In the labyrinth with Borges

Alfred Mac Adam is professor of Latin American literature at Barnard College, Columbia University, and editor of "Review: Literature and Arts of the Americas." He has translated writers including Fernando Pessoa, Carlos Fuentes and Juan Carlos Onetti.

There are at least 11 biographies of Jorge Luis Borges, three in English; do we need another? Yes, because since Emir Rodriguez Monegal’s of 1978, an astonishing quantity of material -- letters, memoirs by contemporaries, new editions of early texts suppressed by Borges himself and new compilations of dispersed essays, stories and poems -- has materialized.

Edwin Williamson, after a nine-year exploration of Borgesean territory, has produced in “Borges: A Life” the best guide to the intertwined life and writings of the most important Spanish-language author of the 20th century. Williamson is a Hispanist, a respected Cervantes critic, but he also wrote “The Penguin History of Latin America.” This immersion in history made him a perfect match for Borges (1899-1986), himself obsessed with Cervantes and saturated in history: Borges’ maternal great-grandfather, Isidoro Suarez, led the cavalry charge at the battle of Junin on Aug. 6, 1824, that brought victory to Simon Bolivar in Peru and helped end Spanish domination in South America.

Borges’ family history weighed on him. His mother, Leonor Rita Acevedo (1876-1975), was of pure criollo stock, meaning that both sides of her family originated in Spain but were part of the Argentine nation since its independence in 1810. Borges’ father, Jorge Guillermo Borges (1874-1938), was different: The name Borges is Portuguese, perhaps Jewish, and was brought to Argentina by Borges’ great-grandfather, the shadowy Francisco de Borges, a Portuguese navy officer who married a daughter of the important criollo Lafinur family in 1829.


Their son, Francisco, became a colonel during the civil wars that plagued Argentina through much of the 19th century. In 1871 he married an English woman, Frances “Fanny” Haslam, whose enterprising father had come to Argentina in the 1860s. After the colonel was killed in 1874, she moved to Buenos Aires, where she eked out a living taking in English-speaking lodgers. Her second son, Jorge Guillermo, was an unsuccessful lawyer and supplemented his scanty income teaching psychology.

Jorge Guillermo met Leonor Acevedo in early 1898; they fell madly in love and married that same year. She was ultra-Catholic, ultraconservative and snobbishly proud of her criollo lineage. Jorge Guillermo was a free-thinker, a skeptic, a skirt-chaser and half-English.

All of this warped the young Georgie (as he was called, since he spoke only English with his grandmother Fanny). The soldiers in his family fascinated him, but he was physically inept and myopic. His father’s failure (especially in his mother’s eyes) to restore the family to its rightful rank in Argentine society meant that Georgie always had before him his father’s inadequacy, which soon became his own. Jorge Guillermo inadvertently created another problem for his son in August of 1918 while the family was in Geneva: He arranged for Georgie to have sex with a prostitute. The experience was catastrophic; Borges would not have a normal relationship with a woman until 1986, when he married Maria Kodama, a delightful, young, half-Japanese, half-Argentine woman. Just in time to die on June 14 of that year.

Borges’ inability to rationalize his military ancestors, his criollo identity, his sense of foreignness (his English blood) and his sexual incompetence forced him to channel his energies into art. Williamson skillfully links these subjects to specific texts to show how Borges’ complex, fantastic and intellectually challenging fictions reflect the problems imposed on him by family and fate.

Vastly erudite and a copious reader, Borges never graduated from a university or even secondary school. While a writer of some celebrity in the 1920s and ‘30s, he had no profession and hence little income. When he finally had to get a job in 1938 (his father, who’d supported him until then, was dying), all he could be was an assistant librarian in a working-class Buenos Aires neighborhood. This experience led to “The Library of Babel,” which we may rightly call “Kafkaesque” because Borges at the time was also introducing Kafka to the Spanish-speaking world. The story reflects Borges’ notion of the inhuman universe, the infinite library, created by that infinite father, God, who provides no catalog to reveal its secret order, a metaphor for the miserable library where he worked until 1946, when the Peronistas insulted him into resigning by “promoting” him to poultry inspector.

Borges’ relationship with politics is grim reading; his vision of Argentina was filtered through a family optic that grew dimmer as his eyesight faded into blindness. When Borges and his family returned to Buenos Aires from Europe in 1921, Georgie established himself as a leader of the poetic avant-garde by founding the broadsheet magazine Prisma, which he and friends pasted up all over Buenos Aires. But when the Borges family returned in 1924 after a second stint in Europe, he found himself juggling two subjects: poetry and Argentine identity. In poetry, Borges could define himself and his generation against the older generation of Spanish American poets, the Modernistas, poets like Ruben Dario and Leopoldo Lugones, who seemed to him ridiculously Eurocentrist.

Borges felt the Argentine essence came from the criollo, who is different from the gaucho, the mixed-blood cowboys who roamed Argentina’s vast pampa. Imbued, I think, with Oswald Spengler’s idea that Europe after World War I was dying -- Borges had read Spengler’s 1918 “The Decline of the West” in German -- he had to define an Argentine culture he felt to be on the rise. Williamson analyzes “Complaint of Every Criollo,” an essay Borges included in his first nonfiction collection, “Inquisitions” (1925). He talks about “Borges’s pessimism and self-doubt,” the author’s lamentations over the demise of the early Argentine Republic, calling this “a dead-end view of Argentine history.” This is not exactly the case. Certainly Borges laments the passing of the criollo, whose art, he says, is sad, sarcastic and ironic. Argentina, he concludes, is now a land populated by foreigners: “The criollo fails, but the fatherland [patria] becomes arrogant and insolent. There are flags in the air; perhaps tomorrow, by means of slaughter we’ll intervene as civilizers of the continent. We’ll be a strong nation.” Borges accepts the extinction of the criollo but prophesies a warlike Argentina retaining criollo virtues.

So Borges’ criollo aesthetics were doomed to fail, exactly as the traditional Argentine tango would give way to the style of Carlos Gardel. Borges reminds us of William Faulkner (whom he adored and translated): conservatism combined with literary audacity. Williamson articulates this paradox, showing how the young Borges wants to be both ultramodern (the literary movement he led was called ultraismo) and snobbishly backward.

The turning point in Borges’ career comes when he stops being a poet-essayist and turns to prose fiction. Williamson singles out a short story Borges wrote in 1936, “The Approach to al-Mu'tasim,” a bogus book review of a nonexistent novel about a quest for redemption where the quest itself becomes the goal. Williamson uses the tale to isolate what is surely the central theme of Borges’ writing: salvation through creation. He overlooks the fact that the phony book review obliterates the barrier between fact and fiction, truth and lies. “Al-Mu'tasim” lays the groundwork for postmodernism, where we can no longer see the difference between the real and the virtual. Creating a new kind of art -- the essay-fiction -- would be sufficient accomplishment for most writers, but Borges was much more than that. He was a translator (of Virginia Woolf and Kafka, among many others), a lecturer (Manuel Puig studied with him), a book reviewer, a magazine editor, a compiler of anthologies (fantastic literature, detective literature), a first-rate poet (his early “Mythological Foundation of Buenos Aires” is a masterpiece) and a theoretician of literature: “The Homeric Versions” shows that the reader creates literary meaning; “Kafka and His Precursors” demonstrates that the present influences the past. In short, to use an expression he himself used so often about other writers, Borges was more a literature than a literary man.

His weak spot was politics. Williamson spins the sad saga of Borges’ progressive drift to the right. Always a staunch defender of individual rights, an outspoken critic of anti-Semitism, an early denouncer of Hitler, an implacable enemy of Peron’s demagoguery, Borges was seduced by military dictatorships, which he saw as the only alternative to social chaos. In 1976, he defended the government of Gen. Videla in Argentina (“a government of soldiers, of gentlemen, of decent people”), accepted an honorary doctorate from the University of Chile under the regime of Gen. Augusto Pinochet and expressed his admiration for Generalisimo Francisco Franco in Spain. By 1977, he would change his mind, and by 1985 he would publish an open letter in the Argentine newspaper Clarin expressing his horror and shame at the outrages perpetrated by the military during the “dirty war.” Too late: His politics cost him the Nobel Prize.

Williamson finds a happy ending for Borges and for us in Borges’ relationship with Kodama, once his student, then his secretary, then his wife. The love that eluded him all his life came to him at the end, like the surprise concealed in the sonnet’s final couplet. *