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Borges on Borges

Jorge Luis Borges, translated from the Spanish by Norman Thomas di Giovanni

Kipling’s last stories were no less tormented and mazelike than those of Kafka or Henry James, which they doubtless surpass; but in 1885, in Lahore, the young Kipling began a series of brief tales, written in a straightforward manner, that he was to collect in 1890. Several of them—“In the House of Suddhoo,” “Beyond the Pale,” “The Gate of the Hundred Sorrows”—are laconic masterpieces. It occurred to me that what was conceived and carried out by a young man of genius might modestly be attempted by a man on the borders of old age who knows his craft. Out of that idea came my new book, Doctor Brodie’s Report.

I have done my best—I don’t know with what success—to write straightforward stories. I do not dare state that they are simple; there isn’t anywhere on earth a single page or single word that is, since each thing implies the universe, whose most obvious trait is complexity. I want to make it quite clear that I am not, nor have I ever been, what used to be called a preacher of parables or a fabulist and is now known as a committed writer. I do not aspire to be Aesop. My stories, like those of the Thousand and One Nights, try to be entertaining or moving but not persuasive.

Such an intention does not mean that I have shut myself up, according to Solomon’s image, in an ivory tower. My political convictions are quite well known; I am a member of the Conservative Party—this in itself is a form of skepticism—and no one has ever branded me a communist, a nationalist, an anti-Semite, a follower of Billy the Kid or of the dictator Rosas. I believe that some day we will deserve not to have governments. I have never kept my opinions hidden, not even in trying times, but neither have I ever allowed them to find their way into my literary work, except once when I was buoyed up in exultation over the Six-Day War. The art of writing is mysterious; the opinions we hold are ephemeral, and I prefer the Platonic idea of the Muse to that of Poe, who reasoned, or feigned to reason, that the writing of a poem is an act of the intelligence. It never fails to amaze me that the classics hold a romantic theory of poetry, and a romantic poet a classical theory.

A part from the text that gives my new book its title and that obviously derives from Lemuel Gulliver’s last voyage, my stories are—to use the term in vogue today—realistic. They follow, I believe, all the conventions of that school, which is as conventional as any other and of which we shall soon grow tired if we have not already done so. They are rich in the required invention of circumstances. Splendid examples of this device are to be found in the tenth-century Old English ballad of Maldon and in the later Icelandic sagas. Two stories—I will not give their names—hold the same fantastic key. The curious reader will notice certain close affinities between them. The same few plots, I am sorry to say, have pursued me down through the years; I am decidedly monotonous.

I owe to a dream of Hugo Rodríguez Moroni the general outline of the story—perhaps the best of my new collection—called “The Gospel According to Mark.” I fear having spoiled it with the changes that my fancy or my reason judged fitting. But after all, writing is nothing more than a guided dream.

I have given up the surprises inherent in a baroque style as well as the surprises that lead to an unforeseen ending. I have, in short, preferred to satisfy an expectation rather than to provide a startling shock. For many years, I thought it might be given me to achieve a good page by means of variations and novelties; now, having passed seventy, I believe I have found my own voice. Slight rewording neither spoils nor improves what I dictate, except in cases of lightening a clumsy sentence or toning down an exaggeration. Each language is a tradition, each word a shared symbol, and what an innovator can change amounts to a trifle; we need only remember the splendid but often unreadable work of a Mallarmé or a Joyce. It is likely that this all-too-reasonable reasoning is only the fruit of weariness. My now advanced age has taught me to resign myself to being Borges.

I am impartially indifferent to both the dictionary of the Spanish Royal Academy—dont chaque édition fait regretter la précédente, according to the sad observation of Paul Groussac—and those weighty Argentine dictionaries of local usage. All, I find, those of this and those of the other side of the ocean, have a tendency to emphasize differences and to fragment the Spanish language. In connection with this, I recall that when it was held against the novelist Roberto Arlt that he had no knowledge of Buenos Aires slang, he replied, “I grew up in Villa Luro, among poor people and hoodlums, and I really had no time to learn that sort of thing.” Our local slang, in fact, is a literary joke concocted by writers of popular plays and tango lyrics, and the people who are supposed to use it hardly know what it means, except when they have been indoctrinated by phonograph records.

I have set my stories some distance off in time and in space. The imagination, in this way, can operate with greater freedom. Who, in 1971, is able to remember with accuracy what at the end of the last century the outskirts of Buenos Aires around Palermo and Lomas were like? Unbelievable as it may seem, there are those who go to the length of playing policeman and looking for a writer’s petty slips. They remark, for example, that Martín Fierro would have spoken of a “bag” and not a “sack” of bones, and they find fault, perhaps unjustly, with the roan piebald coat of a certain horse famous in our literature.

God spare thee, reader, long prefaces. The words are Quevedo’s, who, careful not to fall into an anachronism which in the long run would have been detected, never read those of Bernard Shaw.

(Translated from the Spanish by Norman Thomas di Giovanni in collaboration with the author)

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