Even if it weren’t all over the novel’s jacket, it would only take a few pages to identify Gustavo Faveron Patriau as having soaked up the works of Roberto Bolaño and Jorge Luis Borges. His debut novel, The Antiquarian, is overflowing with the kind of obsessiveness, literary portents, gothic tropes, and book-fueled intrigue that made Bolaño and Borges so delightfully beguiling. A professor at Bowdoin College, Patriau is an expert on both Latin American authors.
The detective story—a favorite of both Bolaño and Borges, of course—that constitutes the plot The Antiquarian begins when the psycholinguist Gustavo gets a phone call from a murderer. The killer happens to be his old friend, Daniel, calling from an asylum, asking for help. One of his fellow patients was killed by being force-fed the pages of a book, and Daniel, a bibliophile who used to spend his days “deciphering marginalia in tomes that no one reads anymore,” is the prime suspect. Although Daniel had fessed up to killing his wife, this time he claims innocence. Gustavo doesn’t know why, but he agrees to help.
The beginning is promising, but ultimately the author’s obviously substantial erudition is wrapped up in a rather mundane and contrived story. As Gustavo delves into his memories of Daniel, and the various sordid trades that even book nerds can wrap themselves up in, the highlights of the novel are its rich, digressive stories—pretty much anytime Patriau wanders away from his morosely banal protagonist. Nearly all we ever end up learning about Gustavo is that he was widowed by an “irresistible, elegant colleague” (who apparently was not important enough for much more description), and that he owns a copy of “The Purloined Letter.”
Since explicit literary references seem to be fundamentally important to a book about books, one guesses that perhaps Edgar Allen Poe’s story contained at least some hint into this novel’s deeper meaning. The mystery of “The Purloined Letter” turns on the location of a note being used for blackmail. Poe’s amateur detective Dupin ferrets out that the letter, far from being elaborately concealed, was actually hiding in plain sight. The answer to the machinations of Patriau’s plot is nearly as obvious.
While an asylum makes for a classically intriguing setting, the book continually makes it feel ugly, as Faveron’s prose is genuinely disturbing in how it treats and describes the other mentally ill or disabled patients—they seem little better than monsters, described as “zombified creatures” and “cadavers of recently exhumed, still dust-covered children.” Perhaps we can excuse this as the book’s fabulist excesses (after all, it’s intentionally set in an anonymous South American town), but the examples are so frequent that this apparent contempt still gives a sour feeling to the stomach.
When it’s not being borderline offensive, in general, the language, translated by Joseph Mulligan, is often lapidary. Faveron’s prose is rich, but it’s like eating too much of a great dessert: a few pages of his ornate description would have been enough, and the more it drags on the more it seems the author is just trying to impress. So by the time we get to Gustavo, who has solved the mystery, standing “lost in the low clouds lurking over the trees, under the blurry trunk of that starless, birdless sky, devoid of any glimmer at all, in the opaque dome of the city”—which is a beautiful sentence all by its lonesome—something salty is needed to cut the sweetness.
The epigraph of “The Purloined Letter,” a line Poe attributed to Seneca, seems to sum up the novel’s shortcomings: “Nothing is more hateful to wisdom than excessive cleverness.” The Antiquarian might have been better if mixed its cleverness with equal parts heart, story, and character. This is something Borges and Bolaño usually got right—think of the guilt and agony of the Visceral Realists finally revealed at the end of The Savage Detectives, or the misplaced religious fervor that victimizes the protagonist of “The Gospel According to Mark.” At times Patriau possesses some of those hypnotic Borges lines, or the pirouetting Bolaño digressions, but The Antiquarian just amounts to an amusing diversion, brilliantly erudite in places but—like its villain, Daniel—lost.