Wednesday, October 19, 2011


Mario Vargas Llosa

from The Fictions of Borges

When I was a student, I had a passion for Sartre, and I firmly believed in his notion that the writer's commitment was to his own times and to society in which he lived, that "words were actions," and that through writing a man or woman could influence history. Today, such ideas seem naive and even tedious — we live in an age of smug skepticism about the power of literature as well as history — but in the 1950s the notion that the world could be changed for the better, and that literature should contribute to this, struck many of us as both persuasive and exciting.

By then, Borges' influence was beginning to be felt beyond the small circle of admirers who read his work in the Argentine literary magazine Sur. In a number of Latin American cities, ardent followers fought over the rare editions of his books as if they were treasure and learned by heart those visionary random lists, or catalogues, that inhabit Borges' pages — the particularly beautiful one from "The Aleph," for instance — and tried to incorporate in their work not only his labyrinths, tigers, mirrors, masks, and knives but also his strikingly original use of adjectives and adverbs.

In Lima, the first of these Borges enthusiasts I came across was a friend and contemporary with whom I shared my books and literary dreams. Borges was always an inexhaustible topic of discussion. In a clinically pure way, he stood for everything Sartre taught me to hate: the artist retreating from the world around him to take refuge in a world of intellect, erudition, and fantasy; the writer looking down on politics, history, and day-to-day reality, while shamelessly displaying his skepticism and wry disdain for everything that was not literature; the intellectual who not only allowed himself to treat ironically the dogmas and utopias of the left but who took his own iconoclasm to the extreme of joining the Conservative Party and breezily justifying this move by claiming that gentlemen prefer lost causes.

In our discussions, I tried to show with all the Sartrean malice I could command that an intellectual who wrote, spoke, and behaved the way Borges did somehow shared responsibility for all the world's social ills. That his stories and poems were little more than
bibelots d' inanite sonore, mere trinkets of high sounding emptiness, and that History with its terrible sense of justice — which progressives wield, as it suits them, like an executioner's ax or a gambler's marked card — would one day give him his just deserts. But once the arguments were over, in the solitude of my room or the library — like the fanatical puritan of Somerset Maugham's Rain, who gives in to temptation of the flesh he renounces — I found Borges' spell irresistible. I would read his stories, poems, and essays in utter amazement; and the adulterous feeling I had that I was betraying my mentor Sartre added a perverse pleasure.

I have been somewhat fickle in my literary passions; and nowadays when I reread many of the writers who were once my models, especially during adolescence, I find them boring — Sartre included. But the secret, sinful passion I harbored for Borges' work has never faded, and rereading him, which I have done from time to time like a believer performing a sacred ritual, has always been a happy experience. Only recently, I read all his work again, one piece after the other, and once more I marveled — exactly as I had done the first time — at his elegant and limpid prose, the refinement of his stories, the excellence of his craftsmanship. I am quite aware of how ephemeral literary assessments can be, but in Borges' case we can quite justifiably state that he is the most important thing to happen to imaginative writing in the Spanish language in modern times, and one of the most memorable artists of our age.

I also believe that the debt we who write in Spanish owe to Borges is enormous. That includes even those of us, like myself, who have never written a story of pure fantasy or felt any particular affinity with ghosts and doubles, with infinite, or with the metaphysics of Schopenhauer. For Latin American writers, Borges heralded the end of a kind of inferiority complex that inhibited us, unwittingly of course, from broaching certain subjects and that kept us imprisoned in a provincial outlook. Before Borges, it seemed a piece of foolhardiness of self-delusion for one of us to feel at home in a larger world culture, in the way that a European or a North American might.

A handful of Latin American
modernista poets had previously done so, of course, but their attempts — even in the case of the most famous among them, Rubén Dario — smacked of pastiche or whimsicality, something akin to a superficial, slightly frivolous journey through a foreign land. Latin American writers had forgotten what our classical writers like Inca Garcilaso or Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz never doubted — that through language and history they were part and parcel of Western culture, not mere amanuenses or colonials but a legitimate part of that tradition, ever since Spaniards and Portuguese, four and a half centuries earlier, extended the frontiers of Western culture to the southern hemisphere. With Borges, this engagement became possible once more. But at the same time, Borges' work was proof that being part of this broader cultural history took nothing away from a Latin American writer's sovereignty or originality.

Few European writers have assimilated the legacy of the West as completely and thoroughly as this poet and storyteller from the periphery. Who among Borges' contemporaries handled with such ease Scandinavian myths, Anglo-Saxon poetry, German philosophy, Spain's Golden Age literature, the English poets, Dante, Homer, and the myths and the legends of the Far and Middle East that Europeans translated and gave to the world? But this did not make Borges European. I remember the surprise of my students at Queen Mary College in the University of London during the 1960s — we were reading ficciones and El Aleph — when I told them that some Latin Americans accused Borges of being Europeanized, of being more than a little English writer. They could not see why. To them, this writer, and whose stories so many different countries, ages, themes, and cultural references are intertwined, seemed as exotic as the cha-cha-cha, which was all the rage at the time. They were not wrong. Borges was not a writer imprisoned within national tradition, as European writers are often, and this facilitated his journeys through cultural space, in which, thanks to the many languages he knew, he moved with consummate ease.

This cosmopolitanism, this eagerness to be a master of such a far-ranging cultural sphere, this desire to invent a past for oneself in dialogue with the outside, was a way of being profoundly Argentine — which is to say, Latin American. But in Borges' case, his intense involvement with European literature was also a way of shaping his own personal geography, a way of being Borges. Through his broad interests and his private demons he was weaving a fabric of great originality, made up of strange combinations in which the prose of Stevenson and The Arabian Nights, translated by Englishmen and Frenchmen, appear alongside Gauchos out of Martin Fierro and characters from Icelandic Sagas, and in which two old-time hoodlums, from a Buenos Aires more imagined than remembered, fight with knives in a quarrel which seems like the extension of a medieval dispute that results in death by fire of two Christian theologians. Against the unique Borgesian backdrop, the most heterogeneous creatures and events parade — just as they do, in "The Aleph," in Carlos Argentino Daneri's cellar. But in contrast to what takes place on that tiny passive screen, which can reveal the elements of the universe only at random, in Borges' work every element and every being is brought together. Filtered through a single point of view, and given individual character through verbal expression.

Here is another area in which Latin American writers owe much to the example of Borges. Not only did he prove to us that an Argentine could speak with authority on Shakespeare and create convincing stories set in Aberdeen, but he also revolutionized the tradition of his literary language. Note that I said "example" and not "influence." To the extent that Borges' prose has "influential," it has — because of its wild originality — wrecked havoc among countless admirers, in whose work the use of certain images or verbs or adjectives established by him turns into mere parody. This is the most readily detectable influence, for Borges was one of the writers who managed completely to put his own personal stamp on the Spanish language. "Word music" was his term for it, and it is as distinctive in him as it is in the most illustrious of our classical writers — namely, Quevedo, whom Borges admired, and Gongora, whom he did not. Borges' prose is so recognizable to the ear that often in someone else's work a single sentence or even a simple verb (conjeturar, for example, or fatigar use transitively) becomes a clear giveaway of Borges' influence.

Borges made a profound impression on Spanish literary prose, as before him Rubén Dario had on poetry. The difference between them is that Dario imported and introduced from France a number of mannerisms and themes that he adapted to his own world and to his own idiosyncratic style. To some extent, all this expressed the feelings (and at times the snobbery) of a particular period and a certain social milieu. Which is why his devices could be used by some many without his followers losing their individual voices. The Borges revolution was personal. It represented him alone, and only in a vague, roundabout way was it connected with the setting in which he was formed and which in turn he helped crucially to form — that of the magazine Sur. Which is why in anyone else's hands Borges' style comes across as caricature.

Mario Vargas Llosa
from Wellsprings
(Harvard University Press 2008)

Jorge Luis Borges and friend


Not by morning light, not when day has come, and not even at night do we really see the city. Morning is an overwhelming blue, a swift and massive surprise spanning the sky, a crystallizing, a lavish outpouring of sunlight that piles up in squares, smashes mirrors with fictitious stones, and lowers long insinuations of light down wells. The day is a playing field for our endeavors or for our idleness, and there is only room for them on their usual chessboard. The night is a truncated miracle: the crowning moment of wan streelights, when palpable objectivity becomes less insolent and less solid. The dawn is an infamous, dragged-out affair, because it conceals the great plot arranged to set right everything that fell apart ten hours before. It goes about straightening streets, decapitating lights, and repainting colors exactly where they were the previous afternoon. Finally, we — with the city already hanging on our necks and the abyssal day yoked to our shoulders — have to give in to the mad plenitude of its triumph and resign ourselves to having yet another day riveted to our souls.

Now for the afternoon: the dramatic altercation and conflict between the visible and the shadows. It's as if visible things begin twisting, going insane. After weakens us, eats away at us, abuses us, but because of its persistence the streets recover their human meaning, their tragic meaning of volition that manages to last in time, time whose very essence is change. The afternoon perturbs the day, and for that reason it agrees with us, because we too are perturbed. The late afternoon prepares the easy decline of our spiritual electricity. It's by force of afternoons that the city goes about entering us.

Jorge Luis Borges,
from Inquisitions (1925)