When Jorge Borges walked into a room, a reverential hush invariably fell over the area. It is not known if Borges (who was blind) knew that he was practically worshiped by all and sundry during the latter part of his life, and if he did, he most likely would have dismissed it as inconsequential. He was close to winning the Nobel Prize for literature on several occasions, but never achieved it. When he died, he was venerated, but Argentina has yet to create a lasting memorial to him. Societies create all sorts of memorials to politicians, builders, and soldiers, but one of the great writers of all times gets largely ignored. As Kurt Vonnegut would say: so it goes.
Borges was a short-story writer, essayist, poet, and translator who was born in Buenos Aires. His most famous books, Ficciones (1944) and The Aleph (El Aleph in Spanish) (1949), are compilations of short stories interconnected by common themes such as dreams, labyrinths, libraries, mirrors, animals, fictional writers, philosophy, religion and God. He loved to study illusion.
Borges was widely read and spoke four languages: Spanish, English, French, and German, while dabbling in some others. He was equally at home writing a twisting, complicated story interweaving existential philosophy with Shakespearean drama as he was relating a brief, spare tale about an Argentinean knife fighter. He reveled in life but studied death.
I remember discovering him in my ’30’s. In those days it was difficult to find books by Borges who was only known in literary circles and among the intelligentsia. I found his essays to be thought provoking, his poetry haunting, and his short stories rich, deep, and varied. I was so entranced by his word usage that I once checked out the same book from the library translated by two different authors just to see the difference. It was considerable. One was more sterile than the other. The best translation made his words sing. Borges worked for five years with Thomas di Giovanni who was responsible for much of his literary output published in this country during that time. However, when Borges died, his long-time companion and eventual wife, Maria Kodama, took over his estate and Giovanni was cut from the picture. I don’t know if her later choice of a translator was better or not. Translations are tricky, as Borges would agree, and something is always lost when you sally from one language to the next.
His mind maneuvered in ways, it seems to me, that no other writer in the history of fiction and poetry have ever achieved. He once wrote a story about a man who never forgot anything. I understand in real life there are actually people who do this, but Borges managed to compose a complicated story with metaphysical implications around the phenomenon. On the other hand, he once wrote a story about a man being executed, and how his entire life passed before him the instant the shot was fired. One is left holding one’s breath.
Here is an example of his writing (from “The Circular Ruins”): “At the outset, his dreams were chaotic; later on, they were of a dialectic nature. The stranger dreamed himself at the center of a circular amphitheater which in some way was also the burnt-out temple. Crowds of silent disciples exhausted the tiers of seats; the faces of the farthest of them hung centuries away from him and at a height of the stars, but their features were clear and exact.”
Lord, allow me to write like this and I will gladly forfeit ten years of my life.
In his parable “Borges and I” he creates a dichotomy between himself as a man and as the writer. “Little by little, I am giving over everything to him, though I am quite aware of his perverse custom of falsifying and magnifying things. Years ago I tried to free myself from him and went from the mythologies of the suburbs to the games with time and infinity, but those games belong to Borges now and I shall have to imagine other things. Thus my life is a flight . . . . I do not know which of us has written this page.”
Borges’s work has often been accused of being cold and impersonal; however, I end this brief essay with the following poem, which is not often available to the casual reader, but should be:
Neither the intimacy of your forehead, fair as a feast-day,
Nor the favor of your body, still mysterious, reserved and childlike,
Nor what comes to me of your life, settling in words or silence,
Will be a grace so provocative of thoughts
As the sight of your sleep, enfolded
In the vigil of my covetous arms,
Virgin again, miraculously, by the absolving power of Sleep,
Quiet and luminous like some happy thing recovered by memory.
You will deed to me that shore of your life that you yourself
do not own
Cast up into silence.
I shall discern that ultimate beach of your being
And see you for the first time as, perhaps,
God must see you,
The fiction of Time destroyed,
Free from love, from me.