Gustavo Faverón Patriau’s The Antiquarian, translated by Joseph Mulligan, is a genre-blending novel, a complete immersion that delves into a lesser-used niche of genre: horror, gothic, the weird. There are visual horrors, psychological ones, and dark corners with threats lurking. When what hides in those corners is revealed, more than once I had to rub my cheek and mutter “what the fuck . . .” It also relies heavily on the structure of noir, and interweaves the two genres to the same degree that it integrates literature’s tropes—here led by Borges and theory—with genre’s. Plot and mystery do drive the book, but the intricate prose makes it so that even when you know what is about to be revealed, you want to see the tricks of language that get us there.
After an unsettling Prologue that begins with a list of ancient deaths, and then a narrator trying to find his opening point, The Antiquarian, like a good detective novel, quickly establishes the basic facts of the case and offers up a body. Three years ago, the narrator’s close friend, Daniel, murdered his wife and has been in an asylum for the mentally ill since. When we learn of a second mystery, of a house fire, Daniel’s injured sister, Sofía, her exile to an asylum, and her subsequent disappearance, connections between the two becoming haunting, whether in Daniel’s psychological damage, or something more.
The narrator’s first investigation is a simple and personal one, to remember his friendship with Daniel, how it began and how it grew. Since our detective, Gustovo, is no professional detective, not even the classic semi-professional, but a psycholinguist and seemingly average man, this remembering eases him toward the depths that he’ll plunge into by the end of the novel. It is also the first move to show that Gustavo is a man whose memory is almost lost to him, repeatedly doubted by those he interrogates, in need of recovering as much as the mysteries surrounding the murder and subsequent madness need uncovering. In fact, at times, he seems almost entirely without an identity.
Once the narrator enters the asylum and interacts with the madmen and madwomen inside, it becomes as if he never leaves, the madness infecting him and the rest of the city. The unnamed city is full of the mildly insane, the potentially so, and the deeper into the hospital we venture, the darker the madness is. The little difference, in tone, in sense of reality, between the narrator’s imaginative prose, and the hallucinations of his friend keeps us from finding safe, grounded reality. To lift a repeated image from the book, it is a spiral, turning, turning, into the dark middle, with specters around any bend.
Chapters mostly alternate between conversations with Daniel inside the asylum and conversations with his old friends in the city, and though Gustavo must leave and return, and discoveries made outside the asylum are used to challenge or provoke Daniel, the Daniel chapters again and again start by telling us that Daniel “continued.” This dilation of time and place, the lack of fixed points or borders, builds the sense of uncertainty, moving in a mist, essential to horror, especially when all signs glimpsed suggest dread, fear of what will come if the mist clears off.
In his previous, saner, yet not completely, life, Daniel was a book collector, scouring the city for worn-out ancient volumes that could be of value, hide tales of horror. He becomes part of a group of similar collectors, obsessives, people who thrive on books themselves as much as on stories of horror and violence. Together, they take over a bookstore, remove the original owner, and name themselves The Circle. They are people who have given over to the darkest aspects of the literary life—obsession, self-exile from others.
This group is an example of the way people, objects, ideas, play multiple roles in The Antiquarian. The Circle is focused on the literary, on obsession with reading, physical books, and language; they fit into noir, as a shadowy, near-criminal or criminal group. The narrator uses them the way a detective uses informants, working his way through his suspect’s compatriots to find truths, only to have to muddle through lies and misdirection. The world they reveal, of secret groups trading bodies, also puts them into horror.
Mulligan’s translation of Faverón Patriau’s prose shows awareness of the language and tone of both genres and each holds its own against the other in a single sentence, “. . . which you can feel vibrate in your body like uppercuts wielded by a ghost.” Voices are compared to dust, to the non-living, and unsettled, you hear the voices. Other times, the prose focuses on a specific cliché, howling wind, mist, and digs out descriptions that express them freshly strange.
In a world of permeable walls, book and body transform into each other. Early in the book, one of The Circle tells the story of a Nazi doctor who made the most beautiful paper from human skin, and from there it continues to madmen’s faces compared to paper full of writing, whole bodies are seen as documents, while another member of The Circle explains how a writer’s physical appearance affects their books.
As the investigation continues inside the asylum, the gothic horror takes hold over the noir and threatens Gustavo’s own sanity. It is not simply the psychological horror of people whispering unintelligible phrases in the hallways—unclear if the words exist outside the minds of Daniel and the narrator—but the physical presence of the inmates themselves. The deformations of the body are on the same level as the horrors of the mind, the grotesque and insane paired—a lurking Lovecraft.
Nearly everyone has a physical deformity—the more intense the deformity, the more insane they are. Even those outside, those most sane—threatening cops identified by psoriasis and ulcers, anorexic twins owning/haunting a café—come with minor physical marks that save their place within the reoccurring phantoms and the “cast of marionettes with twisted bodies and gaunt faces.” This reaches the absent center with Daniel’s sister, suffering from Elhers-Danlos Syndrome, her baggy skin and malleable joints serving as the height of both physical mutation and madness.
An unsettling child even during their happy times together, Sofía is nearly killed in the fire that nearly destroys their home, taking with it most of Daniel’s book collection. Her injuries, on top of her illness and her mental state become an excuse for her parents to send her to an asylum, where she quickly becomes a haunting figure, intentionally terrifying people with the contortions her illness allows. Returning again and again to this disappearance, Sofía lurks as a clue, a waiting horror.
The Antiquarian is genre for the literary type. Laying the world with ideas from critical theory and deploying Borges, Poe, Bolaño, as part of the atmosphere while horror and noir carry out their own tropes, the book itself moves through walls as a ghost. Its thrill increases the more the narrator loses his sanity, the more we become insane ourselves, digging back into the book, looking for reoccurrence, echoes, shifted phrases, misheard before, understood now, realizing how many answers were put before our eyes but interpreted as the nonsense of mad folk. Themes are treated like clues, rushing toward conclusions, revaluations—the whodunnit seen in a new way. Reading as much for the answers to mysteries of murders and disappearances and an end to madness as for how to get there, but not through the plot, but the complications of language, The Antiquarian encourages the thrill of reading, forcing you to move quicker and quicker, unsure if you are escaping or falling into a trap, as the end nears.