The Cambridge Companion to Jorge Luis Borges, edited by Edwin Williamson (Cambridge University Press, 2013)
A Companion to Jorge Luis Borges by Steven Boldy (Tamesis, 2013)
by Rebecca DeWald
We arrive at Calle Tucumán in the afternoon heat, when most Argentines are enjoying their siesta and you can spot tourists easily as the only ones not hiding in a café or sitting under a shady eave watching the passers-by. There is nobody on this street to ask for directions and since we have only just arrived, we are not quite sure how to play the game yet; we try our best not to stick out too much. In the style of ‘proper’ biographical research, we are attempting to begin at the beginning and so we are looking for Jorge Luis Borges’s birthplace. The articles stating Borges’s birthplace vary; some cite the spot as number 838 or 840 on this street, Calle Tucumán. But there is no number 838 or 840 in this street. No matter which number it is, the building meant to stand in for these numbers is missing. We are staring into a gap between a residential building and a block with mirrored glass advertising offices To Let: Borges’s birthplace has become an empty parking lot.
Argentina seems to have a difficult relationship with its famous writers. Guidebooks focus on the best parillas where you can find the biggest and juiciest steaks in town; how to avoid getting mugged walking through the notorious tourist attraction La Boca with its bonbon-coloured houses; or how to side-step the official and unfavourable exchange rates by trading dollars for pesos on the “blue market”, the semi-official money exchange businesses, marked by the incessant call of “cambio, cambio” echoing along the streets. The literary depiction of Buenos Aires from the early 20th century left a very different imprint on my mind from the “Why Go?” section in the Lonely Planet. In my mind, Buenos Aires lines up one book shop after another, interspersed by cafés where writers meet in literary salons — tertulias — to discuss the current literary trends, stylistic idiosyncrasies of new writers and their favourite French, British and German writers and maybe sometimes politics. In my mind, Buenos Aires pays homage to its prolific literary heritage in museums, street names and “In Memory of…” park benches. It shows them off at every occasion. Instead, we spent the first two days of our trip to Argentina searching for Borges. The hunt proves difficult, not so much because of our ignorance of the megacity but because of the impossibility of finding anything or anywhere which was open and worth seeing on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day, two public holidays in the middle of the summer vacation. I start distrusting the Lonely Planet when it claims that “BA is indeed the city that never sleeps.”
My little post-it note states the points of interest for our search and is crammed with written and badly drawn directions to avoid pulling out a map or iPhone (infinitely desirable in a country where Apple products are banned) when visiting Palermo, for example, which Borges describes as a working-class neighbourhood with knife fights. Since then, as it turns out, it has become the upmarket location of the city and is probably the safest place we have visited. Besides Borges’s missing birthplace, my sketched notes list the places where we must continue our quest: his childhood home in Palermo; his long-term home in Calle Maipú near one of the city’s central parks; the old-fashioned café Richmond, where many early 20th century writers would visit; one of Borges’s favourite bookshops; and the former National Library where he was director between 1955 and 1974 and, poignantly, after he had already lost his eyesight. The well-known quote, oft-cited with variations in multiple translations, “I, who had always thought of Paradise / in form and image as a library” — here in Alastair Reid’s version — refers to his nomination and originates in the ‘Poem of the Gifts,’ which begins
No one should read self-pity or reproach
into this statement of the majesty
of God, who with such splendid irony
granted me books and blindness at one touch.
Last on the list is the place where Borges sets the mythical “Aleph” in his eponymous short story, a spot the size of a stamp which contains the whole universe from every angle and at every point in time.
This mysterious point, at the intersection of Calle Tacuarí and Avenida Juan de Garay, is more accessible than most of the Borges landmarks on my list. In ‘The Aleph’, this universal point is in a basement, which could be any of the basements at this crossroads. In Calle Maipú you can only stand and read the plaque on the outside of the block of flats commemorating Borges. The mall with the tiny bookshop “La Ciudad” which set up a little shrine with desk and chair for Borges is closed on bank holidays (when we do visit it, the German bookshop owner talks about his dislike for Borges and does not stock a single one of his books). The Centro Cultural Borges is strangely situated on the top floor of the shopping mall Galerías Pacífico, where it sits quiet and unvisited by the shoppers below. The atmospheric Richmond café is being refurbished. It is as if the city is trying to forget Borges and we are the only searchers stopping it from doing so.
Travelling with Companions
The year I first visited Borges’s home country, which is trying so hard not to take note of perhaps its most famous writer, was also the year the English book market received introductory works to Borges, in the form of two Companions, The Cambridge Companion to Jorge Luis Borges, edited by Borges biographer Edwin Williamson, and the paperback edition of A Companion to Jorge Luis Borges, written by Steven Boldly (2009). Despite the only subtle difference in title, these two books differ vastly in their approach to the Argentine writer. In the latter, Boldy gives a brief overview of the historical and personal context and then focuses on each story of the collections best-known to the English reader, Fictions and The Aleph. The target audience of his monograph is English-speaking readers, for whom Borges came into being in 1964, with the publication of Labyrinths, edited by Donald A. Yates and James E. Irby. This exclusively English collection does not have a Spanish equivalent but combines the best known stories from Ficciones and El Aleph, the stories Boldy analyses. While he covers every single story, his analyses are short, often only around two pages in length, and constitute more of a summary of the already short texts than an in-depth theorisation. The historical overview introducing the companion is detailed and certainly helpful for further study in contextualizing Borges, as it set out to do, though it is often referential and requires contextual knowledge of Argentine (literary) history. In this respect, it would not form a first approach to the writer from Buenos Aires. Furthermore, the companion continuously references text passages from Borges in English, since the target audience are English-speaking readers, though without acknowledgment of the translator, not even in the concluding bibliography, the omission of which is beyond my understanding.
Williamson’s edited companion splits up the task of introducing Borges and approaches it through the eyes of the most eminent Borges scholars. It offers a collection of essays which each focus on broader topics, such as literary theory (Michael Wood), translation (Suzanne Jill Levine) and religion (Evelyn Fishburn and Luce López-Baralt), and others which take individual collections to be the centre of their contribution (Daniel Balderston on Fictions, Roberto González Echevarría on The Aleph, Efraín Kristal on The Book of Sand and Shakespeare’s Memory). A companion in essay form necessarily means that some topics fall through the cracks between the articles, after the endnotes of the previous and before the heading of the next. But then, the articles often overlap in the texts analysed (many of them focusing on the key texts also chosen by Boldy, though with the addition of analyses of the early work little known in English) which offers new insights and the possibility of reading them in a different light with every essay. Williamson’s approach expands the common knowledge of Borges by providing “a more comprehensive account of Borges’s oeuvre” (back cover), including attention to detail by choosing a cover by avant-garde painter Xul Solar, a friend of Borges’s. It effectively offers a kaleidoscope of possible perspectives from which to perceive Borges: as a translator, as a poet, as theorist, as philosopher, each prism shedding a new light on the other colours in the spectrum.
Instead of falling through, Borges lies in the cracks. He is in the hidden corners, like the secret, hidden tunnels underneath the Manzana de las Luces, the Jesuit block, which ensured Buenos Aires’ provision of supplies during the revolution which led to Argentina’s independence. Only accessible when stumbling upon an entry.
On our final day, Buenos Aires has mercy on us and reveals a glimpse of Borges. Time, as usual, ran out too quickly and we realized too late that the summer heat and the southern siestas were incompatible with our visiting aims. The mood the country demanded of us determines our last day in the capital and we drift from one street to the next, vaguely looking for points of interest but predominantly strolling and taking in our surroundings. We don’t have to stray far from our temporary home in San Telmo to pass Calle México, in the neighbouring Montserrat. The National Library of Argentina moved to the rich neighbourhood of Recoleta in the 1990s making the neoclassical building which still bears the lettering “Biblioteca Nacional” the home of the national music conservatoire. Music students pass freely through the hallway up the stairs though as visitors we need to speak to the guard whom I try to appease with my best Spanish, showing my interest in the great porteño who formerly watched over the many books held in this building. To no avail. The building is only open for concerts and concert season does not start until March. Disappointed but unsurprised we wander around the entrance hall, looking at the original gated elevator and imagining the many eager readers passing through the doors, one of which is slightly ajar and offers a tiny glimpse into the grand reading room. The guard spots us, comes over and — instead of making use of his power as a security officer — opens the door and gives us a hint to enter quickly. The hall spans from the ground floor to the roof which is sheltered from sight by a big mousseline veil protecting the chequered floor tiles from rubble falling from the dilapidated ceiling. Four floors are visible from this central viewpoint, each framed by a wooden corner-piece stating the different categories of the library: “Letras”, “Sciencia,” “Matemática.” We are standing in Borges’s realm, the centre of his work, in a room full of — nothingness. All the books are gone. We are surrounded by empty shelves which cannot hide the fact that the hall used to belong to a grand library nothing of which is left in this place. The one place central to Borges’s life and work we gained access to is an endless library, “his paradise,” with the endless possibility of books but without a single physical copy. We are staring into the Aleph.
Borges is far from being everywhere in this his hometown. His spot in the mind of Buenos Aires is taken up by life-size papermaché statues of Maradona, the tango singer Carlos Gardel and Evita, who also decorates two sides of the skyscraper home to the Ministry of Labour and Health from which she greets us upon our arrival in the uncannily empty capital. Borges, like the devil, is the detail. He appears in the most uncanny, most forgotten corners. Instead of being remembered in museums and street signs, Borges is present on empty park benches next to his house (though without commemorative plaques) and the conversations of taxi drivers, who remember him for anecdotes about asking for his favourite food — rice with butter and grated cheese — at international banquets. It is the same taxi driver who tells us that the Argentine flags outside the presidential palace Casa Rosada and, indeed, in the entire country, are at half-mast because a well-known poet just died. It turned out to be Juan Gelman, who had been living in Mexican exile for the past 30 years after his son and daughter-in-law were disappeared under the military junta of General Videla. The knowledge of literature is everywhere, but hidden, like the incredible El Ateneo bookshop housed in an old theatre, or La Librería de Avila which still issues handwritten receipts.
One of Borges’s greatest fears was the possibility of an eternal memory like the one haunting Funes, the Memorious; his salvation is oblivion. Buenos Aires has almost granted Borges the latter.