The mystery of the book(s)–“I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.”–Jorge Luis Borges

As I’ve confessed before, I’m a bibliophile only in the sense that I collect books rather indiscriminately as to edition and date of publication, and try to read as many of them as I can.  I also read ones from the library which I don’t have the means to collect.  So, many a bibliophile in the other sense (the person who acquires and hoards and buys and occasionally deals in rare books) would probably scorn my collection.  But I’d like to say for the record that even though I can’t collect rare books, I too have picked up an older book in my hands, one which perhaps someone in a bookstore has told me is a first edition by an author I like.  I too have gently turned through the pages, caressed them, pressed them toward my face and smelled the odor of old paper, even.  And whether you’re simply a read-a-holic like me or a more demanding collector of rare editions and old manuscripts and scrolls, I think you will find the book I am about to recommend entrancing; it deals with the romance and mystery of the book, and also with the topic of “demonic” possession, whether by a book or an author or a person.

The book is The Club Dumas by Arturo Pérez-Reverte.  It starts with the death by hanging of a bibliophile, who leaves behind him a partial manuscript, a possibly original copy of a chapter of The Three Musketeers.  The central character of the story (though not the initiating narrator) is Lucas Corso, a book finder who finds rare and unusual books for people with the money to pay for them.  He is asked to authenticate the chapter, and he also has another mission on hand:  to find out whether any or all of the periodically re-surfacing copies of a demonology text known as The Book of the Nine Doors of the Kingdom of Shadows (supposedly a manual for summoning the devil) are real, still exist, and are genuine.  He expects his investigations to take him from Spain to Paris and Portugal.  What he doesn’t expect is to be pursued and harrassed by a mysterious chauffeur in a Jaguar and others, and to be drawn into a web of deceit, crime and jockeying for position in a game he only half knows the rules of, but which is based upon the game he knows rather better:  i.e., negotiating, not always honestly or scrupulously, for special texts.

The author gives a picture of Lucas Corso through the eyes of Boris Balkan, who compares himself to the Doctor Watson figure of the story, and to whom Corso later reveals the whole story.  Corso is described thusly:  “Corso was taking notes.  Precise, unscrupulous, and deadly as a black mamba was how one of his acquaintances described him later when Corso’s name came up in conversation.  He had a singular way of facing people, peering through his crooked glasses and slowly nodding in agreement, with a reasonable, well-meaning, but doubtful expression, like a whore tolerantly listening to a romantic sonnet.  As if he was giving you a chance to correct yourself before it was too late.”  What a hero, right?  And also, as one reads later, what a female romantic interest:  he meets her on a train, and the first thing she says to him is “I know you.”  She is described briefly in this manner:  “Close up, her green eyes seemed even lighter, like liquid crystal, and luminous against her suntanned skin.  It was only March, and with her hair parted like a boy’s, her tan made her look unusual, sporty, pleasantly ambiguous.  She was tall, slim, and supple.  And very young.”  When he first asks her her name, she tells him it is Irene Adler, which of course is a reference to Holmes’s “woman that got away.”  This first chapter in which the two of them meet has a quote from a J. Cazotte:  “The truth is that the devil is very cunning.  The truth is that he is not always as ugly as they say.”  The problem is that nearly everyone in the book shows an abnormal amount of cunning, so that one really begins to feel that it’s a book itself on demonology.  Certainly, it has a series of prints in it from some of the texts Corso encounters which look like altered Tarot cards, and which bear a special significance to what he’s searching for.  He tries repeatedly to separate the threads he’s following with Dumas from those of the demonology he’s also trying to cover, while being both pursued and threatened (and mystified) by the pursuit.  The final lines of the book elliptically read:  “[Corso] was laughing under his breath, like a cruel wolf, as he leaned over to light his last cigarette.  Books play that kind of trick, he thought.  And everyone gets the devil he deserves.”  Don’t think that I’ve ruined your read, however:  in this case as in many another, “the devil is in the details.”

So, whether you yourself have ever been consumed as by a devil to find and purchase a particular edition of a book or manuscript, or whether you’ve previously thought such obsessions obscure or boring, you’ll surely find this book an exciting mystery:  whether you view Paradise as a library or take a darker view of being stricken with book fever, I feel certain this mystery/adventure will keep you reading steadily from start to finish.

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Filed under Articles/reviews, What is literature for?

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