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Thursday, May 29, 2014

The Antiquarian by Gustavo Faverón Patriau

Grove/Atlantic, 240 pages, $16 (release date - 6/3/14)

The Antiquarian is one of those books that cannot be serviced by telling you the bare bones of the plot. Similar in a periphrastic way to Umberto Eco and Robert Bolano, Peruvian author and Bowdoin professor Gustavo Faverón Patriau takes a while to get to where he is going. Certainly kudos are due to the translators for all three writers. In this case, the translator is Joseph Mulligan.

Daniel, the main character, although not the narrator of the book, “is surrounded by shelves packed with books, manuscripts, notepads, and bundles of papers folded into quarters, and corbels stuffed with thousands of volumes with amber spines, cracked leather covers, and glistening dust jackets.” Books are stories or information by themselves, but they are also the byways and venues for the personal stories of the people who read them.

Gustavo, the narrator (and the author’s namesake), is introduced thusly: “I chose psychology, thereafter psycholinguistics, and barely had I left the department when I married an irresistible, elegant colleague who fell terminally ill and died two years later, leaving me alone in a house I no longer recognized, with a collection of letters from lovers who had given her more affection than I had — and afterward I no longer had the strength to build another relationship that would not decline into brevity and anonymity.”


Because this is a mystery blog, this is the story’s mystery. Daniel is in an mental institution because he confessed to stabbing his fianceé, Juliana, 36 times. Gustavo maybe wants to know why, maybe not. In any event, three years after Daniel is institutionalized, Gustavo finally goes to visit his childhood friend. What he finds is not a mental institution but a place for stories, a library of bizarre personalities. Daniel reads stories aloud in the central courtyard of his unit. The stories weave themselves into the minds of the other patients — one of whom is a psychiatrist who started out treating the patients and eventually became one himself. As it is meant to be, there is a confusion of who are the staff and who are the patients in this institution, since so much depends on Daniel’s unreliable remarks to Gustavo.

Metaphysical, often wandering off on tangents, burnished with an antique veneer — even though I think it is set in modern times — bizarre, and challenging, this book will summon your willpower to keep to its circular course. It begs analysis, not straightforward reading. That process I’ll leave to someone else. The best I can do is say that it’s a book of sad stories, among them Gustavo’s.

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