I knew very little about Paul Auster when I bought this book. I knew the name. I knew of him and that he was a respected, probably American, author. It was certainly why I picked the book up although I suspect its size – it's only 130 pages long – would have been the first thing that attracted me to it. The austere cover was striking, although I'm sure I only saw the book's spine; I doubt the book's title had even registered at this point, however, once it did, this would have been a definite plus.
I expect I flipped the book over in my hand and scanned the blurb. I sometimes do I sometimes don't; it's a mood thing. Since I can't remember – I bought the book well over a year ago – let's assume that I did. This is what I would have read:
An old man wakes alone in an almost empty room, unable to remember his past. The only clues to his identity are a manuscript, a pile of photos and a visitor called Anna who sparks memories of forgotten love and tragedy. A mystery about memory, growing old and our responsibilities, Travels in the Scriptorium is a brilliant new work from one of America's best-loved and lost intriguing storytellers.
That I can tell you here and now would have done it for me but now I've begun to write about it I'm sure I opened the book and read the first page:
The old man sits on the edge of the narrow bed, palms spread out on his knees, head down, staring at the floor. He has no idea that a camera is planted in the ceiling directly above him. The shutter clicks silently once every second, producing eighty-six thousand four hundred still photos with every revolution of the earth. Even if he knew he was being watched, it wouldn't make any difference. His mind is elsewhere, stranded among the figments in his head as he searches for an answer to the question that haunts him
Who is he? What is he doing here? When did he arrive and how long will he remain? With any luck, time will tell us all. For the moment, our only task is to study the pictures as attentively as we can and refrain from drawing any premature conclusions.
There are a number of objects in the room, and on each one a strip of white tape has been affixed to the surface, bearing a single word written out in block letters. On the bedside table, for example, the word is TABLE. On the lamp the word is LAMP. Even on the wall, which is not strictly speaking an object, there is a strip of tape that reads WALL. The old man looks up for a moment, sees the wall...
And that's probably as far as I went. Is this a cell or a room in a hospice? Is he prisoner or patient? Based on the above information, would you buy the book? Yes, or no? Fine, then I'm done. This could be my shortest book review ever.
I read the book in two sittings one night after the other although once I'd reached the halfway point I was so embroiled in the story that the man is reading that I wanted to continue. Forty pages is usually my limit at one sitting, after that my concentration starts to go and I need to do something different, answer e-mails or maybe something physical. That I'd read sixty-five pages and wanted to go on does say something.
I didn't mention the quote on the cover. I didn't mention it before because I don't generally pay much attention to quotes no matter how illustrious a paper they're from. This particular one was from the Guardian:
Fans won't be able to resist consuming it whole.
For what it's worth I concur with that assessment. Had I become a fan by this point though? It's probably safe to say, no, but I was well on the way to becoming one. My one overriding fear at this point was that I was going to get to the end and he was going to let me down.
A part of me would like to leave you there. You already know more than I did. In fact I'm going to. Another post will go up in a couple of minutes which will talk about what I've learned if you're interested but I'm still not going to tell you what the book is about and I am absolutely not going to give away the ending, which, depending on who you are will either have you slapping your forehead and exclaiming: “How could I not have seen that? All the clues were there.” or chucking the book across the room going: “Was that it? For Christ's sake, was that it?” Personally I veered towards the former although I have to confess to being a bit disappointed that what I had imagined in my head was so far from the mark.
And with that I'll leave you. If your curiosity gets the better of you then there's a link to the second part of this review below.