In the first section of this novel when three critics go to visit the home of the professor assigned to guide them they are bemused to discover a book hanging on the washing line. A book of geometry written by a poet and hanging on a line not to dry, having clearly been there for some time, but hanging there with some purpose.
The character of Amalfitano doesn't make a great impression on the critics initially and in the second, and shortest, section of this book we go back a little in time to see the breakdown of his mind following the loss of his wife. She wishes to visit a poet in an asylum, a poet she claims to have slept with before she met Amalfitano (something he knows to be false, knowing him to be gay and having introduced her to the poets work himself) and leaves him caring for their daughter, keeping him updated on her exploits in a series of bizarre letters.
It isn't until seven years later that he sees her again, and then only briefly, the madness in her letters and this last visit perhaps providing the tug that begins the gradual unravelling of Amalfitano's mind. It begins with the book, which he doesn't remember buying or receiving, a book which clearly represents the one we ourselves are reading:
On the front flap, the reader was informed that the Testamento Geometrico was really three books, "each independent, but functionally correlated by the sweep of the whole" and then it said "this work representing the final distillation of Dieste's reflections...
Borrowing an idea from Duchamp he hangs the book on his washing line 'to see if it learns something about real life', much to the chagrin of his daughter, 'You're getting crazier every day, you know'. And indeed he is. He begins to hear a voice talking to him, finds that he has doodled diagrams and lists that make no sense. As his story progresses a distance opens up between him and the other people in his life, the text becomes dominated by his intellectual ramblings, and we get closer and closer to 'the melancholy literature professor put out to pasture in his own field' of the first section.
Despite being only 65 pages long it isn't an easy read. No paragraphs and the sluggish energy make it harder work than it should be but I'm going to take heart from Amalfitano's reaction to meeting a man whose taste in books restricts him to the safer, minor efforts of the classic writers (The Metamorphosis rather than The Trial, Bartleby over Moby Dick)
What a sad paradox, thought Amalfitano. Now even bookish pharmacists are afraid to take on the great, imperfect, torrential works, books that blaze paths into the unknown. They choses the perfect exercises of the great masters. Or what amounts to the same thing: they want to watch the great masters spar, but they have no interest in real combat, when the great masters strugggle against that something, that something that terrifies us all, that something that cows us and spurs us on, amid blood and mortal wounds and stench.