A true masterpiece always finds its way and place in the world through the mixture that sheer chance, a shrunken world and a second-hand bookshop makes possible. That’s the way Argentinean writer Carlos María Domínguez’s House of Paper came to my notice.
The novel, about a man driven to madness by his obsession with books, was first published in 2004 and is now out of print. So, to force the publisher to reprint the novel, a friend, Mpho Matheolane, and I started an electronic campaign. The two of us, holding up the virtual equivalent of cardboard placards, begged and pestered the publishers with no luck.
Matheolane was able to buy a second-hand copy in the United States. House of Paper features an English professor, Bluma Lennon, who is knocked dead by a car in the first paragraph while reading an anthology of poetry by Emily Dickinson. Also starring in the novel is the narrator, who fills in for Lennon at the university while a replacement is sought, as well as a few other bibliophiles. Their paths intersect when a book travels to another continent and then makes a return journey. In its transatlantic journey, it is exposed to wind, salt and water.
“Books change people’s destinies. Some have read The Tiger of Malaysia and become professors of literature in remote universities. Demian converted tens of thousands of young men to eastern philosophy, Hemingway made sportsmen of them, Alexandre Dumas complicated the lives of thousands of women, quite a few of whom were saved from suicide by cookbooks. Bluma was their victim.
“But not the only one. An elderly professor of classical languages, Leonard Wood, was left paralysed after being struck on the head by five volumes of the Encyclopaedia Brittanica that fell from a shelf in his library; my friend Richard broke a leg when he tried to reach William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!, which was so awkwardly placed he fell off his stepladder.”
Having precariously placed literature on this ledge, the novel then slips away, into a totalitarian universe of love and obsession, literature and madness. The narrator’s grandmother was right: whenever she saw him reading a book in bed, she would say, “stop that, books are dangerous.”
A package from Uruguay arrives addressed to the recently deceased professor. A rush of “instinctive nervousness” seizes the narrator as he opens the parcel, which contains a copy of The Shadow Line by Joseph Conrad, its covers plastered with a “filthy crust” and its pages coated with a “film of cement particles”. The book is decidedly spooky; there are times when he would look at the book with “a mixture of curiosity and anxiety”.
Lennon had written a dedication for someone called Carlos: “For Carlos, this novel that has accompanied me from airport to airport, in memory of those crazy days in Monterrey. Sorry for being a bit of a witch and, as I told you right from the start: you’ll never do anything that will surprise me. 8 June 1996.”
But if this novel was meant to be a gift for this mysterious Carlos, why has he posted it back to the person who gave it to him? “Where had it been? And what was Bluma meant to read into the traces of cement?”
He decides to return the book to its sender. After initial email enquiries about the participants at the June 1996 Monterrey conference elicit no leads, an email arrives from Uruguay. It gives sketchy but useful details: a certain Carlos Brauer, a Uruguayan bibliophile, had participated in the conference. The informant had seen Brauer “leave one of the dinners with Bluma on his arm, both of them the worse for wear after drinking several tequilas and dancing some incredible Colombian vallenatos”.
The narrator, who was born in Argentina, flies to Buenos Aires for a holiday to visit his mother. While there, he makes a detour to Uruguay to drop off the book. As he plans this journey, he is troubled by the thoughts that have troubled many bibliophiles.
What to do with books we continue to buy? Volumes slowly occupying our flats and houses, making us tenants on our own piece of earth. “The books are advancing silently, innocently through my house. There is no way I can stop them.” Has a takeover ever been voiced with such calm?
What is it about books and acquisition? “I have often asked myself why I keep books that could only ever be of any use in a distant future, titles remote from my usual concerns, those I have read once and will not open again for many years, if ever!
“It is often much harder to get rid of books than it is to acquire them. They stick to us in that pact of need and oblivion we make with them, witnesses to a moment in our lives we will never see again. While they are still there, it is part of us. I have noticed that many people make a note of the day, month and year that they read a book…”
Grahamstown, Eastern Cape, South Africa
I normally scribble a date, the city, sometimes even the suburb in which I buy a book. For instance, I bought Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist at a second-hand bookshop on High Street, Grahamstown, on June 30 2011 during the National Arts Festival. (It is the same bookshop, incidentally, where in 2009 I first met writer Thando Mgqolozana.) So even though the torrent of a novel might have been written in London (where Hamid has lived on and off since 2001), or Lahore (where he grew up), or New York (where he worked for a while), for me The Reluctant Fundamentalist is tied to the cold Benguela winds that sweep into the small university town over the mountains at that time of year.
Ingrained on to the pages of The Reluctant Fundamentalist is the endless roster of plays, starlit nights with friends and dipping into bottomless cellars on side streets…
The narrator sits in a book-lined cave of an office conversing with Jorge Dinali, a wizened second-hand dealer in Montevideo, every moment becoming scarier than the one preceding it, as he gets insight into a man, first demented and then driven to extinction, by books. A second meeting with another bibliophile, Agustin Delgado, conjures a scary picture of a book lover whose every gesture, every thought and every step seem to bounce off some tome. This man, whose house has also been completely colonised by books numbering about 18 000 , narrates the story of the madman with a severe case of biblio-induced, well, madness.
“To build up a library is to create a life. It’s never just a random collection of books,” he begins. And then he launches into a monologue about Carlos Brauer, the man who kept his books piled in his kitchen, bedroom and bathroom. In fact, the man had taken leave of his own bedroom for the attic after being overrun by his books.
Weaving the legend of the bibliophile, who scribbled and scratched his volumes, Delgado says, “Brauer and I often talked about these things. I begged him not to ruin valuable editions with his horrid scribbles. Of course, he never listened to me. I called him sensitive, and he said I was a hypocrite, though naturally neither of us took offence. His defense was that if he wrote in the margins and underlined words, often in different coded colors, he could seize the meaning better. I don’t think he would be upset if I repeat one of his expressions, even though it is rather vulgar: ‘I fuck with every book, and if I don’t leave a mark, there’s no orgasm.’ To me, any scrawl on a book seems as shocking as his boast.”
If anyone is still in two minds over Brauer’s state of mind, the following should eradicate all doubt.
“One afternoon, sitting exactly where you are sitting now, he told me how hard it was to avoid putting two authors who had quarreled on the same shelf. For example, it was unthinkable to put a book by Borges next to one by García Lorca, whom the Argentine author once described as a ‘professional Andalusian’…”
And yet another instance of madness:
“Another friend made an even odder discovery. He had to go upstairs to use the toilet because the one downstairs was out of order, and as he passed the open bedroom door, on the bed he glimpsed twenty or so books carefully laid out in such a way that they reproduced the mass and outline of a human body. He swears he could see the head, surrounded by small, red-backed books, the body, the shape of arms and legs. A man? A woman? His double? We talked about it. No one could be sure what it meant.”
Nor should anyone be. The rest is madness, ruin and disappearance in probably the first case in the world of someone disappeared by books. This is a nerd’s book, a haunted and handy cartography of the world of letters, a capsule story of perhaps the most totalitarian dictatorship of them all: a bibliocracy.