Borges on Borges, Part II

borges_jorge_luisThe following commentaries were written by Jorge Luis Borges for a now out-of-print collection. Read Part I here.

The Dead Man

A ten days’ stay on the Uruguay-Brazil border in 1934 seems to have impressed me far more than all the kingdoms of the world and the glory of them, since in my imagination I keep going back to that one not very notable experience. (At the time, I thought of it as boring, though on one of those days I did see a man shot down before my very eyes.) A likely explanation for this is that everything I then witnessed – the stone fences, the longhorn cattle, the horses’ silver trappings, the bearded gauchos, the hitching posts, the ostriches – was so primitive, and even barbarous, as to make it more a journey into the past than a journey through space.

“The Dead Man” should not be taken, as I sometimes fear it may be, as a deliberate allegory on human life, though, like poor Otálora, we are given all things only to have them snatched from us at the moment we die. I prefer the story to be read as a kind of adventure.

Several rash enthusiasts have fallen into the mistake of thinking that “The Dead Man” might easily be worked into a film. They overlook the fact that Azevedo Bandeira, in a movie, would require pyschological plausibility, while in a story he may be both accepted and yet not understandable. No real man, of course, would act the way he does.

The story has been criticized by some friends as being no more than a sketchy outline; my incapacity, or laziness, has led me to believe that such an outline is sufficient.

A few elements in the story may be worth pointing out. Here, as in other cases, I have begun with a long opening sentence. My feeling is that first sentences should be long in order to tear the reader out of his everyday life and firmly lodge him in an imaginary world. If an illustrious example be allowed me, Cervantes apparently felt the same way when he began his famous novel. As to the names, Otálora is an old family name of mine; so is Azevedo, but with a Spanish c instead of the Portuguese z. Bandeira was the name of Enrique Amorim’s head gardener, and the word bandeira (flag) also suggests the Portuguese bandierantes, or conquistadors. During that 1934 trip, we actually spent one night at a ranch called El Suspiro. The present tense, used throughout the story, makes it perhaps more vivid. The gaucho laboriously picking out a milonga at the very end is my comment on the way country people really play the guitar, though I’m sure that in the film version he will be made to sound like Andrés Segovia.

The Other Death

All theologians have denied God one miracle – that of undoing the past. The eleventh-century churchman Pier Damiano, however, grants Him that all but imaginable power. This gave me the idea of writing a story about a scientist who, in some minor and unobtrusive way, attempts a similar feat. He hides two black balls in an upper drawer and three yellow ones in a lower drawer and, after years of hard work, finds that they have changed places. I was not long in perceiving that this tame miracle would never do, and that I would have to dream up something more dramatic. I thought of a common man coming to such a wonder, unawares, at the very moment he dies. Aparicio Saravia’s revolution had caught my imagination from boyhood, and I saw a way of combining, in a setting of that backwoods revolution, the gaucho idea of courage as the one cardinal virtue and my metaphysical plan. And so my story, which was first titled “The Redemption,” was born.

In the story, for literary purposes, the miracle takes place over a span of forty-odd years. Pedro Damián’s sin would be the more unbearable for him since, as the lone Argentine among Uruguayans, he would feel greater shame. Ultimately, Damián dies as he would have liked to die – struck down by a bullet in the chest while leading a charge. Had this actually happened, his fellow soldiers would hardly have remarked on such a detail. I introduced it into my story in order to make the whole atmosphere that much more visionary.

Emerson’s verses are mentioned at the outset for two main reasons: first, because I simply admire their beauty; second, so as to send the reader – if he goes back to them – off the track, since they strongly express the idea that the past in unchangeable.

A favorite trick of mine is to work into my fiction the names of real friends. In “The Other Death” we find Ulrike von Kühlmann, Patricio Gannon, and Emir Rodríguez Monegal.

Ibn Hakkan al-Bokhari, Dead in His Labyrinth

Before “Ibn Hakkan,” I had previously tried my hand at two detective stories, “The Garden of Branching Paths” (1941) and “Death and the Compass” (1942). The former won a second prize in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine; the latter was flatly rejected. My interest in detective fiction is rooted in my reading of Edgar Allan Poe, Wilkie Collins, Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Wrecker, G.K. Chesterton, Eden Phillpotts, and, of course, Ellery Queen. In a world of shapeless psychological writing, I found in this particular form the classic virtues of a beginning, a middle, and an end – of something planned and executed. Bioy-Casares and I even went to the length of editing, in Buenos Aires, a successful collection of detective novels. The series was called “The Seventh Circle.” The amount of reading required in the selection of these books rid me, in time, of my boyish craze for the general run of such games and puzzles. “Ibn Hakkan” turned out to be my swan song.

My first two exercises of 1941 and 1942 were, I think, fair attempts at Chestertonian storytelling. When I wrote “Ibn Hakkan,” however, it became a cross between a permissible detective story and a caricature of one. The more I worked on it, the more hopeless the plot seemed and the stronger my need to parody. What I ended up with I hope will be read for its humor. I certainly can’t expect anyone to take seriously or to look for symbols in such pictorial whims as a black slave, a lion in Cornwall, a red-haired king, and a scarlet maze so large that on first sight its outer ramparts appear to be a straight blank wall.

The pseudo-Arabian parable preached by the timorous Mr. Allaby from his pulpit was written before “Ibn Hakkan.” How it found its way into the story is now a mystery to me.

borges portrait caricature drawing

The Man on the Threshold

I have previously written of this story:

The sudden and recurring glimpse into a deep set of corridors and patios of a tenement house around the corner in Paraná Street, in Buenos Aires, gave me the tale entitled “The Man on the Threshold”; I placed it in India so as to make its unlikeliness less obvious.

Looking back on this statement, I seem to recall a rather different starting point. One night in Salto, Uruguay, with Enrique Amorim, for lack of anything better to do, we went around to the local slaughterhouse to watch the cattle being killed. Squatting on the threshold of the long low adobe building was a battered and almost lifeless old man. Amorim asked him, “Are they killing?” The old man appeared to come to a brief and evil awakening, and answered back in a fierce whisper, “Yes, they’re killing! They’re killing!”

Somehow the idea – somehow the image – of an apparently helpless old man holding a secret power impressed itself on my imagination. I wove this image into the present story and, several years later, used it again – almost word for word – near the close of another story, “The South.” Of course, the same linking of seeming helplessness and real power is to be found in the Arabian Nights and in the idea of old and wizened witches.

Students of Kipling will note that my Indian background is, in part, cribbed from him. Mention of Nikal Seyn comes from Kim. The madman counting on his fingers and mocking at the trees comes from the poem “Evarra and His Gods.” The young man crowned with flowers was suggested, I think, by From Sea to Sea.

I’m sorry to say that “The Man on the Threshold” is also a bit of a trick story and a game with time. What is told as having happened years and years earlier is actually taking place at that moment. The teller, of course, as he patiently spins his yarn, is really hindering the officer from breaking in and stopping the trial and execution.

The Challenge

I was lecturing during the dictatorship out in the western part of the Province of Buenos Aires, in the city of Chivilcoy, when I was told the story of Wenceslao Suárez, nicknamed the Manco, or One-Handed. After I published “The Challenge,” I received two letters bearing on the subject. (These letters are printed at the back of Evaristo Carriego.) One recounts Wenceslao’s story with certain variations in the place names and in the behavior of his foe. The other tells of a similar incident in Entre Ríos, where the opponents – an Argentine and an Uruguayan – end their fight exchanging knives as a token of friendship. Both letters corroborate rather than debunk the tradition.

I found in this story a key to much of what I had already heard, thought about, and invented in stories of my own about such disinterested duels. I think the reader will find in “The Challenge” a full explanation of my feeling for the subject of knives, knife fighters, courage, and so on, as it has concerned me over the past forty or forty-five years.

Of course, Wenceslao’s story may be found wanting in likelihood, but, as Boileau pointed out, “Reality stands in no need of being true to life.”

This piece, like many others of mine, is halfway between a real short story and an essay.

The Captive

This tale, of course, is true. Frontier life has always attracted me, no doubt because some hundred years ago my grandparents lived among civilization’s outposts out on the edge of the Province of Buenos Aires. Colonel Borges, my grandfather, there held the command of the Northern and Western Frontier until he met his death in 1874. Additionally, I have always been interested in the strangeness of memory and in the fact that the past is somehow rescued, or saved for us, by it. De Quincey thought of the human brain as a palimpsest, wherein all our yesterdays, down to the minutest detail, survive; for their release, these yesterdays only await the proper, unsuspected stimulus. Memory, not the captive, may very well be the real subject of the story.

The Immortals

Blake wrote that were our senses closed – were we made blind, deaf, dumb, and so forth – we should see all things as they are: endless. “The Immortals” came out of that strange idea and also out of Rupert Brooke’s derivative line, “And see, no longer blinded by our eyes.” We acknowledge this first debt by calling one of the characters Guillermo Blake.

Thrice over I attempted writing the story. First with Marta Mosquera Eastman and later with Alicia Jurado. They may still have copies of those early drafts. The story was to have been called “The Chosen One.” For some reason or other, each of these schemes was dropped. Then, in 1988, I took the story up again with Bioy-Casares. By that time, Bioy and I had invented a new way of telling gruesome and uncanny tales. It lay in understating the grimness and essental horror while playing up certain humorous aspects – a kind of graft between Alfred Hitchcock and the Marx brothers. This not only made for more amusing and less pretentious writing, but at the same time underlined the horror. We developed the technique in our comic detective saga, Six Problems for don Isidro Parodi, and, more openly, in the first of the Two Memorable Fantasies, “The Witness.” In fact, some of the personages in “The Immortals” are taken from the Six Problems, and in the present story are fated to a terrible eternity. Another detail may be pointed out, the circumstance that all the characters – including the very Frankenstein of the story, the maker of monsters, Dr. Narbondo – are also blatant fools and indulge in a silly jargon all their own.

The story deals in its own way with the problem of immortality. Since our only proof of personal death is statistical, and inasmuch as a new generation of deathless men may be already on its way, I have for years lived in fear of never dying. Such an idea as immortality would, of course, be unbearable. In “The Immortals” we are face to face with people who are only immortal and nothing else, and the prospect, I trust, is appalling. I think that this joint story (I can say this without undue vanity because I wrote it with someone else) is among my very best and that, despite its having been overlooked by Argentine critics, it may yet come into its own.

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