"Listen, Corso, there are no innocent readers anymore. Each overlays the text with his own perverse view. A reader is the total of all he's read, in addition to all the films and television he's seen. To the information supplied by the author he'll always add his own. And that's where the danger lies: an excess of references cause you to create the wrong opponent, or an imaginary opponent." Page 303
In which I discover new levels of ambivalence…
Love it or hate it? No; that's definitely not my conflict with this book. I either loved it or I'm indifferent; only I don't know which. Or perhaps, there is a third option: that I'm in limbo, flux between loving The Club Dumas and feeling indifference; angry at being made to devour a book so compulsively and at its end feeling nothing but uncertainty.
The Club Dumas is a love letter to books; their history, craftsmanship, authors, collectors, and readers. It is also a murder mystery, 'lets summon the Devil' kind of affair. Lucas Corso works in the book industry preforming many varied odd jobs: acquisitions of rare works, authentication of others, restoration. He never performs any of these task himself, he is a brilliant third party, but it is on the behalf of others that he facilitates a great host of book related jobs.
Flavio la Point has just come across what appears to be an original chapter in Dumas' handwriting from The Three Musketeers and has asked Lucas to have the work authenticated. Varo Borja, a wealthy collector, is newly convinced that his copy of The Nine Doors, one of three in existence, is a forgery and wants it compared to the other two know copies. He too contacts Corso with this potentially very lucrative job.
As Corso travels from Spain to Portugal to France to complete these two jobs we meet a handful of people. We see people who are associated with books to a degree that most readers probably won't have thought possible. Booksellers and publishers of only the most obscure works. Collectors with impossibly large, private libraries and those with libraries of a seemingly negligible quantity yet priceless value. Most interesting of the people we see in following Corso are the slightly sinister Cenzia brothers who are prized restorers of ancient texts. They not only explain their process of treating works hundreds of years old but also elucidate how forgeries could come about and why one may seek to do so. In both cases the reasons are stunning and not what you'd think.
For the duration of the novel readers try to discern a connection between a possible handwritten copy of Dumas' text and a cipher in The Nine Doors that may evoke Satan. And then people start dying; the previous owner of the Dumas chapter, and both other owners of The Nine Doors. There are mysterious figures following Corso. Figures who we come to call Rochefort--Dumas' villain--and also a semi-divine, archangel of deus ex machina named Irene Adler… of 223 Baker Street…
It's no spoiler to say that Irene is Corso guardian angle. Only after having read the book I'm not sure what that means. She represents more than just the hero's convenient assistance and at times hinges on the fantastic yet if it weren't for an illustration in my copy in which she subtly was depicted as having wings (I missed it the first time I looked at the picture) I'm not sure I could excuse her inclusion.
There is a mystery in trying to establish a connection between the two text in Corso's possession and by the end all things are explained. Whether or not the resolution is satisfactory is moot and will probably vary from reader to reader. I quoted the passage in the beginning for a reason: whatever you bring to the table in reading The Club Dumas will probably have a great affect of what you make of it. If you, like the author or Terry Weyna, have read seemingly everything under the sun since the destruction of the library at Alexandria then I both pity and envy the ride you'd get from this novel. The connection between the two text is little more than what the reader makes them out to be. I'm not sure if this is an admirable feat or not, but considering the novel's tension and over all level of reader anxiety due to plot events when you add in whatever your own imagination brings to the table I can near guarantee The Club Dumas is impossible to walk away from. I have no clue what happened at the end and this is either a great accomplishment or tragic short coming.
My confusion reminds me a bit of when I read The Red Tree by Caitlain R Kiernan. If story events were taken at face value then the book was modest fantasy but if upon conclusion of the novel a reader decides 'this woman is insane' then one gets an entirely different (far more fulfilling) reading experience. The Club Dumas isn't the same kind of novel as The Red Tree where it's possible that the entire story is taking place in the narrator's head, only that the end of each novel made me wonder "What did I just read and was I mislead from the very beginning?"
I've never encountered a bit of meta-fiction like this before. At a certain point I had to put the book down and laugh because the author wouldn't stop: Perez-Reverte indirectly name drops Umberto Eco, the title of a book that at the time the author has yet to publish let alone write and passes it off as a historical reference (that one literally took my breathe away The Chevalier in the Yellow Doublet if you're wondering), the incessant references--some overt others equally as subtle--to Dumas, Doyal, Milton, Dickens, Dostoevsky and others. (In no way does one need to be familiar with the preceding writers to enjoy the book but I should think greater awareness could enhance the reading experience.) And then there is the Subterranean Press edition I'm reading: a beautiful signed, numbered collectors edition…with typos. So inherent to The Club Dumas are issues such as a books quality, presentation, preservation, and legitimacy that upon finding a few errs I had to think if the publisher and author were playing a joke to mess with my head while thinking of all the things the Cenzia brothers are capable of doing to a book while 'restoring' it. Perez-Reverte even makes significant references to fictional books that his own characters have written in his other historical fiction. The aspect of all this meta-fiction that is to be admired is that all of it felt organic; none of it was forced. It all felt as if it served the story and had purpose. An obvious labor of love.
The author's research really stands out in this work. He makes talk of book craftsmanship, collecting, storage and restoration among other topics interesting while embracing the fact that such notions may not be among the liveliest to base a novel around. How he presents what he has researched--all of which is vital to the story--for the most part works and comes across as believable. Experts in esoteric fields like to share what they know when they have a captivated audience and so even if Corso knows most of what he hears from the people he encounters he indulges their talk if only to pick up on the stray unknown detail and we--the reader or fellow book lover--gobble up every word. Only once did I feel that I was being preached to and even then what was being communicated was so interesting to me (probably not so much to Corso) that I had no problem excusing the passage.
There is a word that I've never thought meant anything concrete that is regularly associated with The Club Dumas: literary. I don't know what that word means and those who regularly bandy it about can't define it in less that 423 pages, rather like postmodern. For me it's easier to understand this word association looking at an antonym: genre. The pacing of The Club Dumas is off for a thriller; the characters too well developed and fleshed out for a typical murder mystery, and yet the heart of the book is the compelling allure and formulaic approach that makes genre fiction work. (Yet another bit of meta-fiction talked about in the story.)
It's atmospheric and dark and as we learn more about The Nine Doors, The Club Dumas feels a bit like something that we perhaps shouldn't be reading. The literary fiction snobs feel free to claim any book as their own as long it is deemed 'good' by the powers that be. I'm not on of those readers but I doubt they, like I, could decide what to make of The Club Dumas. For me this novel, with it's overzealous bad guys and unexplained angels, either fell flat after an amazing build up or succeed on a level that I'm currently not able to appreciate.
Does all that count as an endorsement?