And this is the other book I bought after reading Susan Hill's book-about-not-buying-books Howard's End Is On The Landing. I feel quite proud at having stopped at just two. And after finishing The Paper House, probably relieved that I went no further.
I'm sure some pedant somewhere will take umbrage with The Paper House's self-description of itself as a novel. It barely breaks the hundred page barrier, taking the plentiful full page illustrations into account it probably wouldn't even get close to that. And, for such a short novel, it moves at a somewhat languid pace. Yet it has much to say about bibliophiles and the love of books, but never feels forced or hurried in what it says. It probably helps that it's a translation from a Spanish language original and, as with the few other authors I've read whose first language is of Mediterranean origin, the language feels poetic, helping to compress ideas and meaning without . How much of this is down to the author and how much the translator is difficult to know (perhaps translators have in mind that all South American authors should be as strange and beautiful as Marquez or Borges), but it's a stylistic translation tic I adore. It's a feeling of craftsmanship with words that never gets tired for me, but might be too rich for other readers, one that makes me feel there are sensations, feelings and happenings that the English language is inadequate for. In this case, the brevity means that richness never quite cloys as it does in longer, denser works from the South American continent. Adding to the slight dislocation caused by thoughts and ideas from one language being translated to another is the tale's structure. There's no real action, it simply follows the main character as he tries to track down the origins of a mysterious book sent to a colleague of his. Much of this involves him being told stories by others who knew the story of the man who sent the book, so the story at the heart of the book is always told at one remove, through the eyes of others.
For all that, it's strangely compelling. Well, it would be for me since my bibliophilia meant I could empathise with the book collectors and lovers here, even if not always with their reasons. There's always a grim fascination with getting to the heart of a man in the grip of a mania, as the mysterious Carlos Brauer is. It's the love of books taken to the logical conclusion, once he's obsessed over them to the point of anthropomorphising his books to the point where his personal index system means authors with grudges or disagreements with one another cannot be shelved next to each other (Shakespeare and Marlowe to pick merely the most obvious example). He ends up living alone in a house of his books, within the worlds of paper and words. And yet the most troubling aspect is that it's clear he loves the books, he's not merely a collector. He reads and annotates them, to the obvious disapproval of the book collector who narrates part of his story to the main character. We never meet Brauer, never even come close to it, never know anything about him but his obsessive all consuming passion for literature, but this aspect of his personality's lucidly realised. He even predicts the exact manner of the death that begins the book, another logical end to an obsession.
Also integral to the book are the illustrations. Starting with the cover, they're allusive, illustrating the text without ever being straightforward. It's an approach I'm not overly familiar with from English literature, but it's a refreshing and engaging approach which complements the textual style of this book (and the South American literature that's been translated).
It almost feels wrong that a book exploring the love of books dwells so much on the unhealthy aspects of it, it's almost an anti-book in parts. It'd no doubt raise a smile from my long suffering wife as books continue to pile up around the house. Actually that's a touch unfair, if anything it's a parable about the dangers of obsession lensed through a literary passion probably drawn from the author himself. But in warning of the perils an obsession with beauty, it finds a strange beauty of its own.