Borges and I

August 21, 1999

Source: Gabriel Caprav

This commemoration of the centennial year of Jorge Luis Borges’s birth appeared in an edited form as “He Dared to Call Peron a Scoundrel” in The Straits Times (21 August 1999).

I will tell you the story of Jorge Luis Borges, who was born a century ago.

It is hard to picture today the Palermo he grew up in; this suburb north-west of Buenos Aires used to be squalid, sleazy and teeming with knife-wielding gangsters and stories of them.

Brought up, however, in a close-knit middle-class family, Borges was extracted from its direct influence although, for many years, he imagined himself part of those streets, perhaps encouraged by his poet-friend Evaristo Carriego, perhaps inspired by his storytelling English grandmother.

From her, he picked up the art of dry wit and conciseness as he did a form of philosophy from his lawyer-father; from his mother, he learnt about the glorious line of military heroes running in his blood.

But from his sister Nora, Borges got what he was later to find only in writing: the companionship in exploring the aisles of the home library and garden, in creating new fables and enacting old ones, sustaining all the time the life in imaginary creatures and invisible worlds.

This abstract literariness prepared him for his introduction to Symbolist literature, Walt Whitman and Arthur Schopenhauer when, during a trip to Europe, the family was forced to settle there because of the Great War. They were to become the secret emblems with which he later used to navigate within what he called “the riddle of the universe”.

When Borges’s family eventually returned to Argentina, the Buenos Aires that greeted it was bustling with new wealth and activity. The young writer wasted no time in penetrating its literary circle, contributing regularly to magazines, publishing volumes of poems and essays, and even dabbling in politics.

This period, together with its output, he would later disown; growing increasingly cynical with both cultural and political affairs, he wrote a series of hoaxes and half-essays, writings that fall slightly outside what we term “Borgesian”, a Borgesian apocrypha if you will, works like A Universal History of Infamy and A History of Eternity.

Around this time too, the plunging economy ruined the family wealth and, for the first time in his life, Borges had need for work. He became a librarian, a most miserable one for the record, although he stayed on for about a decade largely in order to be with its books, whose pages were so much a part of his childhood and of him now.

To add to an already trying existence, he was also losing his eyesight like his father, by then completely blind, and in 1938, the year his father died, Borges fell on a badly-lit stairway, sustained a head injury and, for many weeks, was on the brink of death.

Never has literature owed so much to a wicked accident because it indisputably changed the terrain of Hispanic literature and, for that matter, modern literature as we know it. At 39, fearing that he could have lost all his ability to write, Borges started to write anew, beginning with a ”halfway house between the essay and true tale” called “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote”.

The story tells of how a twentieth-century Frenchman actually wrote parts of the seventeenth-century Spanish work so that history was not what occurred but what we thought occurred; he did this through “deliberate anachronism and erroneous attributions”, a style curiously found in our “hesitant and rudimentary act of reading”.

In some 300 lines, Borges has effectively condensed the intricacies of what happens to a text-writer relationship when we read and the scandal that surfaces once that writer is also remembered as a reader.

This was a frightening but appropriate starting-point to a string of equally spellbinding short fictions studying the mirror, labyrinth and encyclopedia we otherwise call reality or language. The unclassifiable writings, composed in the library basement, were eventually collected in Ficciones and, by 1949, a second major volume, The Aleph, was out in print.

Borges’s growing reputation did not please everybody, particularly Juan Perón, whom he ridiculed ceaselessly, and the Argentinian president promptly promoted him to Inspector of Poultry and Rabbits in the Public Markets, a post he naturally turned down. His reason was unforgettable: “Dictatorships foment subservience, dictatorships foment cruelty, even more abominable is the fact that they foment stupidity.”

Thus having gotten himself fired, Borges became a lecturer, but his family continued to be harassed; after being caught for rioting, his mother was placed under house arrest and Nora was jailed, later refusing release offered by Eva Perón.

Yet, in one of the dozen strange twists to his life, Borges was virtually untouchable by the time the “unspeakable scoundrel Perón” returned to power in 1973, having sat as Director of the National Library for close to two decades and, among other honours, shared the 1961 Formentor Prize with Samuel Beckett.

By then, he had also been hopelessly blind for many years, oddly since Perón’s removal, but he kept on creating, producing works like Dreamtigers and The Book of Imaginary Beings. He was already universally known for a bold inexpressive style that mocked the romantic and realist modes, a plot-driven resignation that paralleled Franz Kafka’s and a level of textual experimentation smelling of James Joyce.

His life’s last decade he spent travelling and lecturing full-time and, in the year The Book of Sand came out, his longtime companion, his mother, died.

Borges had short marriages; the first, at the age of 68, lasted three years and the second, in 1986, preceded his own death by a few weeks.

Surprise, darkness, libraries, labyrinths, gardens, monsters, Carriego, gangsters — these are the stuff filling up Borges’s stories and also the story of Borges himself, which he frequently held to be uninteresting.

Once, shocked by his popularity, the “man with no life” wrote a little story called “Borges and I”, claiming memorably: “I live, let myself go on living, so that Borges may contrive his literature, and this literature justifies me.

“Besides, I am destined to perish, definitively, and only some instant of myself can survive in him. Little by little, I am giving over everything to him.

“I do not know which of us has written this page.”

Gwee Li Sui

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