If Cass Seltzer wasn’t an atheist, his change in fortunes might be described as miraculous. A professor of the Psychology of Religion at a backwater university, Cass writes a book exploring the 36 arguments believers use in order to prove the existence of God and debunking them. Overnight, a lucrative book deal, a job offer from Harvard and a romantic relationship with a woman who might be described as the rock star of game theory leave Cass almost unable to recognise his own life and prompt him to explore how he came to write the book.
It’s tempting to believe that this book has been published because the title is bound to engender controversy, but I can reassure you that I found this an engaging, entertaining read which treats religion and spirituality with respect and warmth. With would be mystics, French poets, child prodigies, wit, wisdom and the most loveable and hateable array of characters I’ve encountered in a long time 36 Arguments for The Existence of Godis a fantastic read- whatever your religious persuasion.
Oh, and if you want to know the arguments, and the counterarguments, turn to the appendix; but be warned you might end up with your eyes boggling in your head- especially if you attempt to understand the game theory!
Few people who have read The Shadow of The Wind would question any suggestion that Carlos Ruiz Zafon is a modern day master of elegant lyrical prose. Translated from Spanish in 2004, The Shadow of the Wind has been a worldwide best seller, selling well in excess of a million books in the United Kingdom alone. Understandably his follow up novel, The Angel’s Game was hotly anticipated, and perhaps these great expectations played on the author’s mind.
The Angel’s Gamehas been classed by many as a prequel to The Shadow of The Wind, but I would dispute this terminology. It is set in the same world, which is to say we see The Cemetery of Lost Books and there is some small overlap between characters, but the events to not link together insofar as I can see, so I don’t think of it as a prequel. This is just a convenient term for the unimaginative.
The Angel’s Game tells the tale of David Martin, who rapidly rises from an office boy at a Barcelona newspaper to become the celebrated author of many successful penny dreadfuls. His success upsets his colleagues and he is thrown out of the relative safety of the newspaper’s offices to fend for himself on the dark mean streets of Barcelona; writing for a pair of unscrupulous brothers and living in the foreboding shell of an abandoned tower house. We sit with baited breath as a series of cleverly wrought plot twists draw us deeper into the secret web the house has spun for him, and tear him away from his one true love… or so Zafon would wish to think.
The language of the novel is undeniably brilliant. I was breathless with anticipation upon reading the first page of the book, which said something profound about a writer always remembering the first time he manages to sell his writing, because from that moment onwards his soul has a price. It seemed to me that this would be a fitting follow up to The Shadow of The Wind, and at first it seemed to be,
Zafon’s love of Barcelona was a s clear as ever. His descriptions of the city were masterful and were enough to inspire envy in any would be writer. The dark and heady style was there; a pastiche of the Gothic novel and Penny Dreadful, shot through with poetry.
Despite this, I felt there was something lacking. It’s hard to put my finger on any one thing exactly, but if pushed I would have to say it’s the plot. The plot is missing, or so poorly constructed as to seem invisible. For me the novel lacked any conviction, and I had to force my way through it. Perhaps I was being especially dense, but Zafon seemed to have Martin dart about trying to solve problems which were never even present, and if they were? Well I certainly didn’t care about them. There was nothing sufficiently gripping about the plot to make me care what happened to anyone.
Minor characters are afforded great importance by the writer but totally fail to add anything to the momentum of the narrative, or, I would argue, the plot of the novel. They succeed only in destroying any glimmering sense of intruge which might have been built by diverting the reader’s attention away from one plotline, which wasn’t really going anywhere, to some pointless subplot which definitely isn’t going anywhere.
A clear example of Zafon’s adulation of secondary characters would be the, the Sempere family. They have several small cameo appearances in the novel, which is the only real reason this is called a prequel. The only real reason for using these characters was to allow the protagonist to be introduced to the Cemetery of Lost Books, but this too only added further confusion to the plot. To me there was an element of vainglorious allusion to the author’s previous successes and it dragged the plot deeper into the chaos of poor construction which plagued it.
I found the obvious literary pretentions of the novel really irksome. The first time the boss was described as being as still as a spider was effective, the fifth time was just fricking irritating. This irritation was further compounded by the frequent allusions to Great Expectations, a text Sempere gave the protagonist, who was cruelly deprived of books by his illiterate father. But what do these allusions add to, beyond my growing suspicion that the Zafon is capable of being a tad pretentious? Little. The boss is meant to be a criminal, who gives gifts which destroy the protagonists integrity… fine, a bit heavy handed, since I’d already twigged that, but fine. Cristina is clearly meant to be Estella, but lacks any of the original character’s verve… and don’t get me started on the intended parallels between Vidal and Miss Havisham. The whole book was filled with poor, unfitting allusions and irritating literary pretentions.
I should be generous and point out that the book is a translation from the Spanish, and we might lay some blame at the translator’s door. However, the language was really the only redeeming feature. The author must take credit, if I can call it that, for the insipid plot, full of hopeless leads to nowhere beyond a truly anticlimactic end. I know it’s a work of fiction, but I can’t help myself adding an “its unrealistic” barb here. Who on Earth would spot that they have a secret room hidden inside their house and then not explore it for half a novel? I wouldn’t. Maybe he should write a book about me.
This book is passable. And probably no worse than much of the slush that gets published these days. But if, like me, you were a fan of The Shadow of The Wind and picked this up hoping for more of the same, I would strongly recommend forgoing biscuits and eating something like, raw garlic, a habanera chilli… maybe wash it down with a bottle of Tabasco sauce. Whatever you choose you’ll want to wash the bitter taste from your mouth.
Thea is a slave girl, one of the few survivors of a mass suicide in Judea. Arius is a gladiator, fighting for survival and revenge. Both are outcasts in a hostile world until they find comfort together. But they are pawns in the games of the rich and powerful in Rome and their happiness is short lived. When a mysterious Jewish singer, Athena, becomes the most powerful woman in Rome, Mistress to the Emperor, few realise the old hostilities which simmer, waiting to erupt.
The plot of Mistress of Rome was simple, yet well paced enough to be compelling. It encompassed the full time spectrum of the novel, a feat many writers seem to struggle with, following Thea from being a 13 year old girl, to a woman of approximately 39 and tracking the lives of many characters in between.
In many ways the narrative assisted this, chapters being sectioned according to who is the active character in the story. I did find the way the author did this very odd. For example, in a chapter which was assigned to Thea, you would have Thea giving a first person account of events in one section, then in another section of the same chapter, the author would suddenly switch to a third person narrative, though still focussing on Thea as the action occurs. This may have allowed the author to make the plot tight and coherent, but as a reader I found it moderately irritating, as I had to stop and get my bearings, deciding which character was being narrated or described this time. Annoying.
The writing wasn’t a mastery of majestic prose, it shouldn’t be in a story about Gladiators, if any particular detail catches the eye, it means something has been crammed in awkwardly. In this case it was the descriptions of the women’s clothing. I’m guessing the writer had researched this in detail and was damn well going to prove it. It wasn’t just used to embellish the story or highlight the status difference between characters at one point in the story. No. Every time a female character was mentioned you had a full description of her outfit, jewellery and hairstyle. It added pages to the book, but little to the story. The decadence and chaos of Rome would have come through without this.
The characterisation made this Rome credible. Despite the back drop of Rome; ideas about slavery and freedom; the role of fate and destiny in the life of man- this is a novel about people. The characters are working examples of the human condition. A heroine who does not crumble in the face of heart break, a hero seeking his own death, a man who needs to be feared by the people he loves scratch the surface and there is a bleak darkness to the novel are the driving force behind this story. There is a cloying hopelessness as many are destroyed by their own actions or those of others, but the characters, endearing or repulsive, make you need to follow, need to learn what will happen.
My feeling is this book was undersold by the publishing company because it’s a difficult niche. Men read books about gladiators, but here you have a historic novel which tells the female experience and doesn’t lapse into bodice ripping stereotypes. Hard to sell when the market is saturated with chic lit and teenage vamp fiction. It’s definitely worth a read on your commute or at the poolside.