I am a sucker for short books with interesting illustrations so when I stumbled upon The House of Paper, illustrated by Peter Sis, at a local library sale I couldn’t resist picking it up for a dollar. But it ended up shelved with a number of other short works and never read.
Recently I was in a bit of a reading funk, however, and pulled it down and decided to read it.
Bluma Lennon, distinguished professor of Latin American literature at Cambridge, is hit by a car while crossing the street, immersed in a volume of Emily Dickinson’s poems. Several months after her untimely demise, a package arrives for her from Argentina-a copy of a Conrad novel, encrusted in cement and inscribed with a mysterious dedication. Bluma’s successor in the department (and a former lover) travels to Buenos Aires to track down the sender, one Carlos Brauer, who turns out to have disappeared.
The last thing known is that he moved to a remote stretch of the Uruguayan coastline and built himself a house out of his enormous and valuable library. How he got there, and why, is the subject of this seductive novel-part mystery, part social comedy, and part examination of all the many forms of bibliomania.
It turned out to an odd novella about the obsession that reading and book collecting can become.
While it was a quick, quirky and largely enjoyable read, it was also odd and ephemeral. Perhaps if you were more plugged into classical and international literature, or more obsessed with formal book collecting, the references and name dropping would mean more or deepen the story.
I know little to anything about Jorge Luis Borges or South American literature. And am not really knowledgeable about magical realism, particularly the South American variety. So references, homage, jokes and or attempts at capturing a particular style or voice were lost on me.
It was an interesting story to some degree but it felt like it never quite went anywhere. The tension and mystery never really led to something or connected for me. The story just kind of ended.
Those more in tune with the above topics might find something more but it felt flat to me. Here are two somewhat contrasting opinions:
It is amiable and sincere in its desire to add its voice to the master’s by revisiting some of his settings (including Buenos Aires) and subjects (Quixote, collecting, love, time and death). But it falls short of Borges’s own takes and is thus hard to read as more than a love letter. With 11 two-color illustrations by Peter Sís, the book is fun and sad in the right spots, but one never gets a fiendish enough sense of Domínguez’s own obsessions or his desire to plot them.
Interestingly enough, School Library Journal found it a good assignment for teen readers:
Its very brevity allows bright and biblioholic teen readers the opportunity to see a literary joke through–which is not to say a slight or insubstantial bit of literary twaddle–from setup to close. Dominguez references a variety of authors with whom college-prep students will be familiar and shows off a sprightly interpretation of South American magical realism. This would make an excellent suggestion for formal summer reading.
Perhaps I am too far past my “college-prep” years because I missed most of the references …