The Angel's Game
Author:CARLOS RUIZ ZAFON

2

My literary debut survived its baptism of fire, and Don Basilio, true to his word, offered me the opportunity to publish a few more stories in a similar style. Soon the management decided that my meteoric career would have a weekly outlet as long as I continued to perform my duties in the editorial room for the same price. Driven by vanity and exhaustion, I spent the days going over my colleagues’ stories and churning out countless reports about local news and lurid horrors, so that later I could spend my nights alone in the office writing a serialised work that I had been toying with in my imagination for a long time. Entitled The Mysteries of Barcelona, this Byzantine melodrama was a farrago shamelessly borrowed from Dumas and Stoker, taking in Sue and Féval along the way. I slept about three hours a night and looked like I’d spent those inside a coffin. Vidal, who had never known that kind of hunger which has nothing to do with the stomach though it gnaws at one’s insides, was of the opinion that I was burning up my brain and that, at the rate I was going, I would be celebrating my own funeral before I reached twenty. Don Basilio, who was unmoved by my diligence, had other reservations. He published each of my chapters reluctantly, annoyed by what he considered to be an excess of morbidity and an unfortunate waste of my talent at the service of plots and stories of dubious taste.

 

The Mysteries of Barcelona gave birth to a fictional starlet in instalments, a heroine I had imagined as one can only imagine a femme fatale at the ripe age of seventeen. Chloé Permanyer was the dark princess of all vamps. Beyond intelligent, and even more devious, always clad in fine lingerie, she was the lover and evil accomplice of the mysterious Baltasar Morel, king of the underworld, who lived in a subterranean mansion peopled by automatons and macabre relics with a secret entrance through tunnels buried under the catacombs of the Gothic quarter. Chloé’s favourite way of finishing off her victims was to seduce them with a hypnotic dance during which she removed her clothes, then kiss them with a poisoned lipstick that paralysed all their muscles and made them die from silent suffocation as she looked into their eyes, having previously drunk an antidote mixed in a fine-vintage Dom Pérignon. Chloé and Baltasar had their own code of honour: they killed only the dregs of society, cleansing the globe of bullies, swines, fanatics and morons who made this world unnecessarily miserable for the rest of mankind in the name of flags, gods, tongues, races and other such rubbish in order to serve their own greed and meanness. For me Chloé and Baltasar were rebellious heroes, like all true heroes. For Don Basilio, whose literary tastes had settled in the Spanish verse of the Golden Age, it was all a monstrous lunacy, but in view of the favourable reception my stories enjoyed and the affection which, despite himself, he felt towards me, he tolerated my extravagances and attributed them to an excess of youthful ardour.

‘You have more zeal than good taste, Martín. The disease afflicting you has a name, and that is Grand Guignol: it does to drama what syphilis does to your privates. Getting it might be pleasurable, but from then on it’s all downhill. You should read the classics, or at least Don Benito Pérez Galdós, to elevate your literary aspirations.’

‘But the readers like my stories,’ I argued.

‘You don’t deserve the credit. That belongs to your rivals: they are so bad and pedantic that they could render a donkey catatonic in less than a paragraph. When are you going to mature and stop munching the forbidden fruit once and for all?’

I would nod, full of contrition, but secretly I caressed those forbidden words, Grand Guignol, and I told myself that every cause, however frivolous, needed a champion to defend its honour.

 

I was beginning to feel like the most fortunate of creatures when I discovered that some of my colleagues at the paper were annoyed that the junior and official mascot of the editorial room had taken his first steps in the world of letters while their own literary ambitions had languished for years in a grey limbo of misery. The fact that the readers were lapping up these modest stories more than anything else published in the newspaper during the last twenty years only made matters worse. In just a few weeks I saw how the hurt pride of those whom, until recently, I had considered to be my only family now transformed them into a hostile jury. They stopped greeting me and ignored me, sharpening their malice by aiming phrases full of sarcasm and spite at me behind my back. My inexplicable good fortune was attributed to Pedro Vidal, to the ignorance and stupidity of our readers and to the widely held national belief that achieving any measure of success in any profession was irrefutable proof of one’s lack of skill or merit.

 

In view of this unexpected and ominous turn of events, Vidal tried to encourage me, but I was beginning to suspect that my days at the newspaper were numbered.

‘Envy is the religion of the mediocre. It comforts them, it responds to the worries that gnaw at them and finally it rots their souls, allowing them to justify their meanness and their greed until they believe these to be virtues. Such people are convinced that the doors of heaven will be opened only to poor wretches like themselves who go through life without leaving any trace but their threadbare attempts to belittle others and to exclude - and destroy if possible - those who, by the simple fact of their existence, show up their own poorness of spirit, mind and guts. Blessed be the one at whom the fools bark, because his soul will never belong to them.’

‘Amen,’ Don Basilio would agree. ‘Had you not been born so rich you could have become a priest. Or a revolutionary. With sermons like that even a bishop would fall on his knees and repent.’

‘You two can laugh,’ I protested. ‘But the one they can’t stand the sight of is me.’

 

Despite the wide range of enmity and distrust that my efforts were generating, the sad truth was that, even though I gave myself the airs of a popular writer, my salary only allowed me to subsist, to buy more books than I had time to read and to rent a dingy room in a pensión buried in a narrow street near Calle Princesa. The pensión was run by a devout Galician woman who answered to the name of Do?a Carmen. Do?a Carmen demanded discretion and changed the sheets once a month: residents were advised to abstain from succumbing to onanism or getting into bed with dirty clothes. There was no need to forbid the presence of the fair sex in the rooms because there wasn’t a single woman in all Barcelona who would have agreed to enter that miserable hole, even under pain of death. There I learned that one can forget almost everything in life, beginning with bad smells, and that if there was one thing I aspired to, it was not to die in a place like that. In the low hours - which were most hours - I told myself that if anything was going to get me out of there before an outbreak of tuberculosis did the job, it was literature, and if that pricked anyone’s soul, or their balls, they could scratch them with a brick.

 

On Sundays, when it was time for Mass and Do?a Carmen went out for her weekly meeting with the Almighty, the residents took advantage of her absence to gather in the room of the oldest person among us, a poor devil called Heliodoro whose ambition as a young man had been to become a matador, but who had ended up as a self-appointed expert and commentator on bullfighting, in charge of the urinals on the sunny side of the Monumental Bullring.

‘The art of bullfighting is dead,’ he would proclaim. ‘Now it’s just a business for greedy stockbreeders and bullfighters with no soul. The public cannot distinguish between bullfighting for the ignorant masses and an authentic faena only connoisseurs can appreciate.’

‘If only you’d been allowed to show your skills as a bullfighter, Don Heliodoro, things would be very different.’

‘Truth is, only the useless get to the top in this country.’

‘Never better said.’

After Don Heliodoro’s weekly sermon came the fun. Piled together like a load of sausages by the small window of his room, we residents could see and hear, across the inner well, the exertions of Marujita, a woman who lived in the next building and was nicknamed Hot Pepper because of her spicy language and the shape of her generous anatomy. Marujita earned her crust scrubbing floors in second-rate establishments, but she devoted her Sundays and feast days to a seminarist boyfriend who took the train down from Manresa and applied himself, body and soul, to the carnal knowledge of sin.

One Sunday, my pensión colleagues were crammed against the window hoping to catch a fleeting sight of Marujita’s titanic buttocks in one of those undulations that pressed them like dough against the tiny window pane, when the doorbell rang. Since nobody volunteered to go and open the door, thereby losing their spot and a good view of the show, I gave up my attempts at joining the chorus and went to see who had come. When I opened the door I was confronted with a most unlikely sight inside that miserable frame: Don Pedro Vidal, cloaked in his panache and his Italian silk suit, stood smiling on the landing.

‘And there was light,’ he said, coming in without waiting for an invitation.

Vidal stopped to look at the sitting room that doubled as dining room and meeting place and gave a sigh of disgust.

‘It might be better to go to my room,’ I suggested.

I led the way. The shouts and cheers of my co-residents in honour of Marujita and her venereal acrobatics bored through the walls with jubilation.

‘What a lively place,’ Vidal commented.

‘Please come into the presidential suite, Don Pedro,’ I invited him.

We went in and I closed the door. After a very brief glance around my room he sat on the only chair and looked at me with little enthusiasm. It wasn’t hard to imagine the impression my modest home had made on him.

‘What do you think?’

‘Charming. I’m thinking of moving here myself.’

Pedro Vidal lived in Villa Helius, a huge modernist mansion with three floors and a large tower, perched on the slopes that rose up to Pedralbes, at the crossing between Calle Abadesa Olzet and Calle Panamá. The house had been given to him by his father ten years earlier in the hope that he would settle down and start a family, an undertaking which Vidal had somewhat delayed. Life had blessed Don Pedro Vidal with many talents, chief among them that of disappointing and offending his father with every gesture he made and every step he took. To see him fraternising with undesirables like me did not help. I remember that once, when visiting my mentor to deliver some papers from the office, I bumped into the patriarch of the Vidal clan in one of the hallways of Villa Helius. When he saw me, Vidal’s father told me to go and fetch him a glass of tonic water and a cloth to clean a stain off his lapel.

‘I think you’re confused, sir. I’m not a servant . . .’

He gave me a smile that clarified the order of things in the world without any need for words.

‘You’re the one who is confused, young lad. You’re a servant, whether you know it or not. What’s your name?’

‘David Martín, sir.’

The patriarch considered my name.

‘Take my advice, David Martín. Leave this house and go back to where you belong. You’ll save yourself a lot of trouble, and you’ll save me the trouble too.’

I never confessed this to Vidal, but I immediately went off to the kitchen in search of tonic water and a rag, and spent a quarter of an hour cleaning the great man’s jacket. The shadow of the clan was a long one, and however much Don Pedro liked to affect a Bohemian air, his whole life was an extension of his family network. Villa Helius was conveniently situated five minutes away from the great paternal mansion that dominated the upper stretch of Avenida Pearson, a cathedral-like jumble of balustrades, staircases and dormer windows that looked out over the whole of Barcelona from a distance, like a child looking at the toys he has thrown away. Every day, an expedition of two servants and a cook left the big house, as the paternal home was known among the Vidal entourage, and went to Villa Helius to clean, shine, iron, cook and cosset my wealthy protector in a nest that comforted him and shielded him from the inconveniences of everyday life. Pedro Vidal moved around the city in a resplendent Hispano-Suiza, piloted by the family chauffeur, Manuel Sagnier, and he had probably never set foot in a tram in his life. The creature of an elite environment and good breeding, Vidal could not comprehend the dismal, faded charm of the cheap Barcelona pensiones of the time.

‘Don’t hold back, Don Pedro.’

‘This place looks like a dungeon,’ he finally proclaimed. ‘I don’t know how you can live here.’

‘With my salary, only just.’

‘If necessary, I could pay you whatever you need to live somewhere that doesn’t smell of sulphur and urine.’

‘I wouldn’t dream of it.’

Vidal sighed.

‘He died of suffocation and pride. There you are, a free epitaph.’

For a few moments Vidal wandered around the room without saying a word, stopping to inspect my meagre wardrobe, stare out of the window with a look of revulsion, touch the greenish paint that covered the walls and gently tap the naked bulb that hung from the ceiling with his index finger, as if he wanted to verify the wretched quality of each thing.

‘What brings you here, Don Pedro? Too much fresh air in Pedralbes?’

‘I haven’t come from home. I’ve come from the newspaper.’

‘Why?’

‘I was curious to see where you lived and besides, I’ve brought something for you.’

He pulled a white parchment envelope from his jacket and handed it to me.

‘This arrived today at the office, with your name.’

I took the envelope and examined it. It was closed with a wax seal on which I could make out a winged silhouette. An angel. Apart from that, the only other thing visible was my name, neatly written in scarlet ink, in a fine hand.

‘Who sent this?’ I asked, intrigued.

Vidal shrugged his shoulders.

‘An admirer. Or admiress. I don’t know. Open it.’

I opened the envelope with care and pulled out a folded sheet of paper on which, in the same writing, was the following:

Dear friend,

I’m taking the liberty of writing to you to express my admiration and congratulate you on the success you have obtained this season with The Mysteries of Barcelona in the pages of The Voice of Industry. As a reader and lover of good literature, it has given me great pleasure to discover a new voice brimming with talent, youth and promise. Allow me, then, as proof of my gratitude for the hours of pleasure provided by your stories, to invite you to a little surprise which I trust you will enjoy, tonight at midnight in El Ensue?o del Raval. You are expected.

Affectionately

A.C.

Vidal, who had been reading over my shoulder, raised his eyebrows, intrigued.

‘Interesting,’ he mumbled.

‘What do you mean, interesting?’ I asked. ‘What sort of a place is this El Ensue?o?’

Vidal pulled a cigarette out of his platinum case.

‘Do?a Carmen doesn’t allow smoking in the pensión,’ I warned him.

‘Why? Does it ruin the perfume from the sewers?’

Vidal lit the cigarette with twice the enjoyment, as one relishes all forbidden things.

‘Have you ever known a woman, David?’

‘Of course I have. Dozens of them.’

‘I mean in the biblical sense.’

‘As in Mass?’

‘No, as in bed.’

‘Ah.’

‘And?’

The truth is that I had nothing much to tell that would impress someone like Vidal. My adventures and romances had been characterised until then by their modesty and a consistent lack of originality. Nothing in my brief catalogue of pinches, cuddles and kisses stolen in doorways or the back row of the picture house could aspire to deserve the consideration of Pedro Vidal - Barcelona’s acclaimed master of the art and science of bedroom games.

‘What does this have to do with anything?’ I protested.

Vidal adopted a patronising air and launched into one of his speeches.

‘In my younger days the normal thing, at least among my sort, was to be initiated in these matters with the help of a professional. When I was your age my father, who was and still is a regular of the most refined establishments in town, took me to a place called El Ensue?o, just a few metres away from that macabre palace that our dear Count Güell insisted Gaudí should build for him near the Ramblas. Don’t tell me you’ve never heard the name.’

‘The name of the count or the brothel?’

‘Very funny. El Ensue?o used to be an elegant establishment for a select and discerning clientele. In fact, I thought it had closed down years ago, but I must be wrong. Unlike literature, some businesses are always on an upward trend.’

‘I see. Is this your idea? Some sort of joke?’

Vidal shook his head.

‘One of the idiots at the newspaper, then?’

‘I detect a certain hostility in your words, but I doubt that anyone who devotes his life to the noble profession of the press, especially those at the bottom of the ranks, could afford a place like El Ensue?o, if it’s the same place I remember.’

I snorted.

‘It doesn’t really matter, because I’m not planning to go.’

Vidal raised his eyebrows.

‘Don’t tell me you’re not a sceptic like I am and that you want to reach the marriage bed pure of heart and loins; that you’re an immaculate soul eagerly awaiting that magic moment when true love will lead you to the discovery of a joint ecstasy of flesh and inner being, blessed by the Holy Spirit, thus enabling you to populate the world with creatures who bear your family name and their mother’s eyes - that saintly woman, a paragon of virtue and modesty in whose company you will enter the doors of heaven under the benevolent gaze of the Baby Jesus.’

‘I was not going to say that.’

‘I’m glad, because it’s possible, and I stress possible, that such a moment may never come: you may not fall in love, you may not be able to or you may not wish to give your whole life to anyone and, like me, you may turn forty-five one day and realise that you’re no longer young and you have never found a choir of cupids with lyres, or a bed of white roses leading towards the altar. The only revenge left for you then will be to steal from life the pleasure of firm and passionate flesh - a pleasure that evaporates faster than good intentions and is the nearest thing to heaven you will find in this stinking world, where everything decays, beginning with beauty and ending with memory.’

I allowed a solemn pause by way of silent ovation. Vidal was a keen opera-goer and had picked up the tempo and style of the great arias. He never missed his appointment with Puccini in the Liceo family box. He was one of the few - not counting the poor souls crammed together in the gods - who went there to listen to the music he loved so much, a music that tended to inspire the grandiloquent speeches with which at times he regaled me, as he was doing on that day.

‘What?’ asked Vidal defiantly.

‘That last paragraph rings a bell.’

I had caught him red-handed. He sighed and nodded.

‘It’s from Murder in the Liceo,’ admitted Vidal. ‘The final scene where Miranda LaFleur shoots the wicked marquis who has broken her heart, by betraying her during one night of passion in the nuptial suite of the Hotel Colón, in the arms of the Tsar’s spy Svetlana Ivanova.’

‘That’s what I thought. You couldn’t have made a better choice. It’s your most outstanding novel, Don Pedro.’

Vidal smiled at the compliment and considered whether or not to light another cigarette.

‘Which doesn’t mean there isn’t some truth in what I say,’ he concluded.

Vidal sat on the windowsill, but not without first placing a handkerchief on it so as to avoid soiling his classy trousers. I saw that his Hispano-Suiza was parked below, on the corner of Calle Princesa. The chauffeur, Manuel, was polishing the chrome with a rag as if it were a sculpture by Rodin. Manuel had always reminded me of my father, men of the same generation who had suffered too much misfortune and whose memories were written on their faces. I had heard some of the servants at Villa Helius say that Manuel Sagnier had done a long stretch in prison and that when he’d come out he had suffered hardship for years because nobody would offer him a job except as a stevedore, unloading sacks and crates on the docks, a job for which by then he no longer had the requisite youth or health. Rumour had it that one day, Manuel, risking his own life, had saved Vidal from being run over by a tram. In gratitude, when Pedro Vidal heard of the poor man’s dire situation, he decided to offer him a job and the possibility of moving, with his wife and daughter, into a small apartment above the Villa Helius coach house. He assured him that little Cristina would study with the same tutors who came every day to his father’s house on Avenida Pearson to teach the cubs of the Vidal dynasty, and his wife could work as seamstress to the family. He had been thinking of buying one of the first automobiles that were soon to appear on sale in Barcelona and if Manuel would agree to take instruction in the art of driving and forget the trap and the wagon, Vidal would be needing a chauffeur, because in those days gentlemen didn’t lay their hands on combustion machines nor any device with a gaseous exhaust. Manuel, naturally, accepted. Following his rescue from penury, the official version assured us all that Manuel Sagnier and his family felt a blind devotion for Vidal, eternal champion of the dispossessed. I didn’t know whether to believe this story or to attribute it to the long string of legends woven around the image of the benevolent aristocrat that Vidal cultivated. Sometimes it seemed as if all that remained for him to do was to appear wrapped in a halo before some orphaned shepherdess.

‘You’ve got that rascally look about you, the one you get when you’re harbouring wicked thoughts,’ Vidal remarked. ‘What are you scheming?’

‘Nothing. I was thinking about how kind you are, Don Pedro.’

‘At your age and in your position, cynicism opens no doors.’

‘That explains everything.’

‘Go on, say hello to good old Manuel. He’s always asking after you.’

I looked out of the window, and when he saw me, the driver, who always treated me like a gentleman and not the bumpkin I was, waved up at me. I returned the greeting. Sitting on the passenger seat was his daughter, Cristina, a creature of pale skin and well-defined lips who was a couple of years older than me and had taken my breath away ever since I saw her the first time Vidal invited me to visit Villa Helius.

‘Don’t stare at her so much; you’ll break her,’ mumbled Vidal behind my back.

I turned round and met with the Machiavellian face that Vidal reserved for matters of the heart and other noble parts of the body.

‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’

‘Never a truer word spoken,’ replied Vidal. ‘So, what are you going to do about tonight?’

I read the note once again and hesitated.

‘Do you frequent this type of venue, Don Pedro?’

‘I haven’t paid for a woman since I was fifteen years old and then, technically, it was my father who paid,’ replied Vidal without bragging. ‘But don’t look a gift horse in the mouth . . .’

‘I don’t know, Don Pedro . . .’

‘Of course you know.’

Vidal patted me on the back as he walked towards the door.

‘There are seven hours left to midnight,’ he said. ‘You might like to have a nap and gather your strength.’

I looked out of the window and saw him approach the car. Manuel opened the door and Vidal flopped onto the back seat. I heard the engine of the Hispano-Suiza deploy its symphony of pistons. At that moment Cristina looked up towards my window. I smiled at her, but realised that she didn’t remember who I was. A moment later she looked away and Vidal’s grand carriage sped off towards its own world.