Alistair Ian Blyth’s Card Catalogue is a book about books. Set in Bucharest in the decade after the Revolution, it presents a series of dreamlike narratives loosely linked by the subject of libraries: book hoarding, book hunting, book burning, and, above all, the dreams of infinite other bookspast and futurethat every individual codex volume inspires. Whether he is describing his encounters with Gribski (whose strange hidden library in Bucharest he is to see but once) or itemizing the various books whose existence he has dreamed (including “a collection of children’s paeans to Ceausescu bound in the same volume as a slim commentary on Pound’s Canto XIV”) Blyth shows himself to be a card catalogue unto himself. In the tradition of Jorge Luis Borges, Italo Calvino, and Alberto Manguel, this book is bound to please.
About the Author
Alistair Ian Blyth (b. 1970) has translated numerous works of fiction and philosophy from the Romanian, most recently the novels The Bulgarian Truck by Dumitru Tsepeneag and The Encounter by Gabriela Adamesteanu for Dalkey Archive Press.
Read an Excerpt
Books as tangible objects may sometimes inspire a loathing for the written word. In a diary entry from the late 1940s, Mircea Eliade describes the queasy loathing he one day experiences on seeing the turn-of-the-century novels laid out on the stalls of the bouquinistes who ply their trade along the quay of the Seine. What he calls his ‘melancholy nausea’ at the yellowing leaves of long-forgotten fictions fluttering in the wind turns into revulsion at the printed page in general, and into despair at the ultimate perishability of all the material artefacts of the human spirit, no matter how high or low.
In Bucharest in the last decade of the twentieth century, at the time when I met Gribski, whose strange hidden library I was to visit but once, I was often afflicted by a similarly unsettling feeling during the course of my objectless searches around that city’s used-book stalls and stores. In those days, Bucharest’s coterie of used-book sellers would heap their wares in ragged stacks on the steps and pavement in front of the University, covering them with tarpaulin or plastic sheeting at dusk. Opposite the University a pale-yellow Dacia motorcar served these bouquinistes as a depository; crammed with surplus books whose spines were all turned inwards, its windows and windscreen presented to the gaze a solid mass of anonymous paper. I also remember a window in the lower storey of a crumbling old residential building on Strada Batiște that was occluded with stacks of books, although here their spines faced outward so that passers-by might read the titles.
In his On Libraries (1669) Johann Lomeier describes the library of the Buddhist temple at Nara in seventeenth-century Japan, a vast space whose roof was supported by twenty-four columns, as similarly being so congested that the windows were solid walls of books. Looking at such a wall of books from without one might imagine that the space it enclosed were a solid, uninterrupted, inaccessible mass, penetrable only by insects and rodents boring or gnawing their way through the mouldering paper. As I would discover, it was in such a space that Gribski dwelled, a burrower and grub-worm encysted in a bibliotheca abscondita of his own making.
As I have said, my searches were objectless, and on my daily circuit I would visit even the corner of Strada Hristo Botev and Strada Negustori, where in those days there was a booth stuffed with shabby books and dismembered fascicles. On the pavement by this booth stood a large pair of scales, allowing customers to buy bundles of random printed matter by the kilo. I do not know what I was hoping to find among that promiscuous maculature, which on closer inspection, after I purchased one or more bundles, would turn out to consist of communist-era almanacs; non-sequential volumes of the Romanian translation of the complete works of Lenin, withdrawn from the libraries of local councils and defunct workers’ cultural clubs; obsolete technical manuals; textbooks on dialectical materialism for economists, prefaced with photographic portraits of the late dictator; and other such publications, which I now no longer remember. My tiny flat on the nearby Strada Mîntuleasa soon filled up with such printed matter, and by the time I met Gribski I had moved to a different domicile out by the railway station in order to escape the alarming mass of accreting paper that rose from the mantelpiece to the ceiling and had begun to spread along the walls in teetering stacks.
In the Attic Nights of Aulus Gellius can be found one of the earliest descriptions of the kind of bibliomaniacal obsession that already afflicted me when I was granted unexpected ingress to Gribski’s library, an obsession in which exaltation gives way to disgust and despair only to recrudesce again and again. Disembarking in the port of Brundisium, Aulus Gellius finds bundles of books laid out for sale on the quay. The books themselves are grubby, squalid with age and neglect, but include Greek works which, even then, in the second century A.D., were of considerable antiquity and rarity, works now irretrievably lost. Congratulating himself on his luck at making such an unexpected find and elated at the derisory price of the books, Aulus Gellius buys a great quantity of scrolls and spends the next two nights poring over them. The matter of the books has to do with the remotest of the Scythian tribes, which are said to be anthropophagous; the Arimaspi, who like the Cyclopes have one eye in the middle of the forehead; the Sauromatae beyond the river Borysthenes (Dnieper), who eat only every third day; predatory dog-headed men from the mountains of India; and a tribe that dwells in a region remoter still, whose bodies are sheathed in feathers and who ingest no solid food but gain sustenance by inhaling the odour of flowers. He begins to copy out these fantastical specimens of ancient cultural anthropology, or rather teratology, but is then gripped with what might be translated ‘weary loathing’ ( tædium ) at the inherent worthlessness of the texts, as he sees it.