The Paper House by Carlos Maria Dominguez
Bluma Lennon, a Cambridge academic, is struck and killed while crossing the road in Soho. Her death, occurring while reading a poem by Emily Dickinson, is taken by her colleagues to show the dangers inherent in books and reading.
Following her death, a colleague discovers, among her possessions, a mysterious copy of Joseph Conrad’s The Shadow Line, strangely inscribed and covered in what appears to be cement. His investigations lead him to Buenos Aires and the Uruguayan coast, in search of Carlos Bauer, an obsessive and dedicated bibliophile whose mania for books has led to his mysterious disappearance. And so begins the unusual and haunting tale that is The Paper House.
Carlos María Domínguez’s novel is an obvious homage to the magical realism of Jorge Luis Borges. Domínguez has learned well at the knee of the master, integrating Borges’ playfulness with language, creation of miniature worlds and views of literature as recreation into this slender volume.
Readers should not be fooled by the miniature nature of this work for, like much of Borges’ canon, many large themes are touched upon: the nature of time, infinity, labyrinths, reality, and identity. Books create labyrinths of rooms, libraries and collections define identity and reality is subsumed when Bauer loses the index to his massive and valuable collection of books. In describing this loss, one of Bauer’s friends resorts to the analogy of losing the ability to access one’s memories:
Then one day, unexpectedly, you lose the sequence of these memories. They’re still there, but you can’t find them…Your personal history is lost…The worst thing about it is that the facts are there, just waiting for someone to stumble on them. But you don’t have the key. It’s not forgetfulness drawing its kind veil over things we cannot tolerate. It’s a sealed memory, an obsessive call to which there is no answer.
Readers must decide if it is this loss of identity, and the key to his library, in the fire which leads Bauer to the madness that is his undoing? Perhaps the madness already existed and the loss of the key brought freedom for him from slavery to his books? Whether these questions are ultimately answered is left for readers to decide.
The Paper House draws readers in and will cause many to re-evaluate their relationship to their books. If cataloguing methods are stages within the disease, then most readers are far from the illness inflicted on Bauer. In his library, Shakespeare cannot be placed next to Marlowe, because of accusations of plagiarism between the two, and Martin Amis cannot sit alongside Julian Barnes because of a falling out.
The Shadow Line is referred to throughout the narrative and, like Conrad’s novella, Domínguez’s work is an ironic commentary on the nature of experience and wisdom reflected through the story of one man’s struggle with his books. Like Conrad’s protagonist, our narrator is never named; however, he is not the true protagonist in this tale, rather it is The Shadow Line itself.
“And again he pleaded for the promise that I would not leave him behind. I had the firmness of mind not to give it to him. Afterward this sternness seemed criminal; for my mind was made up,” the captain said of the delirious sailor on his sickbed, victim of a “downright panic.” In those words it seemed to me I heard the tacit appeal the book had been making to me from the very start.
Peter Sís’ whimsical illustrations add much to the sense of being outside of any recognizable time while reading this compelling novella.