Balthazar, the hero of Keith Miller’s agile and trippy novel The Book on Fire, is a biblioklept. He comes to Alexandria to rob the famous library, a cavernous, labyrinthine complex that still exists–under heavy guard—in Miller’s mystical version of that ancient Egyptian city. Miller’s Alexandria is a byzantine maze, humming with a turn-of-the-century buzz, a kaleidoscope world that strongly reminded me of the strange cityscapes of William Gibson or William Burroughs. Here, Balthazar describes his attraction to Alexandria:
This is the city of books, where children are admonished if they don’t bring a book to the breakfast table, where they’re ordered by their mothers to drop their books and go play on the street, where bedtime tales sometimes continue, chapter after chapter, till well after midnight, parents pinching their children to keep them awake. This is a city where men beat their wives with books, the women shielding their heads with books. A city of book-whores, who fuck for books, and their bibliogiglios. A city of book-beggars, who spit on your money, gesturing with their stumps to the paperback in your hand.
What a town for a book thief! Balthazar plans to rob the Library of Alexandria, but he spends his early months stealing rare books from private homes. Soon, he’s trailed by Zeinab, a book prostitute who burns each volume she’s paid with. After a sexual interlude (“like fucking a wounded ferret,” Balthazar tells us), Zeinab introduces our hero to a guild of thieves and helps guide him through Alexandria’s frenetic underworld. In time, Balthazar breaches the forbidden, intoxicating library:
I read impossibly gorgeous scripts. Scripts in which each hieroglyph filled a page and took a day to write, but could express an entire philosophy. Scripts in which each letter stood for a notion, so the writing dictated thought patterns rather than words. Scripts that had no meaning at all, or that started out meaningfully but then, as the author was caught up in the physical act of writing, became relationships of lines and shapes on paper, beautiful and abstract. Private scripts, the authors long dead, so the script stood isolated, unreadable precious nonetheless. Rainforest scripts of samara and turaco crest. Marine scripts of shark tooth and sand dollar. I passed through rooms of books the size of doors, each cover the death of an eland, and rooms of books dainty as ladybirds. Books written on communion wafers, grains of rice, sheets of ice.
For Balthazar, books are a drug, and the Library of Alexandria is the heady nexus point for his addiction. No wonder then that he becomes obsessed with the young librarian Shireen, whom he plots to free (or perhaps steal) from the library—a plan that comes into conflict with Zeinab’s own designs. And while The Book of Fire does have the strong, page turning plot of a thriller, that plot exists mostly as the bones for Miller to hang rapturous descriptions of reading and books and, best of all, his strange Alexandria, a city of marvels. Good stuff.