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Gustavo Faverón Patriau: El Anticuario (The Antiquarian)

Only after having read this novel, did I see that it has been translated into English and was published by Grove Press in 2014, which is very good news, as new Latin American novels do not often get translated into English, unless they are by one of the big names. And this novel is something quite original, Gothic in style, with some unpleasant scenes and perhaps showing that those of us who are somewhat obsessive in buying and reading books may well be on the wrong side of borderline sanity.

The book starts with a brief listing of a few historical people who have done or said strange things relating to their beliefs and for which, as the narrator categorically and simply puts it, they were killed. For example, there is the woman who insists that women lay eggs like hens. When she persists in this view, her husband kills her. When she is cut open a yellow egg is found inside her. However, the opening line of the opening chapter of the main book is really one to catch your attention. It has been three years since the night Daniel killed Juliana and his voice on the phone sounded like the voice of a different person. Gustavo, the narrator, had been friends with Daniel since college. Daniel had married Juliana but one day had apparently stabbed her thirty-six times. He had tried to burn the body and then tried to shoot himself but the gun had misfired and his father had stopped him. He was able to avoid jail, apparently, as the judge had been bribed and he has been sent to an institution, where he now is. Gustavo had learned all this from the papers and had had no contact with Daniel since Juliana’s death. Daniel is now inviting him to take lunch with him at the institution. Gustavo accepts.

The rest of the book tells both the story of Daniel (and his relationship with Gustavo) before Juliana’s death and what happens after Gustavo’s visit which, of course, will lead to a full explanation about the whys and wherefores of Juliana’s death. Daniel had always been an obsessive book collector. While at university he lived with his family, including his younger sister, Sofía, who dotes on him. His room is piled high with books but every so often Sofía will build an origami-type model of a famous historical building which Daniel allows. Much of the relationship between Gustavo and Daniel involves Daniel showing Gustavo where the brothels are and where to buy books, in particular from an open air book market, which sells rare books but which, we soon learn, also runs an illicit trade in body parts. After university, Daniel and three others gradually take over the only worthwhile used bookshop in town and use it to develop their own occult tastes. Daniel, in particular, is obsessive in hunting down and acquiring rare books. Daniel also writes a column on how the history of humanity is based on crime and revenge, for a newspaper Verdad [Truth], run by one of his bookshop colleagues. A key event happens at Daniel’s family home. It catches fire and Sofía is badly burned. She is looked after for a while out then seems to disappear. Daniel refuses to talk about her. Daniel meets Juliana at the newspaper, where she works as a graphic artist. They eventually marry. They also hire a servant, also called Juliana, but she is made to change her name to Adela.

When Gustavo has lunch with Daniel at the institution, we learn that he was placed there because his mother did indeed bribe the judge. He was drugged for a while and slept most of the time, after the trial. He then asked for books and his mother brought a lot, which he read eagerly. Gustavo notes, however, that he does not seem to have any when he visits. Daniel seems to get on well with the other patients and he seems particularly taken to a sixteen year old girl, who can only say the word Huk and whom he therefore calls Huk. When she is murdered, Daniel is suspected. Gustavo and others determine to find out what happened to Huk and, indeed, to Juliana. While these stories are being told, Faverón has been giving us snippets, telling us of strange and often unpleasant goings-on in the past and present. For example, there is the story of the illusionist who has himself locked in Alcatraz, living only on water and saline solution. At the same time, a woman rents a flat in a building overlooking San Francisco Bay. When the landlord finds that she has not paid the rent and not returned the key he enters the flat and finds a shrivelled up body. It is the woman who had tried to mimic the illusionist, while watching Alcatraz. All of these stories add to the very Gothic flavour of the book.

All is, of course, revealed at the end and it is neither a happy nor pretty ending. Faverón creates a world where the main characters are, to put it mildly, somewhat off balance – the four owners of the Círculo bookshop, Daniel’s sister, the inmates (and, in one or two cases the staff) of the institution. Even Gustavo seems something of a loner and somewhat odd. It is an excellent and original book and it is really good news that English speakers can now read it.

Publishing history

First published in 2010 by Peisa
First published in English by Grove Press in 2014
Translated by Joseph Mulligan