Writer faces a devil’s bargain

Owchar is the Times' deputy books editor.

Wanted: talented, desperate writer to pen a book for the Devil.

That’s the idea driving “The Angel’s Game,” the follow-up to Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s 2004 international bestseller, “The Shadow of the Wind.”

If you’re waiting for Dan Brown’s “The Lost Symbol” (c’mon, you know you are; even those who scorn his writing are curious about Robert Langdon’s next adventure), then Zafon offers the best way to bide your time until its release. He offers not only plenty of plot intricacies and mystery but also a lyrical, melancholic style of writing -- something that Brown has yet to create.

“The Angel’s Game” is a strange creature, a literary centaur in which a meditation on the craft of writing is combined with a thriller about David Martin, a master of pulp and Grand Guignol.


“I’m an author of penny dreadfuls,” he says of himself, “that don’t even carry my name.” And yet, whether readers know his name or not, David has 1920s Barcelona under his spell, first with a newspaper serial, “The Mysteries of Barcelona,” and later with novels under the collective title “The City of the Damned.”

That title is very apt for a city that Zafon describes in this manner: “I could see people lying on mattresses and sheets on some of the neighbouring flat roofs, trying to escape the suffocating heat and get some sleep. In the distance, the three large chimneys in the Paralelo area rose like funeral pyres spreading a mantle of white ash.” He veils the city in smoke the way Victorian London holds the patent on fog.

David relishes his success, even though it’s anonymous, even though it comes at the cost of grinding writing sessions that produce “storms of nausea and burning stabs in my brain.” Some of his friends believe he is ruining his talent, and Zafon poses a question early that characters return to in their conversations: What matters more, creating art for a select few, or reaching as many people as possible with a vehicle that’s the equivalent of the new “Transformers” movie?

David’s beloved from childhood, Cristina, sees it as an either-or situation. “The woman I love,” he says of her, “thinks I’m wasting my life. . . . “

Others, like the bookseller Sempere (whose grandson goes on to be the hero of “The Shadow of the Wind”) knows this attitude is far too naive. The quality of one’s art, he tells the young man, must be measured in other ways. “This book is a piece of your heart, Martin,” he says of one of David’s books. And, what’s more, “it is also a piece of my heart.” For the old man, the true value in a work of art is this power to possess a reader, whether the marketplace applauds or boos.

Poor consolation for David, who’s penniless, ill and helpless as Cristina marries a friendly rival. And just when all hope seems gone, his savior arrives: a French publisher named Andreas Corelli. He wants David to use his pulp skills to create a magnificent fable as passionate and compelling as anything in the Bible -- and in exchange, Corelli promises fantastic wealth and a promise to restore David’s health, which is rapidly fading. David can’t believe his luck -- or in his own apparent worthiness.


“I think you judge yourself too severely,” Corelli responds. “I’ve been watching you for years. . . . I’ve read all your work. . . . I dare say I know you better than you know yourself. Which is why I’m sure that in the end you will accept my offer.”

“Offer” -- wouldn’t “pact” be a better term? With his fashionable white suit, an angel pin gleaming on his lapel, his long fingers and black, predatory eyes, Corelli’s diabolical identity is about as hard to miss as Robert De Niro’s Louis Cyphre in the 1987 movie “Angel Heart” (remember when he picked up a hard-boiled egg, a symbol of the soul, and sank his teeth into it?). Zafon hardly conceals Corelli’s identity. When David asks, for instance, “What did you want to be as a child, Senor Corelli?,” the publisher’s answer is quite candid: “God.”

This won’t spoil anything -- the greater mystery of “The Angel’s Game” is that David isn’t the first client of Corelli’s to take on this assignment. In fact, David soon learns that the former owner of the shabby tower house that he rents -- a man named Diego Marlasca (note their common initials) -- had once written a book for the same publisher. By looking into this vanished figure’s fate, David realizes what may happen to him if he doesn’t fulfill his contract -- or maybe even if he does.

This quest, though, isn’t nearly as successful as the book’s opening section, which follows David’s early writing career. There’s just something thrilling about watching a young person in the first flush of his powers, and Zafon captures David’s swagger and cockiness wonderfully. The search for what happened to Marlasca, however, becomes at times a little too crowded with plot hurdles -- there’s too much that must be cleared before the final showdown can occur.

Zafon also returns to the great set piece of “Shadow of the Wind,” the Cemetery of Forgotten Books -- an immense subterranean library of winding corridors containing “the sum of centuries of books that have been lost and forgotten, books condemned to be destroyed and silenced forever.” While this vast repository is clearly an echo of Umberto Eco’s medieval library in “The Name of the Rose,” the cemetery also reminds us of something else: the difficulties facing any writer. What’s been forgotten outweighs what we remember.

If the odds of success are this bad, why, then, would anyone want to become a writer? Every scribe has to answer this for him or herself, but at least they can find some solace in a simple fact asserted by “The Angel’s Game”: Writing doesn’t come easy to anybody, not even the Devil.