Book Cell

In 2006, on a trip to Lisbon, I stumbled across Book Cell , a piece by Matej Kren, exhibited in the Centro de Arte Moderna. He piled up thousands of books, creating an architectonic structure where we are invited to step inside.

Once entered we are surrounded by an hexagonal enclosure with a passage defined by mirrors that assure the vertigo of a fall, the ad infinitum fragmentation, the panic of spatial disorientation characteristic of a virtual infinity.
Book Cell is a structure made out of the library / archive of its hosting institution including editions from Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation from the past 50 years.

Writing this post many years after having seen Book Cell I had to think back to a small book I read not long ago called The Paper House by Carlos Maria Dominguez. One of the first sentences in this publication frames the story appropriately ‘Books change people’s destinies.’ This book is a clear homage to the writings of Jose Luis Borges circulating around themes such as time, infinity, labyrinths, reality and identity.

In The Paper House, following her death, a colleague discovers, among her possessions, a mysterious copy of Joseph Conrad’s The Shadow Line, strangely inscribed and covered in what appears to be cement. His investigations lead him to Buenos Aires and the Uruguayan coast, in search of Carlos Bauer, an obsessive and dedicated bibliophile whose mania for books has led to his mysterious disappearance.(Those who are still planning to read the book (and it is well worth the read for any bookenthusiast) without wanting to know the ending in advance should not continue reading this post!) The book closes with an account of Brauer building himself – in a state of desperation it seems (or maybe not?) – a house out of his huge book collection on a desolate beach in Argentina. “Brauer told his labourer to build the supports for the windows and two doors on the sand. He got him to build a stone wall, and a chimney. Once the chimney was built at the side of the shack, and the door and window frames completed, he asked him to put in a cement floor. And on that floor – you can imagine the horror that fills me as I say this – he told him to turn his books into bricks. …  all he was worried about was their size, their thickness, how resistant their covers might be to lime, cement and sand. The labourer squared off one of the volumens of an encyclopedia in the corner angle, then used a string to line the others up to make a straight wall. (… ) I’ve thought a lot about it. As the walls were going up, he must have walked around, handing the labourer a Borges to fit in under the windowsill, a Vallejo for the door, with Kafka above it and Kant bedside it, plus a hardback edition of Hemingway’s a farewell to arms; Cartazar and Vargas Ilosa, who always writes thick books; Valle Inclan next to Aristotle, Camus with Morosoli, Shakespeare fatally bound to Marlowe by the mortar of cement, and all of them destined to raise a wall, to cast a shadow.” (2005:70)
This little book is filled with different cataloguing methods and it seems that the final stage, to view a book as a mere object regardless of its contents, is seen as either a state of complete freedom for Brauer or as a state of complete hopelessness. Another categorisation system, Brauer devised earlier on in
The Paper House, is to organise his books in a way to ensure that authors who were troubled by each others writings for whatever reason were not arranged next to each other, for example “it was unthinkable to put a book by Borges next to one by Garcia lorca, whom the Argentine author once described as a ‘professional Andalusian’. And given the dreadful accusations of plagiarism between the two of them, he could not put something by Shakespeare next to a work by Marlow, even though this meant not respecting the volumen numbers of the sets in his collections.” (2005:50)

Carlos María Domínguez, Peter Sís; The Paper House; Harvill Secker, 2005

07/12/2009 at 4:41 pm