A swift, jaunty literary mystery.
Cambridge professor Bluma Lennon is flipping through a volume of Emily Dickinson poems when she’s struck by a car and killed. Her death, an accident, is proof to some that books are dangerous. The story picks up when her colleague, the narrator, takes over her teaching post and receives a tattered copy of Joseph Conrad’s The Shadow-Line that’s addressed to Bluma. The inscription indicates that she’d given the book to a man named Carlos. The tome is sufficiently valuable, and the note intriguing enough that the narrator becomes determined to unravel its mystery. When summer vacation arrives, he goes to Uruguay and tracks down one of Carlos’s bibliophile cronies, Delgado, who tells the tale of Carlos and his 20,000-plus-volume library, his infatuation with the collection and its categorization and its eventual demise. At some point, Carlos’s single-minded consumption had begun to drive him mad, and his habits had become beyond eccentric. One of his quirks was reading 17th- century works by candlelight. A spark eventually ignited one of the pages, leaving Carlos with ash and reams of waterlogged print. Devastated, he exiled himself to a fishing town to live in a cabin constructed of concrete and salvaged water-bloated books. Ultimately, the narrator is compelled to visit the hermit, but his long journey finds only an empty hovel, strewn with rare titles. The fishermen give him a few details of Carlos’s life, mentioning he’d become obsessed with finding The Shadow-Line among the ruins and that he had disappeared while doing so. With that, the mystery is closed—but also open to re-interpretations of the cleverly invoked Shadow-Line, the story of a solitary man struggling with identity and sanity.
A brisk, evocative mystery for book-lovers who may feel bound to read it twice.
THE HOUSE OF PAPER
By Carlos María Domínguez.
Translated by Nick Caistor.
Illustrations by Peter Sís.
103 pp. Harcourt. $18.
EVERY bibliophile knows the dangers. It is all very well to collect books, but there are consequences attendant upon that particular passion. Books have to be stored, and most bibliophiles, one suspects, do not have sufficient shelf space. Books overflow. They cover table space, floor space and the space in between. Resolutions are made that something will be done. One day we shall reorganize the shelves and throw out the dross. We never do.
In "The House of Paper," the Argentine writer Carlos María Domínguez has written a wonderfully amusing account of how books can dominate the life of the inveterate collector. It is itself a small book, beautifully translated by Nick Caistor and charmingly illustrated by Peter Sís, and you may buy it without worrying about finding room for it on your shelves. I have already found such a place -- between a copy of a novel by Italo Calvino and a collection of the stories of Dino Buzzati. It should be happy there, with its Italian cousins, a jewel of whimsy supported on each side by authors from roughly the same tradition.
The narrative begins with deceptive simplicity. A woman named Bluma Lennon buys a secondhand copy of Emily Dickinson's poems in a London bookshop; as she walks out onto the street, she is knocked over and killed by a car. This prompts Domínguez to point out that books are, in fact, capable of changing destinies and indeed can be quite dangerous. He proceeds to give several melancholy examples: an elderly professor of his acquaintance was seriously injured when five volumes of the Encyclopaedia Britannica fell on his head; some of those who read "The Tiger of Malaysia" were inspired to "become professors of literature in remote universities"; and then there was the Chilean dog that died of indigestion from swallowing pages of "The Brothers Karamazov" -- "when rage got the better of him." All this happens within the first two pages, which makes it fairly obvious what sort of treat lies ahead.
The story develops into a search. The narrator, who teaches at Cambridge (the ancient one), is a colleague of the late reader of Dickinson. He receives a book that has been sent to her, and sees that it is inscribed to someone named Carlos. It is also covered with cement. After a bit of sleuthing, he goes to Buenos Aires and then Uruguay, where he tracks down Carlos Brauer, a shadowy figure who has built himself, it transpires, a house made out of books, which are used as bricks.
The delight in "The House of Paper" is not so much in the story of the search but in the poetic style of its telling and in Domínguez's whimsical asides on reading and bibliophilia. We are told, for example, that to listen to music while reading is entirely appropriate, and that a good choice of composer will enhance the prose. More surprising is the remarkable discussion that takes place on the nature of rhythm in prose and how this manifests itself in the physical pattern of words on the page. Typographers have always warned us off designs that are too dense or too light. Is this merely an objection to their appearance, or does it say something about the rhythms of the author's language?
"The House of Paper" is one of those little books that can haunt a reader long after it is closed -- or used as a brick to make a house. It comes from a territory of the imagination that is distant and dreamlike. It also proves the old Scots expression "guid gear gangs in sma' buik." Good things come in small packages.Continue reading the main story