The last book I loved is about a woman named Bluma who was, arguably, killed by a poem, and a man called Carlos Brauer who loved books so much he mistook them for his mind, and cemented himself inside them on a desolate beach in Uruguay.
The last book I loved is The House of Paper or La Casa de Papel by Carlos María Domínguez, translated from the Spanish by Nick Caistor.
Brauer is a bibliophile who–given the accusations of plagiarism between them– could not have Shakespeare sit on a shelf beside Christopher Marlowe: “Nor, of course, could he place a book by Martin Amis next to one by Julian Barnes after the two friends had fallen out, or leave Vargas Llosa with García Márquez.” Brauer is a man who, defending his dog-eared pages and scribbles in the margins, said: “I fuck with every book, and if I don’t leave a mark, there’s no orgasm.”
The House of Paper can be appreciated by any reader; it is exquisitely and lovingly told. But only a true bibliophile will read it with profound anxiety as the nightmarish tragedy it is. This is a novel for people who are passionately in love with books. “And what is it that passion most wants?” writes Domínguez. “If you’ll allow me an observation… it wants to discover its limits.” This book is about a book-lover’s passion pushed past all limits and into the abyss. Books change people’s destinies. And people can change the destiny of a book. This is the exhilarating message of The House of Paper.
Lovers of libraries and secondhand stores, think of the hands and homes your book has passed through on its way to yours. Books have a path and a life. While taking us to places we’ve never been, they’re making journeys of their own. In a hostel in Northern Chile in 2006, I was delighted to be reunited with a book I’d abandoned months before in Buenos Aires. It was too heavy for my backpack, I had to let it go. And here it was, in the Atacama desert, my name inside the front cover, here it was!
On my last night in South America, I gave a copy of The Wasteland to a traveller I met in Lima who was walking the length of the continent. I returned home and we remained in touch. I liked to think of T.S. Eliot’s poems high in the Peruvian Andes, moving slowly with my friend through the jungles of Ecuador and Colombia’s coffee and coca fields. I was envious of that book. The exotic life it was leading while I toiled the nine to five. And, yes, its proximity to the rambling man. So I picked up a copy of The House of Paper. Set in Argentina and Uruguay, two countries that I love, it was a way to be there when I couldn’t be there. Books are the great appeasers.
Years later and on the move again, I grieved for the books I left in Ireland when I changed my whole life and moved to Portland, Oregon. They’re in boxes in my parents’ attic, dusty and lonely under the eaves. It was the most difficult decision, deciding who to take. I gave away half my clothes to make more room for them in my suitcases. Before my mother visited in December, we had long talks on the phone about which books of mine she should bring. How could I know which ones? What choice would be best? As well as memories of past lives, books contain our possible futures. Of course, I took The House of Paper. I’ll take it wherever I go.
Today, two copies of The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel sit side by side on a shelf in Portland. One is mine–a gift from a dear old friend who introduced me to her long ago, sure that I would fall in love. I surely did and, because I believe that books, not eyes, are the windows to the soul, I gave a copy of it to a man I loved, thinking: “This is not just a book. This particular book means something to me. It is me, in a sense. To read it is to know me and to understand the things that touch my heart and gives me reasons to live.”
We’re married now and the two copies sit side by side on our shelf. The content of each book is the same, it makes no sense to have both–and yet, it does. Each one was a gift. They are not only words on a page but represent the people who shared them in love and friendship. How could I keep one and not the other, for the sake of sense?
So I keep them both. And somewhere on the same shelf there is a copy of T.S Eliot’s The Wasteland, which somehow made its way from my backpack in Lima into the hands of a traveller, through the high Andes and jungles and coffee fields and back to me again. Domínguez was right, and that is why The House of Paper is the last book I truly loved. It reminds me that books change people’s destinies and people can change the destiny of a book. And, it reminds me that books never contain the full story.