Borges

I didn’t grow up in a family where literature played any significant role, other than entertainment, that is. My mother enjoyed reading novels by Jacqueline Susann and Harold Robbins. My mathematician grandmother read French paperbacks from the collection “J’ai Lu” by authors ranging from Agatha Christie to Guy des Cars. Finally, my father, being an architect, was always more knowledgeable about paintings and sculpture than literature.

As a result, I had to develop my own taste for reading and writing all by myself. I didn’t have friends who would enjoy the same subjects as I did (mostly, science fiction and astronomy) so my discovery of literature is, at best, a work in progress that started in the early 1990s.

Years before that, one day in June 1986, I heard in the news that Jorge Luis Borges had passed away in Geneva, Switzerland. At that time, I had never read anything from him. Neither had my schoolmates, of course; Borges was virtually non-existent in my primary school. I remember my mother scoffing at the news, and qualifying the man both as an incomprehensible character and an unreadable author. Now that I think about it, I actually do not know if she had read anything from him.

In a sense, the attitude of my mother and my school reflected l’air du temps: Borges was not a true Argentine in the eyes of the rest of us.

Maybe his death was untimely, or maybe it was masterfully orchestrated: he died precisely in the middle of the 1986 World Cup, which was far more important in the psyche of the country (this last phrase really is an understatement, believe me). Look at this: Borges died Saturday, June 14th, 1986; the previous Tuesday, Argentina had beaten Bulgaria 2 to nil in the group stage (goals by other two Jorges, Valdano and Burruchaga). It would beat Uruguay 1-0 the following Monday (June 16th), and would play against England (2-1, including both the “Hand of God” and the “Goal of the Century”) the following Sunday, June 22nd, 1986. The latter was such a memorable match, it has its own Wikipedia page. Talk about horrible (or excellent) timing for passing away.

The relationship of Borges with football was tainted with wit and sarcasm. The late César Luis Menotti, coach of the Argentine team that won the 1978 World Cup and who recently passed away, once told the anecdote that he had to interview Borges once, who in turn qualified him as follows:

How strange, isn’t it? A man so intelligent, yet he only wants to talk about football all the time.

But I digress.

In 1987, I started high school. That year I read the first piece from Borges as part of the curriculum of my Spanish teacher. It was the “Biografía de Tadeo Isidoro Cruz (1829-1874)”.

This short tale (Borges mostly wrote short tales and poetry) was originally published in issue 122 of Revista “Sur” published December 1944 (you can download a copy from the archives of the Biblioteca Nacional, an institution of which Borges himself was director from 1955 to 1973). This tale is nowadays found in “El Aleph” (1949), considered one of the greatest masterpieces of Borges.

The “Biografía” shocked me. To my core. I cannot describe the sensations properly. I still remember reading and re-reading it. There was a rhythm and a music and a magic that I had never read. I was shaken. It wasn’t the obvious connection to the Martín Fierro (another book that I had not yet read in 1987) which is the feature most reviewers bring forward. The unlikely destiny of Tadeo Isidoro Cruz had a hidden meaning. I felt it was my story, somehow, a thought that frightened and enlightened me at the same time.

At age 14 I was definitely too young to comprehend. Turns out, I still am. But this tale opened a window in my head, overlooking a vast domain, away from my common sense, where reality and destiny were inextricably twisted with one another.

I’m looking for the face I had
Before the world was made.

W. B. Yeats

Fast-forward 4 years to 1991, and I find myself in Geneva, Switzerland. As a weird sign of destiny, I find myself a student in the same Collège de Genève where Borges studied (well, I was assigned to Sismondi because of my home address, and Borges studied in Calvin, but the overarching institution of both schools is the same). Borges’ grave was (and still is) located in the Cimetière des Rois, in the neighborhood of Plainpalais, close to the city center.

Fun fact: I actually once met Maria Kodama, Borges’ widow, around 1993 at the Restaurant de l’Hôtel de Ville in Geneva’s old town. She was having a coffee, and a friend of mine recognized her, and we shook hands. She’s the sole current guardian of Borges estate since 1986.

I then moved on to study science, and ended up returning to Buenos Aires and taking a job as a software developer in a small dot-com startup at the end of the 1990s; I would only read Borges sporadically, bits and pieces of his bibliography, a tale here, a poem there, but without much impetus.

One glorious day, tired of the back and forth, I gave in and bought a copy (by that time, out of print) of the 4-volume compilation of his full work. In the first volume of that collection, in page 561, Tadeo Isidoro Cruz would greet me again, decades after our first meeting.

Probably the best investment I’ve done in my life, long overdue.

Reading and re-reading these volumes, I understood a few things. The not-so-Argentine thinking of Borges is due to a simple fact; looked from abroad, my homeland offers a really unflattering perspective. It is, however, impossible to know that if you’ve never traveled further than the Iguazú Falls.

Argentina hurts. That’s how I describe my relationship with the country nowadays. It hurts. Deeply. Like thinking of a lost girlfriend, reminiscing of one’s lost innocence, of all the lost opportunities, of all the music left behind, and all the pain that ensues. I sip maté every morning as a way to exorcize the demons inside, to keep a flame alive that is always clumsily threatening to disappear, and I always fall for the trick.

I like to think that Borges felt the same ache.

A glimpse of Borges’ genius and universal appeal: his tale “The Library of Babel” tells the story of a universe consisting of a single library where all the books containing all possible permutations of characters exist. Every single book ever written, or ever to be written, exists there, ready to be read. And yes, why not, somebody implemented an actual Library of Babel online.

This concept is related to the “Infinite Monkeys” theorem. Nerd alert: I also see a connection to pifs, the file system that consists of the number π, a number whose sequence of digits is so random that it is said to contain all possible combinations thereof. Hence, it contains all files, ever created, and ever to be created.

Borges wasn’t Argentine; he was that, and so much more. He found connections between the lives (and the lines) of Sturluson, Hawthorne, Dante, Ascasubi, and Stevenson. He drew lines across the Atlantic, defining Western culture in ways yet unforeseen. Furthermore, he saw mankind as the designer, perpetrator, and executioner of its own disgrace, but could at the same time marvel at its infinite capacity for reinvention and compassion.

Borges left Argentina and became a celebrity, while at the same time becoming a chastised and/or forgotten figure in their homeland. Such is the fate reserved to some of the best argentines in my book: Milstein, Cortázar, Donn, Sadosky, Piazzolla, Argerich, Ginastera, Barenboim, Penalba, Schifrin. I sincerely hope Anya Taylor-Joy won’t receive the same treatment in the years to come.

I wrote this article because I found a golden archive last weekend, which in turn prompted the random thoughts you just read: a 1977 interview of Borges by William F. Buckley Jr. for his PBS show “Firing Line”. Leaving aside Mr. Buckley’s less than flattering legacy, I have to admit that he did a perfect job as a host in this case. His knowledge of literature, art, and history shines through, and prompts Borges to tell interesting stories about his life, his passions, and his own perspective on his work (spoiler alert: he didn’t particularly enjoy re-reading himself). The resulting conversation is, needless to say, a gem, definitely worth a watch.

Also, subtitles are available, in case Borges’ English accent becomes too hard to comprehend. He had an uncannily good level of English (well, he used to teach English literature, after all!) but he speaks with that same typical Argentine accent you will hear from me (a savant mix of Spanish and Italian tongue twists). There’s another version of this video, with Spanish subtitles, also available on YouTube, featuring an excellent translation for those who prefer.

And then, shortly before publishing this article, I found another gem: this time in French, the recording of a 1983 seminar at the Collège de France, published merely 2 months ago.

Update, 2024-07-05: The connections between Borges and Switzerland run deep. Before publishing this article, I forgot to mention that Borges last poem, written shortly before his death and featured in the last page of the last volume of his complete works, is dedicated to Switzerland: “Los Conjurados”. But there’s more: since this publication I discovered there’s a “Sociedad de Amigos de Borges en Suiza” (“Society of Friends of Borges in Switzerland”) and I should be a member thereof. Here’s a link to the agenda of a meeting held in 2017. Damn.