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Borges: Faith to See in the Dark

By David Varno

In 2010, as part of the Penguin Classics Series, five new Borges books were released in the states. Last October, three of the editors, Suzanne Jill Levine, Alfred Mac Adam, and Maria Kodama, gathered at the Americas Society in New York City to discuss the project. The books highlight specific aspects within and beyond the three definitive omnibuses that Penguin released around the new millennium (Collected Fictions, Selected Nonfictions, and Selected Poems).

In part, as general editor Suzanne Jill Levine acknowledged at the October panel, the books are “spinoffs.” There may be some truth to this, in that Penguin has published many short editions of Borges’s work from the larger anthologies, but at the very least,, the titles that contain new material (On Argentina, On Mysticism, and Poems of the Night) offer fresh insights and angles on Borges’s work to even his most devoted English-language readers Also included in the series are On Writing and The Sonnets.

According to Levine, who worked with a total of four other editors to complete the series, which combines well-known translations with new translations from herself, Mac Adam, and Kodama, the poetry and nonfiction have been more difficult to excise from the abovementioned anthologies . (Among the small editions of Borges’s fiction are Universal History of Iniquities and The Aleph and other Stories, and smaller pieces of the Collected can be downloaded as ebooks.) Part of what makes the new titles stand out is the weaving together of multiple genres, as Alfred Mac Adam, the editor for On Argentina, has done, placing an early essay on a card game next to the poem “Truco,” a variant on the same theme. Mac Adam bookends the collection with two legendary fictions: “Man on Pink Corner” and “The South,” and in between are Borges’s essays on Argentina from the 1920s. They have been unavailable in English, in part because Borges had repudiated them, embarrassed, as Mac Adam suggests in his note on the text, either by his youthful tendentiousness or stylistic excess.

The “spiky, hard-to-understand Spanish” (Mac Adam) that Borges produced for the early Argentina essays came as he was approaching the age that Joyce was when he published Dubliners. He was after the local color of Argentina, specifically the language of the criollo (or European-bred citizens). But in striving for authenticity, as well as to perfect a distinct, Argentinian form of ultraísmo, his writing became virtually impenetrable (even, as Mac Adam claims, to contemporary Argentinian readers). The intensely baroque language was “nearly impossible to translate,” he said at the Americas Society, to laughter from the English- and Spanish-speaking audience. Mac Adam confided that he and Levine agreed to approach the translation with a sense of “moderate infidelity”; many of the criollo words are left in the Spanish, with a glossary at the back of the book. Yet for all their disavowals, the text has been made very readable.

The highlight in On Argentina, perhaps, is “A History of the Tango.” It is hard to believe that the piece, originally published in a book of essays on the poet Evaristo Carriego, did not make the cut in Eliot Weinberger’s anthology, Selected Non-Fictions. The Piece is about Argentina, its legacy, passion, and sense of rebellious individualism, but in the end it’s about Borges and the way he figured out how to tell a good story about a knife fight. For Borges, the tango is Argentina’s Iliad, its Beowulf. “A History of the Tango” alone is enough to save these outtakes from Selected Non-Fictions from looking like outtakes, though it’s certainly not the only piece that shines. Also of note is “Buenos Aires,” paired nicely with the poem “The Mythical Founding of Buenos Aires.” It was originally published in 1921, when the writer was twenty-one. “The Nothingness of Personality,” another essay that Borges published that year, starts off the Weinberger collection. This newly translated piece is just as youthful, but perhaps more distinctive among Borges’s work because we see the writer looking out on where he’s from, writing in a collective first-person that is hopeful and exuberant.

Why did Borges try to hide these early writings on Argentina? Perhaps, aside from his embarrassment over the way they were written, he didn’t want them to be misused. As a dissenter of Peron and everything Peronist, Borges mourned the loss of individualism, a quality he saw as inherent to the Argentine. An audience member at the Americas Society asked Maria Kodama, who edited On Mysticism, about the nature of her late husband’s support of Pinochet. Kodama, who was Borges’s assistant for many years and who married him in the last months of his life, claimed that Borges was always apolitical. Borges mistrusted the masses, which was one thing that made Peronism so vulgar to him. He disliked both fascism and democracy. “In and of itself a dictatorship doesn’t seem reprehensible,” Borges said, while accepting Chile’s highest medal in 1976. “One has to consider the particular circumstances . . .. For a long time I believed in democracy. Now I don’t believe in it; at least not in my own country.” (For analysis on Borges’s apparent ideological shift, see Katherine Singer Kovacs’s piece, “Borges on the Right,” in the Boston Review.)

Aside from being apolitical, Kodama insisted, Borges was always agnostic. It was the uncertainty that guided his interest in spiritual matters, an obsession with the unknown. On Mysticism draws heavily from writings that were originally published in The Aleph and Ficciones, but Kodama also shows Borges tackling spiritual questions with essays and poems, arguments with theologians and philosophers, and dialogues. In “The Tragic Everyday, the Blind Pilot, Words and Blood,” Borges describes his relationship to the writing of Giovanni Papini, a writer who had gone on to embrace fascism and who Borges terms a “literary historian and poet, pragmatist and romantic, atheist and later theologian.” After reading Papini’s fables at an early age, says Borges, he forgot them, only to realize later that he had paraphrased Papini’s “Two Images in a Pond” with his own story, “The Other.”

In his mystical writings, Kodama said, Borges was looking to explore the sense of an eternal incident. She cited the epilogue to El Hacedor (Dreamtigers, 1964), a collection of poems, parables, and stories that Borges regarded as his most personal. In that note, dated 1960, Borges asks that we excuse the book’s “essential monotony,” for “few things have happened to me, and I have read a great many.” The last lines read as follows:

A man sets out to draw the world. As the years go by, he peoples a space with images of provinces, kingdoms, mountains, bays, ships, fish, rooms, instruments, stars, horses, and individuals. A short time before he dies, he discovers that the patient labyrinth of lines traces the lineaments of his own face.

As Suzanne Jill Levine reminded us, Borges considered himself a poet first of all. The bilingual Poems of the Night includes twenty-one new translations, of which many are exercises in ars poetica. Some of these are remarkable, and again I found it hard to believe that they hadn’t been translated before. “The Forging,” a very early poem, is about having the faith to see in the dark, and learning to conjure the language of poetry. He writes:

Like the blind man whose hands are precursors
that push aside walls and glimpse heavens
slowly, flustered, I feel
in the crack of night
the verses that are to come.

Of course, Borges eventually did become blind, which he dealt with so eloquently in the legendary “Poem of the Gifts,” a play on the irony of being put in charge of the National Library at the same time that he lost his sight. A later poem, “The Gift,” which he wrote near the end of his life, and which we see here for the first time in English, is just as touching:

To give a blind man an image
is to give something so tenuous it can be infinite
something so vague it can be the universe.

The new poems and essays, which span the whole of Borges's writing life, offer an intimate look at the development of an artist.  After reading them, Borges's famous lecture on "The Argentinian Writer and Tradition" (cited by Mac Adam in his introduction, and available in Labyrinths and Collected Non-Fictions) has even greater meaning.  In fictions such as "Man on Pink Corner" and "The South," Borges achieved his early desire to do with Buenos Aires what Joyce had done with Dublin, by surpassing the urge for stylistic excess and rendering the landscape of Argentina in a way that was original, true to its identity, and translatable.  Borges's statement in the lecture, that "Argentines, and South Americans in general…can take on all the European subjects," is a testament to his success in drawing from older traditions and other parts of the world, without the need to feel at odds with some old bastion of culture, or to portray his own world in a way that's somehow untainted by influence.  

Published Feb 18, 2011   Copyright 2011 David Varno

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