Sunday, March 26, 2000

The Club Dumas (1993)

There is a slim genre of literature that brings a unique joy to certain readers: the Nonexistent Book. A renowned example would be the Necronomicon, a "banned" and thus "scarce" centuries-old volume of occult knowledge (in the tradition of many great nonexistent books) which was wholly made up by pulp writer H.P. Lovecraft in the 1920s in order to lend verisimilitude to his tales of otherworldly beings who could be summoned by recitation of various passages. Belief in the Necronomicon's existence (and there are legions who will argue it vehemently) continues to this day, fostered in no small part by obscure houses who have published "excerpts" in paperback.

The labyrinthine plot of Arturo Perez-Reverte's novel The Club Dumas (translated to film with minimal effect by Roman Polanski as The Ninth Gate) revolves around just such a grimoire. Book detective Lucas Corso is hired to authenticate a manuscript fragment of The Three Musketeers, which has slipped into the possession of a dealer friend following the suicide (or perhaps murder) of its previous owner. Despite an edgy, streetwise, roguish exterior, Corso is not the kind of book scout seen at library sales or Goodwill racks; his clients are maniacally wealthy, his goods are pedigreed, and the transactions he enables are the sort documented only in behind-the-curtains auction house whispers, and which never make the papers.

Though the pacing is slowed during passages where Corso's "true" heart is examined (requisite brooding over a Lost Love; a haunting fascination with the strategic blunder of an ancestor on a Napoleonic battlefield), these excesses are quickly excused as his increasingly dangerous investigations into the validity of the Dumas fragment become intertwined with a seemingly unrelated quest: comparison of three existing copies of a famously rare demonic text: The Delomelanicon, or The Book of the Nine Doors of the Kingdom of Shadows. The books each contain nine woodcut plates, but with cryptic variations; it is Corso's job to discover the nature of these variations, which are supposedly a key for summoning the granddaddy of evil, Satan himself.

The plot proceeds as a wild conundrum of literary associations: sinister characters appear, as if summoned from the pages of Dumas's masterpiece, as Corso proceeds to decipher differences among the existing copies of The Nine Doors. Popping up like a deus ex machina is a beautiful young girl named after a Conan Doyle heroine who pauses just long enough from reading the classics to rescue Corso from several perilous encounters. There are also entertaining diversions into the world of truly rare book collecting, including a terrific set piece involving the impish Ceniza Brothers, who work to restore, repair, and sometimes forge valuable volumes. Meanwhile, Corso finds himself investigating an ever-deepening series of puzzle-like coincidences linking the occult-obsessed author Dumas with the ultimate mystery of The Nine Doors

Perez-Reverte isn't so much concerned with solving any mystery as he is with the structure of the puzzle itself, in this case how texts and characters and storylines, even seemingly simple ones, are interpreted and bestowed with independent vitality by readers. When Corso is finally initiated into the Club Dumas, the detective-novel machinations evaporate to reveal a larger force of operation: There are characters in literature who have a life of their own, familiar to millions of people who haven't even read the books in which they appear. This notion of literature existing outside the boundaries of the printed page and within the minds and lives of readers -- thus being capable of effecting events in our Real World -- is realized fully as the novel moves toward an unexpected and unsettling set of closing moments.

I won't be terribly surprised if at some future point, engaged in a search for some obscure book, I stumble across a catalog listing for a "facsimile reprint" of the 1666 Torchia edition of The Nine Doors. Perhaps, out of a perverse curiosity, I'll buy it. Or perhaps (more likely) I'll leave it for the next hungry scout, someone who just might believe he's buying the Real Thing. Readers who love fiction -- the characters, the plots, the romance and the intrigue -- inevitably carry that passion with them into the physical world. And there's a high end to the scale of that passion, Perez-Reverte is saying, and some people get the Devil they deserve.

Originally published in the Mobile Register as "Rare Volume: the Lure of Apocrypha," March 26 2000

There is only one serious matter to be considered in life, and that is death.
Mankind will not be perfect until it can create and destroy like God. It can already destroy: that's half the battle.
     -- Alexandre Dumas, The Count of Monte Cristo