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.
Charmingly illustrated by Peter Sís, The House of Paper is a tribute to the strange and passionate relationship between people and their books.
"synopsis" may belong to another edition of this title.
CARLOS MARÍA DOMÍNGUEZ is the author of numerous novels. He is also a journalist and literary critic. He lives in Montevideo, Uruguay.
PETER SÍS was born in Brno, Czechoslovakia. His many books include two Caldecott Honor winners: Starry Messenger: Galileo Galilei and Tibet Through the Red Box. He lives in New York.
One day in the spring of 1998, Bluma Lennon bought a secondhand copy of Emily Dickinson's poems in a bookshop in Soho, and as she reached the second poem on the first street corner, she was knocked down by a car.
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 cookery books. Bluma was their victim.
But not the only one. An elderly professor of classical languages, Leonard Wood, was left paralyzed after being struck on the head by five volumes of the Encyclopaedia 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 knew 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.
Whenever my grandmother saw me reading in bed, she would say: "Stop that, books are dangerous." For many years I thought she was simply ignorant, but the passage of time has shown just how sensible my German grandmother was.
Many of the most important people in Cambridge were present for Bluma's funeral. At the service, Professor Robert Laurel made a splendid farewell speech, later published as a pamphlet on account of its academic merit. He touched on Bluma's brilliant university career, the sensibility and intelligence that had characterized her forty-five years. In the main part of his eulogy he mentioned the decisive contribution she had made to the investigation of Anglo-Saxon influences in Latin American literature. But he ended with a sentence that caused great controversy: "Bluma devoted her life to literature, never dreaming it would take her from this world."
Those who accused Laurel of ruining his speech with this "clumsy euphemism" were opposed by the steadfast defense of his assistants. A few days later, at my friend Ann's house, I heard John Bernon insisting to a group of Laurel's disciples:
"She was killed by a car, not by a poem."
"Nothing exists beyond its representation," argued two young men and a Jewish girl, who was the most outspoken of the three. "Everyone has the right to choose the representation they wish."
"And to produce bad literature. All right," retorted the elderly gentleman with the air of false conciliation that had given him the reputation in the university of being a cynic, "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."
Arguments about the infamous phrase spread throughout the university. There was even a student competition on the theme "Relations between reality and language." The number of steps Bluma took on the Soho pavement were calculated, as were the verses of the poems she had managed to read, and the speed of the car. There was furious debate about the semiotics of London traffic, and the cultural, urban, and linguistic context of the second in which literature and the world imploded on the body of our dear Bluma. I had to take over from her in the Department of Hispanic Studies, use her office and teach her courses, so I was far from impressed by the direction the arguments were taking.
One morning I received a package addressed to my deceased colleague. The stamps were Uruguayan, and but for the lack of a sender's address, I would have thought it was one of those books she was often sent by authors in the hope she would review it for an academic publication. Bluma never did so unless the author was sufficiently well-known for her to derive something from it. She would usually ask me to take them down to the reserve collection, after scrawling "UTC" (Unlikely To Consult) on them, which more or less condemned the works to oblivion.
It was indeed a book, but not of the kind I had been expecting. No sooner had I opened the package than I felt an instinctive nervousness. I went to the office door, closed it, and returned to the broken-spined old copy of The Shadow-Line. I was aware of the thesis Bluma was writing on Joseph Conrad. But the extraordinary thing was that there was a filthy crust on its front and back covers. There was a film of cement particles on the page edges that left a fine dust on the surface of the polished desk.
I took out a handkerchief and to my astonishment picked up a small piece of grit. There was no doubt it was Portland cement, the remains of a mortar that must have been stuck more firmly to the book before someone had made a determined attempt to remove it.
There was no missive inside, only the battered book I could not bring myself to pick up. When I lifted the cover carefully with my fingers, I found a dedication from Bluma. It was written in green ink, and was definitely in her handwriting, neat and round like everything of hers. It was not hard to decipher: "For Carlos, this novel that has accompanied me from airport to airport, in memory of those crazy days in Monterrey. Sorry for being a bit of a witch and as I told you right from the start: you'll never do anything that will surprise me. 8 June 1996."
I knew Bluma's flat, the dietary food she kept in the fridge, the smell of her sheets, the perfume of her underwear. I shared her bed with two deputy heads of departments and a student who had somehow got onto the list. And like all the others, I knew about her trip to a congress in Monterrey, where she had one of those lightning romances she offered herself to satisfy her vanity, threatened as it was by the loss of her youth, her two husbands, and the dream of traveling up the River Macondo in a canoe (an obsession she had inherited from reading One Hundred Years of Solitude). So why was the book being returned to Cambridge after two years? Where had it been? And what was Bluma meant to read into the traces of cement?
I have held in my hands the marvelous Irish Fairy and Folk Tales, with a prologue by William Butler Yeats and original illustrations by James Torrance, as well as the Correspondance inédite du Marquis de Sade et de ses proches et de ses familiers, I have been lucky enough to hold some incunables for a few short minutes, open their pages, feel their weight and that sense of solitary privilege, but no other book has affected me so much as that paperback, whose damp, warped pages seemed to be calling out to me.
I put it back in the bag, slipped it into my briefcase, then wiped the dust from the desk as stealthily as a thief.
Over the next week I looked through Bluma's archives to try to find the names and addresses usually given out at congresses of critics and writers. I found the list in an ocher-colored folder with "Memories of Monterrey" written on the cover. Neither of the two writers who attended from Uruguay was called Carlos, but I noted down their addresses and e-mails anyway. I told myself I should not get mixed up in Bluma's private life, but at the same time I felt that such an odd book-illegible beyond any message she was meant to read in the cement-deserved to be returned to whoever had sent it.
I put the book on the lectern of a table in my study, and must confess that for several nights I stared at it with a mixture of curiosity and anxiety. Perhaps because Alice's vacuum cleaner left no trace of dust on even the highest shelves of my library, and certainly not on the carpet or any of the tables, the paperback upset the balance of the room like a tramp at an imperial feast. It had been published by Emecé in Buenos Aires, and printed in November 1946. With some effort I discovered it was part of the "Ivory Gate" collection edited by Borges and Bioy Casares. Underneath the lime or cement, there was the faint outline of a boat, and what looked like several fishes, although I could not be certain.
Over the following days, Alice put a duster under the lectern to prevent the dust spoiling the glass tabletop, and changed it each morning with that quiet discretion of hers which had won me over ever since she first came to work for me.
The first e-mail replies from the city of Nuevo Léon in Mexico were disappointing. They consisted of the list of participants I already had, the congress program, and a map of the city. However, one of the Uruguayan writers told me that someone called Carlos Brauer had also attended the conference. Brauer was a bibliophile from Uruguay, and the writer had seen him leave one of the dinners with Bluma on his arm, both of them the worse for wear after drinking several tequilas and dancing some incredible Colombian vallenatos. "Please treat this in confidence," he wrote, "because I'm being indiscreet."
I imagined Bluma dancing by candlelight in a colonial patio, one typically hot, stormy Mexican night, determined to prove that though she might not be Latin, she could dance all the same, that she was serious but not ridiculous, and was sensual in her own way. Then I saw her stumbling down a cobbled street, holding hands with the man leading her on-happily perhaps? as their shadows disappeared in dark doorways.
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