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'House' built with charm, wit

Spanish novella is one to keep around for a future re-read

THE HOUSE OF PAPER, by Carlos Maria Dominguez, illustrated by Peter Sis, translated from Spanish by Nick Caistor, Harcourt, 103 pages, $18.

This little book, a novella titled "The House of Paper," is brimming with wit and suspense.

The author, Carlos Dominguez, is a novelist, biographer, journalist and literary critic. He lives and writes in Montevideo, Uruguay.

Peter Sis, his equally clever illustrator, is a native of Czechoslovakia and studied art in Prague and London.

The translator, a very important person in creating the atmosphere in English that the author intended in Spanish, is Nick Caistor, who has worked as a BBC journalist, specializing in Latin American affairs — but he has also translated several novels from both Spanish and Portuguese. Two of the most famous authors for whom he has translated are Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Jose Saramago.

The novella is a mysterious account that begins with a tragic accident. Bluma Lennon, a professor of Latin-American literature at Cambridge University, is hit by a car and killed while crossing the street. When he's hit, Bluma is immersed in reading a book of Emily Dickinson's poems. Several months later, a strange package arrives for her from Argentina — a copy of a Joseph Conrad novel encrusted in cement.

Bluma's successor as a professor is also her former lover. He is so curious about the package that he travels to Buenos Aires to try to find the sender, Carlos Brauer — to return the book to him. But Carlos cannot be found, and the narrator discovers he has moved to the Uruguayan coastline and built a house entirely of books.

Therein lies the major intention of the author — to pay tribute to books and to the many forms of bibliomania. The conversations depicted in the book center on the tendency so many people have to save books, their hesitancy to throw even one of them away, and the various ways they store them — even in ugly stacks in corners on the floor when shelf space is exhausted.

What are the chances that once a book is read it will be read again? If a book has been in the house for a decade, will anyone ever read it? Should books be treated as sacred objects no matter what the subject or who the author?

These questions are debated vigorously.

The characters also deal with one of the most controversial aspects of owning and reading books — whether anyone should write or make notes of any kind in a book or turn down corners of pages to remind them of significant passages. Aren't people who do this ruining the books?

When the narrator cannot find Carolos, he finds someone who knows him well — another bibliophile named Delgado, from whom he extracts as much information as he can. Delgado complains about how difficult it is to read all the books he has. But even if he can't read them all, it gives him great pleasure to own them.

Delgado makes it clear that Carlos is also a bibliophile, and a genuine reader of books. "Brauer was a compulsive reader. Whatever money he had, he spent on books. Ever since I met him years ago at the book stalls in Tristan Narvaja, I realized he was incurable. You can tell it by the parchmentlike skin book addicts have."

In spite of all the interesting book talk, the narrator is fixed on finding the reason Carlos sent the Conrad book to his now dead girlfriend. In the pages that follow, the mystery gradually unravels, until it becomes clear Carlos had a short romantic fling with Bluma. But there is more to the mystery than that: What has happened to Carlos?

This is one of those little gems that a reader is likely to keep around the house with the thought of re-reading it. It's compelling, amusing and infinitely charming.