The Club Dumas – Arturo Perez-Reverte

Right at the start, let me confess that I question my own competence to review this book. It revealed to me, a lifelong bibliophile, a world of book-antiquaria in general and biblio-Satanism in particular, that I had never before encountered, with convolutions which tied me in knots trying to follow. I’m apparently not as well-read as I’d always assumed.

But I’ll make an attempt. The Club Dumas is a detective story. The principal character, Lucas Corso, a "mercenary of the book world," as the intermittent narrator describes him, is trying, as an exercise in logic, to decode the formula for summoning the Devil supposed to be hidden in three surviving copies of Book of the Nine Doors of the Kingdom of Shadows. The Venetian printer Aristide Torchia was burned at the stake in 1667 for publishing it.

Corso has been hired by bookdealer Varo Borja, who owns one copy of Nine Doors, to obtain the other two copies, by fair means or foul. But as they are not for sale – one is in a private collection and the other in a public foundation – foul means will have to do.

And Corso obtains them, at least long enough to chart the differences between the nine woodcut illustrations each of the copies (and this book) contains. Those illustrations, in addition to the 157 pages of text, are supposed to have been inspired by Lucifer himself, and are reproduced from what is purported to be the oldest book in the world, the Delomelanicon, first mentioned in a papyrus written thirty-three centuries ago.

Almost all of the principal and peripheral characters are counterparts of the characters in Dumas pere’s The Three Musketeers. And parallels are also drawn between those characters and actual persons and personages who existed in Dumas’s time. Many of Dumas’s 257 volumes of novels, memoirs and other writings are listed, as are names of some of his 27 known mistresses and 6 legitimate and illegitimate children. Whew! It was interesting to me that all of the novels first appeared as installments in various French periodicals published over a 40-year timespan. Other particulars of Dumas’s life and works are likewise fascinating.

The bibliography of ancient books referred to staggers the mind. Dealers and collectors of such writings must possess an encyclopedic memory, and be proficient in at least four live languages and a couple of dead ones. I can believe that there really is a Treatise on the Art of Fencing by Astarloa (1870); but was there really a La Hypnerotomachia di Polyphilo by Colonna, published in Venice in 1545? Or a Compendium Maleficarum by Francesco Maria Guazzo?

Corso, a not entirely likable protagonist, has an unpleasant trust-betraying bim-bam sex scene with one of the main characters, and a beautiful leisurely sexual encounter with another, a girl of 19 or so who follows him through the book, saying she’s there to protect him from harm. The latter encounter was so reader-involving, I almost felt like a third participant. There are some violent scenes, a suicide, 2 or 3 murders, a book-burning, scores of those convolutions mentioned earlier, a startling denouement, and throwaway lines galore. In sum, a successful and emotional reading session; some of the allusions still stick in my mind like flies to flypaper. I can’t conceive of a more erudite author than Perez-Reverte; erudition can be boring, but his is fascinating. And Sonia Soto’s translation is perfect; it doesn’t read like a translation at all.

– David Koblick .

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