‘The Antiquarian,’ a Macabre Novel About a Search for Truth

Carmela Ciuraru, The New York Times

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The news from college friends tends to be the stuff of weddings, children and jobs. In “The Antiquarian,” the delightfully macabre first novel by the Peruvian writer Gustavo Faverón Patriau, the narrator, Gustavo, receives a rather more alarming update: His closest friend from his university days, Daniel, has murdered his fiancée, Juliana, by stabbing her 36 times, attempting to burn her body and leaving her in the trunk of his car while trying to kill himself with a gunshot to the head. He fails and lands in a psychiatric ward.

What begins as the story of one murder will expand to three, with Daniel at the center of them all. Each chapter complicates or undermines what has come before.

The novel, translated from the Spanish by Joseph Mulligan, opens with a phone call: Three years after Juliana’s death, Daniel invites Gustavo to lunch, and he reluctantly agrees to visit. Daniel is eager to talk: “I’m going to tell you a bunch of stories today,” he says.

The stories don’t stop. They encompass history, philosophy, music, literature, psychology, religion and more. (One friend describes Daniel’s narratives as “an encyclopedic orgy.”) His stories contain riddles, fables, exegeses, denials, evasions and allusions, all embedded with confessional fragments. This is a novel in which storytelling can prove redemptive, but it can also kill.

Gustavo keeps coming back for more of Daniel’s baroque monologues. He is fascinated by the zombified patients who roam the ward, though fearful that their madness might infect him. Many seem to speak in private incoherent languages, but their utterances will help lead Gustavo to the truth about the murders. He assumes the role of detective, gathering and analyzing evidence, and cannot extricate himself until he understands why Daniel killed Juliana. Down the rabbit hole he goes. He is well aware that he’ll either solve the mystery or become a lunatic himself.

Only a few facts are known about Gustavo. He is a psycholinguist. His wife died of cancer two years after they married. He owns a copy of Poe’s “The Purloined Letter.” Otherwise, his identity exists solely in relation to Daniel. Mysterious, too, is the unnamed South American city where they live, apart from its being rife with horrific violence and located near the sea. As Gustavo retraces the past and interrogates Daniel’s friends and confidants — decoding linguistic, numerical and even architectural patterns — the city’s labyrinthine streets and dim alleys mimic the disorienting twists and turns of the story.

Daniel has always been a strange bird. Even as a child he was a bibliomaniac, spending his waking hours flipping pages “stiff as cartilage,” deciphering marginalia and cloistering himself in a reality of his own making. He didn’t merely read books — he splayed them open and dissected them.

He has an obsession with anatomy, with deformity and decay. Throughout the novel, there’s a keen attentiveness to viscera, blood and bodily wounds; at one point, a man’s swollen lips are “covered by glistening, colloidal spores, canker sores and blisters like wounds of boiling water.” When Daniel takes over an antiquarian bookstore with three equally eccentric partners, he discovers a community of dealers who secretly dabble in the trafficking of human body parts.

His other fixation is his sickly younger sister, Sofia, who nearly died after burning down the family home. Sofia was promptly shipped off by her parents to a “residence for rich children” outside the city. She later disappeared. The siblings had a symbiotic relationship and immersed themselves in bizarre imaginative games. They constructed elaborate edifices out of paper, makeshift theatrical sets for their fantasy scenarios, which they lit on fire, savoring the spectacular destruction.

Daniel is haunted by his memories of Sofia: “She has always steered my life; her ghost is in every breath of my history, in every curve, every detour,” he says. Gustavo suspects that her absence has driven Daniel to kill not just his fiancée, but possibly also two others: a mistress (also named Juliana) and a victim asphyxiated with dozens of half-decomposed pages from his books. Then again, perhaps he didn’t commit these crimes. It’s unclear whether he is tormented or blithe, pleading innocence or confessing guilt.

“I have no qualms in saying that I was more a witness than a criminal,” Daniel says. “I saw myself and remember doing the things you’re accusing me of, but I find no fault in myself. Isn’t that what they call being alienated?”

For good measure he insists, “I feel no guiltier than you, and I find nothing in me to link me to my own history.” The poet John Berryman’s deranged alter ego, Henry, from “Dream Song 29,” comes to mind, his broken syntax expressing self-exile in extremis. More directly evident, though, is the presence of Jorge Luis Borges and Roberto Bolaño, whose influence is no surprise — Mr. Faverón Patriau, the director of the Latin American studies program at Bowdoin College, is a scholar of both writers.

It’s risky to delve into the particulars of this fine book without divulging too much. Pay attention: Even the most obscure references serve as portals, yielding significant clues along the way.

“The Antiquarian” is steeped in alienation, shame, mourning and disgust. It is intelligently conceived and well executed. Rather than serve up a tantalizing mystery with a tidy resolution, this book does the opposite, demolishing the “facts” and assumptions amassed along the way. It has hundreds of intricate pieces. Once you finish reading, you may feel compelled to take it apart, figure out how it works and begin again.

By Gustavo Faverón Patriau
Translated by Joseph Mulligan
209 pages. Black Cat. $16.

Carmela Ciuraru is the author of “Nom de Plume: A (Secret) History of Pseudonyms” (Harper Collins). She is a frequent contributor to The New York Times.