Much a T.S. Eliot's horsy Miss Nancy Ellicott "strode over the hills and broke them," Gerhard Kopf barrels his way through Jorge Luis Borges' labyrinths. He doesn't straighten them out, quite the contrary. But he fits them up with strobe lights and a sound system, amplifying the turns and paradoxes in case we were to miss any.
When we are following Borges' musical hide-and-seek, we seem imperceptibly to vanish and unexpectedly to reappear. In "There Is No Borges," Kopf tacks up signs: "Hole here!" and "Prepare for re-entry!"
The narrator of this fictional monologue is on an anxious excursion. He is, he tells us, a professor at the nonexistent University of Thulsern in Germany. In professional disgrace for expressing reservations about a phrase of Thomas Mann, he visits three moldering centers of a long departed imperial destiny: Surabaya, in what is now Indonesia, Macao and the Portuguese university town of Coimbra. In one or another of these places he is to deliver a lecture on his pet thesis: that Shakespeare and Cervantes were the same person.
He himself is a literary creation--his own--and he makes little effort to convince us that there is any reality in the personage he represents or the journey he takes.
"I have always taken actuality from books and then considered anything of reality that then was added as a staging idea, which might have to do with the production of the play but not with the play itself," he declares at the start. "Knowledge from books is not second-hand as they like to declare, rather, supposed reality is second-hand for me."
The phrase, uttered on a rattletrap local flight from Surabaya to Bandung, more or less prepares the encounter that is to follow. The narrator had been visiting the burial site of Almayer, Joseph Conrad's striving failure, whose futile life the narrator regards as the fictional--therefore real--counterpart to his own.
It will not be Conrad, however, of whom his Argentine seat-mate will begin to speak, but Borges.
Or rather, the nonexistence of Borges. According to the Argentine, Borges was a figure invented by his friend, Adolfo Bioy Casares, another novelist.
Bioy was the real author of the books, the man insists, and he quotes various "Borges" phrases to demonstrate his nonexistence: "Life and death have been absent from myself." As for the blind celebrity who traveled around and got interviewed, it was an actor whom Bioy hired and who gradually lost his sight from giving "Borges" readings.
Other twists, paradoxes and elaborations of the Borgesian worldview are marshaled to demonstrate its author's nonexistence. Kopf can be ingenious and amusing, though heavy-handedly. The trouble is that Borges's own paradoxes are so rich and far-reaching that Kopf's supplementary paradox is not much more than ornamental.
The Borges theme is joined by a Cervantes theme. This emerges when the narrator is staying at a crummy hotel in Macao. Besides wondering whether Cervantes was the author of Shakespeare's plays, and Shakespeare the author of "Don Quixote," the narrator posits Don Quixote as the author of Cervantes. This is borrowed from the Spanish writer Unamuno, but Borges--or Bioy--comes to the rescue. "Every text is an anthology put together by the author," the narrator quotes. "Only an imitation has a chance of ever becoming an original."
He goes on to argue, suggestively, that the modern world began when the Spanish knight left his squalid village to pursue the adventures he had read about. "When he set out for the first time to challenge books to step down into life, he forced all literature to follow him."
Under the literary play that occupies the surface of "There Is No Borges," something is tugging. There is a real toad in the narrator's fictive garden. He is in a state of suicidal depression. Its emblem is his professorial title; he teaches "Lusitanics" or the science of loss, a subject that came to him while visiting Coimbra and reflecting on Portugal's centuries of post-imperial melancholy.
Violent, fragmentary images punctuate the literary discourse. A mangled corpse is thrown into the narrator's train compartment. He keeps seeing the mangled bodies in Tian An Men Square. He has visions of his father, a Nazi highway builder, and of a convent used by Nazi doctors to practice euthanasia. He wanders among a witches' brew of grotesque visions in the streets of Macao.
Such images grow more lengthy and insistent as the book goes on. They are turgidly written and garish, but for all their vehemence they have little resonance. They portray a large emotion--is it general historic pain or German historic pain?--in florid terms, like the brooding weather in Romantic landscapes.
In Borges' writing, the joining of disquiet to paradox is done all but invisibly. There is anguish in his labyrinths, but it is never declared. Kopf doesn't manage a joining; the literary games in the study have no relation, not even ironic, to the howling in the basement.