The House of Paper
By Carlos María Domínguez
Orlando: Harcourt, 2005
Hard back: ISBN: 0151011478 Price: $18.00
I am always attracted to small books about books. This slim volume, originally published in Spanish as La casa de papel, has been expertly translated by Nick Caistor to bring a charming story of books and bibliomania to English-speaking readers.
Opening with a lecturer at Cambridge University stepping out into traffic, her nose buried in a secondhand copy of Emily Dickinson's poems, The House of Paper is about the victims of books. After her death, an unnamed Argentine colleague assumes Professor Bluma Lennon's academic duties. He receives a package intended for her with Uruguayan postage stamps and no return address. The package contains a tattered copy of Joseph Conrad's The Shadow-Line encrusted in bits of concrete, inscribed affectionately by Lennon to a man named Carlos.
The search for Carlos takes our nameless narrator from the halls of Cambridge to the world of South American intellectuals and bibliophiles. It is there that he learns of Carlos Brauer and the fate of his private library. Driven by mania, Carlos built a home on the Uruguayan coast out of his books and cement, and that is the last that anyone heard of him. What follows is an international search for the man who was consumed by the burden of his own library.
Bibliophiles will cringe at the notion of the bricklayer's trowel spreading wet cement across the covers of priceless volumes. Yet, evocation of the emotions of bibliophilia is what makes The House of Paper such an enjoyable book. Every character in the story is controlled in some way by the written word. Domínguez reminds us how a single volume is capable of connecting the reader to previous owners and, perhaps, loved ones. Books are given a collective personality that interacts with living and breathing humans. They are forces that demand reckoning; a personal library is a creation, like Frankenstein's monster, capable of destroying its creator.
Fans of Carlos Ruiz Zafón's The Shadow of the Wind and Arturo Pérez-Reverte's The Club Dumas will enjoy Domínguez's little book, as it continues in the trend of bibliomysteries from Spanish-speaking authors. Though The House of Paper incorporates elements of these modern bestsellers, the magical realism of Domínguez's South America is likely to remind the reader of the fiction of Borges.
Domínguez's story is complemented by the illustrations of Peter Sís, which enhance the fantastic theme of the story. The House of Paper is a short book that fellow bibliophiles will want to draw out over the course of several reading sessions so as to savor the compact narrative that Domínguez has created.