This is a book full of many pieces; it is a mystery and a love story; it is a surrealistic search for truth and a text on friendship; it is a story of madness, tragedy, and the bonds of sibling affection.
The narrator, a psycholinguist named Gustavo, is trying to find out what really happened with his friend and fellow bibliophile, Daniel, and the murder or murders in which his friend is involved. The dead girls include Daniel’s fiancé; Daniel’s mistress, a prostitute he convinced to act as his maid and live with him and his fiancé; and a girl at the mental asylum (murdered by having pages torn from books carefully pressed down her throat) Daniel’s mother was able to get him in to avoid prison for the murder of said fiancé. Also thrown in the mix is the bizarre, tragic tale of the fire that claimed Daniel’s beloved sister, Sophia.
When Daniel goes to the asylum, Gustavo does nothing to contact his friend. It isn’t until three years later when Daniel reaches out to him with a cryptic confession and tales that are more fable and allegory than truth that Gustavo’s guilt at leaving his friend behind pushes him to pursue the truth. The search will take Gustavo into a world of mental illness, strange policemen, and antique book dealers who may also trade in human body parts.
This book is Kafkaesque in that the lines between what is real and unreal are blurred to the point of being incorporeal. The stories Daniel tells Gustavo and the reality of his stay in the asylum, the murders, and even the officers investigating the death at the asylum all take on surreal qualities. A good example is this description of an unexpected encounter Gustavo has with a woman in a small room:
She also lays an egg with a fortune inside which states, “Don’t believe anything.” Surreal.
What this book does well is keep the mystery intact; it keeps the readers questioning who David really is, what crimes he is capable of and the lengths to which he might go to cover them up. It leaves you guessing about motives throughout the book, revisiting and revising what you know and what you think you know. What it doesn’t do so well is weave the side stories the Antiquarian reads us into the narrative in a meaningful way. Also, the sub-story about selling human body parts has a purpose in the story but isn’t integrated in a manner to successfully tie it all together and make it feel like it was worth the effort.
This book foremost reminds me of another I read years ago: Artificial Respiration by Ricardo Piglia. I can’t accurately recall an adequate summary of its content, but I can say that it left a lasting impression and is an incredible book and I would recommend it over The Antiquarian if you were only going to read one of the two. Other books that you might like if you like these kinds of books would be Kafka’s The Trial or even his short story, “The Metamorphosis.” Bruno Schulz also wrote a book of short stories titled Street of Crocodiles which would offer you shorter travels in this vein of fiction.
Ultimately the book is a worthy read. The unraveling of the truth as the narrative closes is engaging and held my interest, but it didn’t convince me the book was better than my initial response to it. Read Artificial Respiration first; if you like it, or any of the other books mentioned, then you’ll enjoy the offerings Gustavo Patriau is giving in The Antiquarian.