There’s nothing easy or simple or restful about The 351 Books of Irma Arcuri: A Novel (Viking, 2008) by Columbia, S.C.-based author David Bajo. But don’t let that put you off, because while Arcuri is densely layered and studded with Spanish phrases, travel instructions, decaying relationships, unraveling affairs, passages from the likes of Don Quixote and mathematical equations, it’s far from impenetrable.
In fact, Bajo’s novel practically reads itself. The story is a convoluted tale of mathematician Philip who has lost his long-term lover, Irma. He knows she’s gone because she’s bequeathed him her collection — 351 volumes — of books, all of which were lovingly bound by her own hand. What Philip doesn’t know is where Irma’s gone, only that she’s “left her life.”
Philip begins to look for Irma, trying to understand whether she’s abandoned her physical body or simply removed herself from the people, places and activities that defined her. As he seeks to make sense of her disappearance, clues begin to appear within the book collection. There are the three books she wrote herself, which retell the affair she carried out with Philip. Then there are the other books, such as a collection of prose by Borges into which Irma added her own story.
“Someone else wrote ‘Lichen.’ Your friend, I assume,” Philip is told. “It’s a forgery, but a very good one. I read it several times and she got all the idioms right. She must have written it in Spanish — Argentine Spanish, no less — and then translated it.”
This is the beginning of the plot twists, but Arcuri wends much deeper. It’s a mystery of sort, though more esoteric; the answer seemingly less important than the journey upon which Philip and the book’s other characters must embark to find that answer. As he begins to search for Irma, Philip unravels the secret affair Irma had with his second wife Beatrice, and then later he learns Irma had been involved with his first wife, Rebecca as well as his two former stepchildren, Sam and Nicole.
There’s a shadow of incest here, a taboo darkness juxtaposed with Irma’s undeniable charm. She’s a flame; the other characters are moths. But more importantly than Irma’s sexual lure, her magnetism is revealed through her relationship to books. Irma loves books, obsessively restoring historically important tomes with rare, romantically charged materials. Parchment, leather, cloth. Even the actual novel’s cover bears a suggestion of Irma’s work: A typeset page from Don Quixote, its wormholes run through with lengths of orange and black satin ribbon.
Difficult books are coming back into vogue. Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code and Special Topics in Calamity Physics by former Asheville resident Marisha Pessl are both smart mysteries buttressed by historical intrigue, aloof characters and complex numerology. In essence, these books aren’t open books. But for the reader wanting more engagement, more emotional investment and more challenge than the average Agatha Christie, such novels are well worth the effort.
Personally, I found Arcuri more readable than the two over-hyped books mentioned above. It’s clever and at times daunting, but Bajo writes with such a poetic cadence that ideas of mathematical equations, divorce and loss come off as softly flowing rather than harshly jagged. A complicated back story is woven, dreamlike, into a train-of-thought present. Characters reveal their raw selves unhampered by self-consciousness. There’s an ease of language generally reserved for travel writing that deepens the mystery of Irma.
In the end, does the book answer the questions it’s set up? Sort of. Yes and no. And not in the way the reader expects. But Bajo makes that murkiness okay and, as a result, Irma is transportive.
David Bajo reads from The 351 Books of Irma Arcuri at Malaprop’s on Friday, June 27. The 7 p.m. event is free. Info: 254-6734.
—Alli Marshall, A&E reporter