Thursday, March 12, 2009

Disappointed Potential: The House of Paper

This is one of those books with vast potential that is left untapped, and ultimately disappointed. The premise of the story is spectacular, Borgesian, intriguing and mysterious: a book encased in cement with an inscription to an unknown person from a recently deceased professor is sent to her office and discovered by a colleague. He decides to try to find the sender of the book (no return address) based on the somewhat mysterious inscription, and return the book.

The set up is there, and the scope could be grand, labyrinthine, compelling and significant. But the short format makes the story seem hurried rather than unfolding, and dictated rather than narrated. The exquisite insights into the mind and heart of a bibliophile, or even just an avid reader, are plunked in as though the story is being tied up with significant meaning, instead of letting the meaning evolve through the story. It reminded me from the outset of The Shadow of the Wind, a complex mystery centered around the obscure author of a hidden book, but The House of Paper falls significantly short of what it could be.

Perhaps that's what's most frustrating about reading this book - that it could be infinitely more than it is. That the story could be experienced by the reader, rather than relayed by a rather monotonous narrator whose voice (perhaps because of poor translation) sounds no different than the character that tells the bulk of the story. Instead, it is a series of epigraphs linked together by a skeletal and merely sketched plot. Though eminently quotable, it amounts to little more than an excuse for these nuggets of wisdom about the significance of books and libraries in our lives.

The translation itself is in sore need of revision and editing, and reads more like a draft than a final version. The clumsy language obscures whatever rhythm and beauty may have been present in the original.

It is worth reading though, if only for the gift of its potential. And worth expanding upon, should the author and publisher see fit to do so. I would read this happily as a full-length novel rather than merely a novella.