked clever. In fact it was also stupid.