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from the October 2010 issue

Borges’s Secretary

I don’t know when she discovered that I could no longer see.  Not even I had completely discerned this; I would look at books and judged that I could still see the pages, read them, understand them.  She, knowing the truth, was already devising her plan. 

The process of distancing myself from books lasted many years.  And yet I felt closer and closer to them.  I read less each day, but since I worked in a library, I could feel them, smell them, leaf through them daily.  My subordinates wondered at the long hours of my shift, but if day and night were blurred in the twilight that was coming over me, it didn’t matter whether it was dawn or dusk.  I allowed myself to remain in the company of my friends and would delight in their luxurious leather bindings, or be moved by the simplicity of their soft covers, which encased sublime treasures.  I believe I had known them forever.  After I learned to read, there was a recognition.  The introduction had already been made, perhaps in a past life, perhaps in the original Limbo.  I thought I shared stories with them; and the ones found there already written were sisters of those still contained in my ideas.  The published words clamored for their sisters, begged them to organize into an invincible army and leave the narrowness of my mind, to go do battle, once written, in the world.  The aphorism “publish or perish” took on new meaning and a new urgency.   

I knew each book by its smell, its creases, its weight.  I didn’t need to read the title of the volume to recognize the vortex of Dante’s Comedy, known as divine but far more compelling in its humanity.  Reverent, I would take hold of the work, and my nerves would feel the excitement of the impulses that had created it:  the disappointments, the beliefs, the humiliations, and the small vengeances that freed its author for beauty, perfection.  I would sense how much superstition permeated the work, and I would imagine Dante’s serious demeanor, like an obsessive madman, going out on his walks and always turning right, to avoid the sinister left and the possibility of evil. 

When I brushed against the dusty volumes of Proust, I would lose my breath, overcome by the brilliant sound of his words reverberating against the stained-glass windows of a cathedral.  And if I passed near the Quixote, I would feel myself drawn to the warmth of its fantasy, and would always come closer to take in the smell of the good cheap tavern wine and listen to a little of the guitar strumming and the hearty laughter of the people.  

I also knew the philosophy volumes that gave off a mixed scent of logic and lunacy.  Nietzsche always seemed accompanied by drums and cymbals, in a pagan ritual that went on forever.  Spinoza, Sartre, Plato, they all had their own traits that enabled me to recognize them from afar, from the other end of the shelves where they sat but never slept.  No books rest less than philosophical ones.  From the most obscure to the most celebrated, from the most popular to the most erudite, I could recognize them all without mistake.

I didn’t even need sight to read them.  I followed the texts by heart, without realizing that I was reading with the mind’s eye.  And that’s why it took me so long to perceive my blindness, which manifested itself in my writing, not in my reading, as would be expected.  If I were like a trained monkey and had gotten into the habit of typing, I would have composed the world masterpieces and rewritten not only the Quixote but Madame Bovary and Gilgamesh, all within my Thousand and One Nights. I could only write using pen and paper, however, and so it was that nothing could be rewritten and I had to circle around these works, tacking together themes and ideas, approximating distances and adjusting perspectives that I would take out of beloved books. 

It was because I couldn’t write that I needed her services.  She had already been working with me for a while though.  “Discreet” and “indistinct” are the two adjectives I would like to use to describe her, but I’ve long since given up all descriptions.  I can merely tell what happened, even though it’s by this strange means, whispering things into this microphone, connected to magnetic tapes that will preserve my voice, my anguish, and my uncertainties for a set time, as long as an intense solar flare doesn’t decide to destroy them.

When she assumed the duties of secretary, she did the things we didn’t want to do:  organizing bills and records, answering the phone, filling pens with ink, and dividing the day into blocks of time for necessary activities.  In truth, she worked for my mother, who, having taken ill, found it difficult to answer letters from publishers, deal with financial and domestic demands.  An extraordinary woman, my mother even arranged for a wife who could take her place, but the secretary stayed and, after my mother’s passing, I inherited her, the way one inherits a family heirloom. She was always a quiet person, her presence made known not by any movement of air or sound, but by the thick silence that always surrounded her, and by the physical stillness she imposed. 

I think she had sensed my blindness before it even became apparent.  Craftswoman of mathematical precision, geometer of life, she thus prepared herself for the day when, defeated, I called her for a first dictation.  A banal letter.  Then, an urgent and more complicated matter.  Little by little, she made herself part of my system.  Writing, without her, was impossible for me.  No matter how fast I uttered the words, or how slowly I leaked them out, her text was never wrong, and she would hasten to reread it in her ethereal, serene voice, putting me at ease. 

She trained me well.  I no longer felt her to be an unfamiliar presence; she was simply part of the system, comparable to the ink for my pen.  Essential, but of no intrinsic importance.  She completed her tasks, and I trusted her.  The first slip probably occurred without my even noticing.  An innocuous word, exchanged for a synonym.  “Word” scratched out and “term” written in.  Any difference?  At first not even I noticed: she was always judicious and had undeniably good taste.  And she would never have made a change that would have disrupted the music of my composition.  The rhythm was always kept; what started changing, without my even realizing it, at first, was a certain nuance.

One day I sensed a word change.  And I sensed it only because, the day before, I had been unhappy with my own phrase.  Before proffering it, as was my habit, I had let its sound echo in my head, once, twice, several times, but my mind had kept stumbling at the same point, on the same pedantic and archaic word, which had left me dissatisfied.  Worn out, I gave in; resigned, I accepted the insistent word.  The next day, as was her habit, she reread the last paragraph so that I could pick up the rhythm and resume the creative process.  Instead of the mangled phrase, however, there was a graceful, flowing sentence—sheer perfection—in its place.  My breathing faltered; she noted my surprise, but kept her calm and waited for me to react. A coward, I kept quiet.  After all, she had improved my work, smoothed over a rough spot, perfected it.  I kept quiet, and continued to keep quiet other times.  The corrections multiplied.  And, after a certain point, they no longer occurred only in the passages that didn’t satisfy me.  I would end a workday satisfied with the results achieved, and the next day I would realize that what had left me satisfied no longer existed, substituted by a text invariably better than mine, fresher, brighter, with the quality of a polished, multifaceted gem, whose form reproduced the light of the thoughts expressed more poignantly, more intensely.

That was when the real game began.  With increased audacity, the secretary changed my main idea.  Once, twice, every time.  Like a whimsical god, she began to revoke my dictates and parried the blows with which I intended to wound my characters.  Or she would subject them to blows not planned by me.  If I condemned them to death, she would save them, even if it was to allow them to compose an entire epic in frozen time, at the end of which the bullet fired by me would fatally reach the heart of the condemned.  If I saved them, she would turn them sterile and dry, mute. 

The work of composition ceased to be the product of my will to become the work of two opposing minds, preoccupied with surpassing one another.  The text became a chessboard, where each of us tried to anticipate the possible moves of the other.  I would close a door, she would open a passageway.  If I followed a path, she would introduce a fork, and I realized that, now, all my work was oriented toward escaping the labyrinths she created for me, and that my texts had never been so intricately simple.  Jealous, I realized that the quality of what I produced no longer depended on me, but on the game in which I found myself trapped.  Irritated, I stopped dictating.  I couldn’t tolerate the idea of her challenging me to a duel; I wanted to silence her, defeat her.  Except that silencing her, I defeated myself too. 

I tried subterfuge:  I hired another scribe, a disciple who admired me and who always offered to read me recently published texts and reread my favorite books.  The dictations took place without incident, but they were extremely tiresome.  If I mentioned one of the works from my imaginary library, I had to explain to him that the pages cited only existed in the volumes of my own universe.  When I gave the name of a cursed detective, or of a clan chief hounded by his destiny, I would have to spell their names, explain the geography of their birthplaces, give them the genealogy required by the scribe’s inquisitive zeal.  And nothing changed, there were no more unexpected surprises:  if my words happened to come across as unclear and lifeless, no one would dare to polish them and regroup them; if my ideas grew dull and seemed worn, there was no one to dust and air them out.  I had to admit that I missed her, her silent laboring, the web in which she had entangled me and which, after the initial surprise, had stimulated me. 

I called her again, and the secretary appeared submissive.  I dictated a page, and she reread it, calm.  I listened to her, tense, waiting for the traps I had learned to value, but there were no notable changes.  In truth, not one modification had been made.   I tried to make up disjointed sentences, hard and rhythmless, to force her to react but no change, no correction, ensued.  I staggered, lost my bearings; I didn’t know what to do.  Our game had always been unspoken, tacit; at no point had we admitted we were playing it.  I resolved to wait, as patiently as she, hoping that in the coming days she would go back to collaborating on my compositions.  The secretary, nevertheless, remained impassive.  Every day I would look forward to her reading of the previous day’s work, anticipating her judicious insertions.  What I would hear, however, was merely the same text I had uttered, which struck me as increasingly anemic, confusing, not to mention senile.  I backtracked to make corrections; nothing satisfied me, and my stories were marred by so many additions and deletions.  I didn’t have the courage to confront her, though.  I maintained my silence and, dejected, dictated less each day.  I knew I would never manage to finish my new book this way, but not even the dread of meeting with my editor motivated me to compose new stories.  I recognized, now, that I needed her, that I was addicted to her changes, and that I only wanted to create texts in order to see them scrambled, reordered, dialogically wrought into more and more complicated labyrinths. 

This situation had gone on for a few months when I received a visit from the scribe I had dismissed.  An elated admirer, he hailed my new book, weaving garlands of praise and making nearly unintelligible comments.  But I didn’t know of any new book, and was fully aware that my stories were frayed, unraveled, shapeless.  I knew that no editor would publish such texts, not even with my signature on them. I imagined that, disheartened by the delay of new stories, my editor might have reissued old works, already out of print, but the scribe contradicted me.  And he assured me that these stories were the best I had ever published.  He exaggerated, saying that not even Daedalus would know how to create labyrinths more elaborate than mine.  I asked him, then, to give me an example of what pleased him so much and he read me an excerpt of a story.  I was transfixed.  A mix of pleasure and terror came over me.  The story was mine, but I had never written it.  I recognized my idea, a grain of an idea I had pitched to my secretary, but that grain had been transformed into a seed that had sprouted and grown into a lush and leafy tree that I didn’t recognize at all, even though I knew it was a part of me.  At my request the scribe continued and ended up reading an entire book, authored by me, but that I knew would never have come to fruition through me.  The stories were mine, even though I had never uttered them.  The style was so close to mine that even I had difficulty detecting the differences.  Only a kind of brightness, a brilliance that each word seemed to give off, formed a reverberation that, I knew, my texts never had.     

She had completely usurped me.  She had done away with me, denying me even the initial chesslike composition game.  I can’t, nor do I want to, unmask her, because in doing so I would destroy myself.  Moreover, I recognize the texts as my own, and these new stories complement and complete my past works, giving them a new dimension, new meanings.  Without my present production, my past stories would remain truncated, unexplained, and inexplicable.

I became the most celebrated author of my country.  I’m a success in my own lifetime and will be a classic after my death.  She, meanwhile, is but a ghost.  She depends on me to have her work published and no one would believe it if, one day, she were to reveal herself as the true author of my books.  I am Borges, the great Borges, loved and renowned, admired.  She is a secretary, without name or presence, enveloped in a thick silence, who will die the instant I close my eyes forever.  Blind and quiet, I am the one who shines completely, and I watch her languish in my glories.  After my death, she will no longer be able to usurp my voice, under penalty of revealing herself to be an unworthy imitator.  To preserve the work she created, she will need to remain silent.  And, so that she will disappear forever, I too keep quiet. I have to leave her forever walled in the best labyrinth never to be built:  that of the indifferent silence of the Other.

Translation of “A secretária de Borges.” From A secretária de Borges. Published 2007 by Editora Record, São Paulo.Copyright Lúcia Bettencourt. By arrangement with the author. Translation copyright 2010 by Kim M. Hastings. All rights reserved.

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