The House of Paper, By Carlos María Domínguez, Harcourt, 112 pp, $18
It is sweetly ironic that Carlos María Domínguez's new paean to the power of books is itself the slenderest of volumes, 112 pages and measuring roughly 5 by 7 1/2 inches. But it is full of big ideas clothed in the form of a delicate little mystery that keeps the reader turning those pages at a brisk clip.
The gist of the story is Domínguez's simple assertion: ''Books change people's destinies." And he means that literally, as the opening vignette tells of the tragic death of Bluma Lennon, who steps in front of a car while immersed in a volume of Emily Dickinson's poetry.
The death of Lennon, a distinguished Cambridge professor of Latin American literature, sets in motion an intriguing quest when a package arrives for her after her death -- no return address, but postmarked Uruguay. When Bluma's successor, the narrator, opens the package, he discovers a copy of Joseph Conrad's novel ''The Shadow-Line"; Bluma had been writing her thesis on Conrad. However, this particular book was encrusted with cement particles and inscribed, apparently two years earlier, in Bluma's own hand: ''For Carlos . . . in memory of those crazy days in Monterey."
The book's return to Bluma after two years with no message other than the bizarre film of mortar piques the interest of the narrator, who also happens to be the deceased's former lover, and he sets out on a journey to track down the sender, a Uruguayan bibliophile named Carlos Brauer. When he finds out Brauer has mysteriously disappeared after building himself a house out of his enormous library of books, his search takes on some urgency and the kind of fool's obsession that makes for entertaining storytelling.
Along the way there are semantic discussions, philosophical musings, and some personal soul-searching on the part of the narrator. But underneath it all is the pervasive air of bibliophilia, in all its many guises. And in accompanying the narrator as he seeks the elusive Brauer, we learn most about the narrator himself. He confesses, ''It is often much harder to get rid of books than it is to acquire them. They stick to us in that pact of need and oblivion we make with them, witnesses to a moment in our lives we will never see again. While they are still there, it is part of us."
He also woefully admits, ''There is a moment, however, when we have accumulated so many books that they cross an invisible line, and what was once a sense of pride becomes a burden, because from now on space will always be a problem."
The Argentine Domínguez, who now lives in Uruguay, works as a journalist and literary critic in addition to writing numerous novels. He has a delightful eye for detail and a charming way of turning a phrase, leavening his sentences with lyricism and wry humor. Domínguez deftly drops in memorably piquant little anecdotes and reflections, such as when he has the narrator recall, ''Whenever my grandmother saw me reading in bed, she would say: 'Stop that, books are dangerous.' For many years I thought she was simply ignorant, but the passage of time has shown just how sensible my grandmother was."
The Czechoslovakian-born, London-trained artist Peter Sís contributed the book's fanciful, surreal illustrations. They are totally captivating and add to the air of magic realism with which the book flirts. Rather than attempting literal illustrations of Domínguez's fertile imagination, Sís adds his own quirky layer of imagery to the story, with vividly detailed symbols that puzzle and provoke just as Domínguez's words do.