Angel’s Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafron

Angel’s Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafron satiated whatever appetite I had for quick, page-turner pulp fiction with smatterings of philosophical insight, having not been able to delve into Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (it was my third attempt!). Think Anne Rice with less fantastical vampiric overtones (still goth) with a touch of Sherlock Holmes mixed with the regular ingredients that make up what you’d classify as a thriller. Corelli I adore. He reminds me of David Strathairn in The Firm. Also absolutely taken with the idea Zafron presented of coming up with a new religion that would sway the public and make them believers. David Martin (the protagonist) comes up with a brilliant mythological idol: the warrior messiah. Allow me to quote him, because it pleases me so:

“A messiah full of blood and anger, who saves his people, his genes, his womenfolk and his patriarchs from the political and racial dogma of his enemies, that is to say, from anyone who does not subject himself to his doctrine.

‘What about the adults?’

‘we’ll get to the adult by having recourse to his frustration. As life advances we have to give up the hopes, dreams and desires of our youth, we acquire a growing sense of being a victim of the world and of other people. There is always someone else to blame for our misfortunes and failures, someone we wish to exclude. Embracing a doctrine that will turn this grudge and this victim mentality into something positive provides comfort and strength. The adult feels part of the group and sublimates his lost desires and hopes through his community.’

‘Perhaps,’ Corelli granted. ‘What about all this iconography of death and flags and shields? Don’t you find it all counter-productive?’

‘No, I think it is essential. Clothes maketh the man, but above all, they maketh the churchgoer.’

‘And what do you say about the women, the other half? I’m sorry, but I find it hard to imagine a substantial number of women in a society believing in pennants and shields. Boy Scout psychology is for children.’

‘The main pillar of every organised religion, with a few exceptions, is the subjugation, repression, even the annulment of women in the group. Woman must accept the role of an ethereal, passive and maternal presence, never of authority or independence, or she will have to take the consequences. She might have a place of honour in the symbolism, but not in the hierarchy. Religion and war are male pursuits. And anyhow, woman sometimes end up becoming the accomplice in her own subjugation. 

‘And the aged?’

‘Old age is the lubricant of belief. When death knocks at the door, skepticism flies out of the window. A serious cardiovascular fright and a person will even believe in Little Red Riding Hood.’

Corelli laughed. 

‘Careful, Martin, I think you’re becoming more cynical than I am.’

And the reasons why Martin chose the warrior messiah is simple demographics and biology:

“…Among humans the male attains the plentitude of his fertility at the age of 17. The female attains it later and preserves it, and somehow acts as selector and judge of the genes she agrees to produce. The male, one the other hand, simply offers himself and wastes away much faster. The age at which he reaches his maximum productive strength is also when his combative strength is at its peak. A young man is the perfect soldier. He has great potential for aggression and a limited critical capacity – or none at all – with which to analyse it and judge how to channel it. Throughout history, societies have found ways of using this store of aggression, turning their adolescents into soldiers, cannon fodder with which to conquer their neighbours or defend themselves against their agressors. Something told me that our protagonist was an envoy from heaven, but an envoy who, from the first flush of youth, took arms and liberated truth with blows of iron.”

“Most of the great religions were either born or reached their apogee at a time when the societies that adopted them had a younger and poorer demographic base. Societies in which 70 percent of the population was under the age of eighteen – half of them men with their veins bursting with violence and the urge to procreate – were the perfect breeding grounds for an acceptance and explosion of faith.”

Amazingly original, or is it not? Makes me want to whip out pen and paper and create a new religion for the hopeless too.

[Is he saying that history is science’s dumping ground? Food for thought…]

Anyhow, what made the book fall short story-wise of taking the cake for me was the part where Cristina, after having reunited with David, sneaks into his study in the tower to read the manuscript he has produced for Andreas Corelli. David wakes up and not finding in bed her with him, goes in search of her and finds her in his study. A. He doesn’t get alarmed that she is there. B. He does not think that her intention of going there was to read the manuscript he has forbade her to read. C. He SEES her with the manuscript in her lap – she tells him she was just about to read it and he gently snatches it away from her. He believes her. She leaves the room. He does not suspect that she could’ve already read it, duh, therefore explaining her icy demeanor when he returns to the bedroom and talks to her about their train tickets and her ‘mysterious’ disappearance later that afternoon. I mean, Zafron is a wonderful writer, I absolutely love his dark, atmospheric old Spanish tales, but to make such a weak call of judgment disappoints me. Even though one is going slightly mad and is dealing with the devil…I don’t know, maybe that hampers one’s powers of induction. I also wished that he would go into more detail about the Cemetery of Forgotten Books. Is it a lot more exciting that Moer’s City of Dreaming Books? I ache with desire to know more about these labyrinthine places that lead deep into the bowels of the soul.

However I would rate it a 3 out of 5 star book because of the rich, flavorful portrayal of Barcelona in the 1920s – I love tales of the olden days – and that it is reminiscent of Julien Gracq’s Chateau d’Argol. Now that is one book that doesn’t hit you as spooky until long after you’ve read it.

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