The Angel’s Game: The Minotaur in the Labyrinth

… I looked up, and was spellbound. There before me stood a colossal labyrinth of bridges, passages and shelves full of hundreds of thousand of books, forming a gigantic library of seemingly impossible perspectives. Tunnels zigzagged through the immense structure which seemed to rise in a spiral towards a large glass dome, curtains of light and darkness filtering through it. Here and there I could see isolated figures walking along foot bridges, up stairs, or carefully examining the contents of the passageways of that cathedral of books and words. I couldn’t believe my eyes and I looked at Isaac Monfort in astonishment. He was smiling like an old fox enjoying his favourite game.

“Ignatius B. Samson, welcome to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books.”

I followed the keeper to the foot of the large nave that housed the labyrinth. The floor we were stepping over was sown with tombstones, their inscriptions, crosses, and faces dissolving into the stone. The keeper stopped and lowered the gas lamp so that the light slid over some of the pieces of the macabre puzzle.

“The remains of an old necropolis,” he explained. “But don’t let that give you any ideas about dropping dead here.”

We continued towards an area towards the central structure, that seemed to form a kind of threshold. In the mean time Isaac was rattling off the rules and duties, fixing his gaze on me from time to time, while I tried to soothe him with docile assent.

“Article one: the first time somebody comes here he has the right to choose a book, whichever one he likes, from all the books there are in this place. Article two: upon adopting a book you undertake to protect it and do all you can to assure it is never lost, for life. Any questions so far?”

I looked up towards the immensity of the labyrinth.

“How does one choose a single book among so many.”

Isaac shrugged his shoulders.

“Some like to believe it’s the book that chooses the person. Destiny, in other words. What you see here is the sum of centuries of books that have been lost and forgotten. Books condemned to be destroyed and silenced forever. Books that preserve the memory and soul of times and marvels that no one remembers any more. None of us, not even the eldest, knows exactly when it was created or by whom. It’s probably as old as the city itself, and has been growing with it in its shadow. We know the building was erected using the remains of palaces, churches, prisons and hospitals that may once have stood here. The origin of the main structure goes back to the beginning of the 18th century and has not stopped evolving since then. Before that, the Cemetery of the Forgotten Books was hidden under the tunnels of the medieval town. Some say that during the time of the Inquisition, people who were learned and had free minds would hide forbidden books in sarcophagi or bury them in ossuaries all over the city to protect them, trusting that future generations would dig them up. In the middle of the last century a long tunnel was discovered leading from the bowels of the labyrinth to the basement of an old library that nowadays is sealed off, hidden in the ruins of an old synagogue in the Jewish quarter. When the last of the old city walls came down there was a landslide and the tunnel was flooded with water from an underground stream that for centuries has run beneath what is now the Ramblas. It’s inaccessible at present, but we imagine that for a long time the tunnel was one of the main entrance routes to this place. Most of the structure you can see was developed during the 19th century. Only about 100 people know about it. And I hope Sempere hasn’t made a mistake by including you among them…”

I shook my head vigorously but Isaac was looking at me with skepticism.

“Article three: You can bury your own book wherever you like.”

“But what if I get lost?”

“An additional clause from my own stable: try not to get lost.”

“Has anyone ever got lost?”

Isaac snorted.

“When I started here years ago there was a story doing the rounds about Darío Alberti de Cymerman. I don’t suppose Sempere has told you this, of course?”

“Cymerman? The historian?”

“No, the seal tamer. How many Darío Alberti de Cymermans do you know? What happened is that in the winter of 1889 Cymerman went into the labyrinth and disappeared for a whole week. He was found in one of the tunnels, half dead with fright. He had walled himself up behind a few rows of holy texts so he couldn’t be seen.”

“Seen by whom?”

Isaac looked at me for a long while.

“By the man in black. Are you sure Sempere hasn’t told you anything about this?”

“I’m sure he hasn’t.”

Isaac lowered his voice, adopting a conspiratorial tone.

“Over the years, some members have occasionally seen the man in black in the tunnels of the labyrinth. They all describe him differently. Some even swear they have spoken to him. There was a time when it was rumoured that the man in black was the ghost of a cursed author whom one of the members had betrayed after taking one of his books from here and not keeping the promise to protect it. The book was lost forever and the deceased author wanders eternally along the passages, seeking revenge–well you know, the sort of Henry James touch people like so much.”

“You’re not saying you believe the rumours.”

“Of course not. I have another theory. The Cymerman theory.”

“Which is…?”

“That the man in black is the master of this place, the father of all secret and forbidden knowledge, of wisdom and memory, the bringer of light to storytellers and writers since time immemorial. He is our guardian angel, the angel of lies and of the night.”

“You’re pulling my leg!”

“Every labyrinth has a minotaur,” Isaac suggested. He smiled mysteriously and pointed towards the entrance.

“It’s all yours.”

—Carlos Ruiz Zafón, The Angel’s Game

The Cemetery of Forgotten Books was introduced in The Shadow of the Wind (excerpt), and in the sequel, The Angel’s Game, Zafón has added deep shadows to the picture. I’m only a third of the way through the book but it is already getting quite unsettling. The ancients were right to be terrified of angels!

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