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The Paper House: Carlos María Domínguez

“He was looking for a book.”

The Paper House from Argentinean author Carlos María Domínguez is a delightful cautionary tale, a fable of sorts that explores the excesses of a bibliophile at “the mercy of his passion,”and asks the question: when does the luxury of a prized collection of books “cross an invisible line” and become a burden?

Professor Bluma Lennon has just purchased a book of Emily Dickinson poems. She’s distracted by reading when she crosses a street and is hit and killed by a car. This event opens the story’s beginnings with a wry twist on that old saying: “Books change people’s destinies.”

The paper house

The narrator, a work colleague of Professor Bluma Lennon, attends her funeral, and at the service, yet another professor makes a speech in which he creates “great controversy.” He states: “Bluma devoted her life to literature, never dreaming it would take her from this world,” and subsequently a debate rages across the university whether or not poetry is responsible for her death.  The narrator is perhaps particularly interested in the idea that books can be harmful as, in childhood, his grandmother always stopped him from reading claiming it was “dangerous.” As the narrator grows older, he thinks perhaps his grandmother was right.

An elderly professor of classical languages, Leonard Wood, was left paralysed after being struck on the head by five volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica 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. Another of my friends in Buenos Aires caught TB in the basement of a public archive, and I even know a dog from Chile that died of indigestion from swallowing the pages of The Brothers Karamazov one afternoon when rage got the better of him. 

Shortly after Bluma’s death, the narrator, who has taken over her office and courses, receives a package from Uruguay with no return address. Upon opening the package, the narrator finds a tatty copy of Conrad’s The Shadow-Line, but the book is covered in cement particles. Who sent the book? The only clue is an inscription from Bluma to someone named Carlos, and so the mystery begins that takes the reader to Buenos Aires and eventually to a remote beach in Uruguay. This is the story of Carlos, a man who loved books so much that the sheer number involved drove him out of his house. With a library of over 20,000 books, how do you store them? How do you keep track of your collection?

they were piled in the kitchen, the bathroom, and in his bedroom as well. Not his original bedroom, because he had been forced out of there, but in the attic where he had taken refuge, next to another little bathroom. The stairs leading up to the attic were also full of books, and it was nineteenth century French literature which watched over his scant hours of sleep.

The sheer number of books in Carlos’s collection presents a horrible logistical problem. After all, one must be able to locate the books one owns, otherwise what’s the point? Carlos develops a new way of indexing his books, and it’s a fatal choice.

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 a part of us. I have noticed that many people make a note of the day, month, and year that they read a book; they build up a secret calendar. Others, before lending one, write their names on the flyleaf, note whom they lent it to in an address book, and add the date. I have known some book owners who stamp them or slip a card between their pages the way they do in public libraries. Nobody wants to mislay a book. We prefer to lose a ring, a watch, our umbrella, rather than a book whose pages we will never read again, but which retains, just in the sound of its title, a remote and perhaps long-lost emotion. 

Peppered throughout this novella (which includes illustrations from Peter Sis) are the most marvellous observations about books and book lovers. This witty, wise cautionary tale of letting our libraries grow out of control makes my best-of-year list.

Also titled The House of Paper (my copy has the exact same cover but is titled The Paper House). Don’t be put off by the cover.

Translated by Nick Caistor

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Filed under Domínguez Carlos María, Fiction