Travels in the Scriptorium,
by Paul Auster
Reviewed by Rima Walker
Paul Auster is a master of the maze. The plots of many of his books tend to resemble it—the wanderer either finds the answer and comes to the end (and freedom) or is hopelessly lost. The same fate awaits the reader of this novel. A scriptorium is a room in a monastery where medieval monks copied and illuminated manuscripts, primarily religious ones. The scriptorium in this case appears to be a prison cell and raises the question of how one can travel in it. It is occupied by an elderly man who needs answers to several questions he asks himself–Who am I? Why am I here? Who are these people who keep coming into the cell to help me or confuse me or accuse me of terrible things I might or might not have done–which leave him with deep feelings of guilt he can’t account for. The problem for Mr. Blank (a name given him by the narrator) is that, for the most part, he is a blank: he remembers very little of his past and in addition seems quite infirm. Some photographs left on a desk jog some memories; his visitors contribute more but also raise additional questions because they never really tell Blank what he needs to know about who he is and what he has done and why he is here in this cell. Strangely, these characters are from Auster’s previous novels, and one is named John Trause, and Trause treated as an anagram spells “Auster”. So is Auster a character in his novels as well as the creator of his novels?
Told by a narrator who is actually a watcher (there are cameras on all the time and an audio recording device), the tone is detached, the language spare and clinical. Since this narrator is the observer, readers should possibly trust him—or should we? We never do find out who he is after all unless he is Auster. Not that it matters. What does matter is the unfinished manuscript on a desk that Blank is told to read and eventually to complete. It is about a man, Sigmund Graf, who is a prisoner at the Ultima garrison in a nation that resembles the early years of America when Indian tribes peopled the land. But who is Graf? Is he Blank living in an alternate mirror universe or is he just, well, blank like Mr. Blank, or is he simply a character in another piece of fiction within the fiction of the novel? Lots of questions here for Mr. Blank and for us.
So with all of this said we recognize that the novel is really about memory and identity, about illusion and reality, and about the meaning of life and individual existence. Many of Auster’s previous characters were detectives, and Mr. Blank is one as well, searching for the truth of his existence.
Have you ever seen an Escher painting where stairways go up and twist around and go down but never go anywhere? Or have you ever looked in a mirror that faces a mirror so that you only see yourself reflected over and over again? Perhaps Mr. Blank is in hell, doomed to live each day exactly like the previous one in which he must cry, “Who am I?” “What is happening here?” “When will it end?” Do any of these questions sound familiar? Travel through Auster’s highly readable maze, his labyrinth, until you get to the end, and hopefully to some answers. ~