I really hate to admit that when I am out and about commenting on blogs and the book under discussion sounds appealing and I leave a comment saying I will have to read the book it generally doesn’t go much further than me putting the book on a list and forgetting about it completely until I come across the book again on someone else’s blog and say how good it sounds and I will have to read it and round and round it goes.
I had heard of The House of Paper by Carlos María Dominguez before, I can’t say where because it was so long ago. So when Emily at Books the Universe and Everything blogged about it recently there was a faint ripple in my memory. In this instance, however, instead of adding it to a list, I actually requested it from the library! What prompted me to do so? Well, it seemed like a bookish book and it is a novella and I hoped it would help me get out of my fiction slump.
The book arrived last week on Thursday and it was all I could do to keep from gobbling it down in one big gulp! It asks to be gobbled. It asks to be read slowly and savored. I managed something in between.
This lovely novella is a story for bookworms. It begins with the death of Bluma Lennon, professor, who, in 1998, bought a secondhand copy of Emily Dickinson’s poems in Soho and began reading them as she was walking down the street. She was on the second poem when she was hit and killed by a car. How obvious it is then that
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.
And only a funeral filled with literature professors could produce an argument over a phrase one of Bluma’s colleagues said in her eulogy:
so there are a million car bumpers loose on the streets of the city which can show you just what a good noun is capable of.
The narrator of our story, a professor stepping in to take over Bluma’s classes, is also using her office. One day not long after her death, our narrator receives a package addressed to Bluma. It appears to be a book and since professors are often sent books by publishers, he didn’t think much about opening it. It is indeed a book but it is not from a publisher.
The book is a broken-spined old copy of The Shadow-Line by Joseph Conrad. It is covered with grey grit and dust our narrator determines is cement. On the flyleaf is an inscription in Bluma’s handwriting to a man named Carlos. There is reference to a conference in Monterrey and the date June 8, 1996.
Intrigued, our narrator sets out to discover who Carlos is so he can return the book and let him know of Bluma’s death. The mystery takes him to Uruguay where he eventually learns the strange story of Carlos Brauer. I will not tell you the mystery, only that this story that began with such charm and humor turns dark as it examines the downside of a life obsessed with books.
The story is a mirror and a warning to bookworms everywhere. To add to the pleasure of this book, interspersed throughout the story are strange and delightful illustrations by Peter Sís. I highly recommend you do what I did and get yourself copy of this book right away. Don’t put it on a list, just get it and read it. It is only 103 pages long and you will be very happy that you took my advice.