I recently read a review of The Antiquarian that described it as “macabre” and this, of course, peaked my interest. Fortunately the local library had the book, and I was able to request it. This book is an intricate puzzle of literature. The gist of the story is simple, but Patriau interweaves story and reality in a way that surrounds the plot with mystery. It is difficult to tell whether any of the narrators are reliable, but this only adds to the charm and intrigue of the book.
The book is stories within stories. The main part is told by a man, Gustavo, who is recounting a tale told to him by his friend, Daniel. Three years prior Daniel was convicted of murdering his wife, Juliana, by stabbing her 37 times. He was then committed to the insane asylum. The story begins when Daniel calls Gustavo and asks him to come to lunch. This is the start of Gustavo’s search for the real story of what happened between Daniel and Juliana, and he is sent down a twisting path of investigation, interviewing several of Daniel’s business partners, and trying to discern fact from fiction and sanity from madness.
Patriau’s writing is beautiful. He provides rich descriptions of places
That bookstore named The Circle is located on a charming corner, speckled with ghastly little trees, signs lit by floodlights, garish cafes and bars, at the intersection of a timeless narrow street and a boulevard lined by cracking sidewalks filled with pigeons, puny sparrows, and paltry gulls that announce the proximity of the sea, which serves as a cemetery for dead fish and as the dump for the city’s refuse. It has a narrow first floor, with a group of tables at the back, where customers help themselves to tea and cigarettes and where they open copies of books whose titles may grant them a prestigious air in front of other patrons. There they converse about topics like the life of a medieval monk invented by the young Thomas Chatterton or the fantastic oeuvre of the fake Ossian.
and haunting characters, like Daniel’s firebug sister Sofia, who suffers from a rare illness and severe burns
Sofia roamed wearing a white veil that she raised only to frighten others with a perennial smile and a forefinger outstretched to formulate a wordless question each time someone grew fascinated by her anarchic contortions and managed to rouse her anger. And only after instilling one of those abstract, fleeting panics in one of her little cloistered peers would Sofia seem to recuperate her temperament: she’d attempt to take a few lively steps in the garden, she’d sing the stanza of one of her old incendiary chants, and she’d lean against a tree, hugging it with both arms in an embrace of joviality that soon waxed anguish, and she’d freeze there in such a way that the figure of the red and brown girl, laminated with wounded skin and elastic scars, seemed to form a union with the trunk, to be part of it, and when the nurses would attempt to remove her, to untangle her from the embrace that could have lasted for hours, to return her to the house, the women would shudder upon hearing the fibrous crunching of her frail bones as they broke, her muscles tearing in two.
There are many long, cumulative sentences like this in his work, and the writing is very flowing and wandering. This writing style adds to the labyrinthine format of Patriau’s tale, something that is exhibited not only within the way the stories seem to twist back on one another, but also in the makeup of the asylum and town itself, both of which are constructed in dual spirals that feed off of each other. The more that Gustavo investigates what happened between Daniel and Juliana, the more complex things become. Daniel soon is exposed to be not quite the man Gustavo thought he was, and the idea of duality – two parts feeding off of each other – is a running theme throughout the book.
Perhaps on the inside Daniel is simpler than we think … and perhaps Juliana was more complex than you’ve presumed. I for one, who knew her quite well, can testify that there was much more to that poor girl than meets the eye. Juliana, to put it this way, was two different women, and if you really wish to decode the enigma of why Daniel murdered her, you must start by discovering the other.
Books also play a large part in this story, and in many cases books and human flesh become intimately concerned. One of the stories that is told by “The Antiquarian” – an alternate storyteller whose words are indicated in italics, and who adds folktale type stories between various chapters – describes a macabre situation during the war where prisoners were skinned and then other prisoners forced to inscribe passages on the books made from that skin. There is also a scene in which a person is killed by being forced to ingest books. There is a bookstore that Daniel and his friends took over – some hostility is implied here – and where they routinely met. There is a street in the city where the collectible booksellers set up their tents every day, booksellers that are also somehow involved in the trafficking of human body parts. And, there is the fire, the burning of Daniel’s library.
By the end of the book, most things seem to be clear, and we are rewarded for paying close attention throughout to some of even the most far fetched details. This book is not an easy read, even though it is small, but it is definitely worth the effort! Those who love classic foreign literature with more than a hint of the grotesque should definitely give this one a try!