Set in her coppery face painted with fierce colours, her eyes were that halfhearted blue that the English call Gray. Her body was as light as a deer’s; her hands, strong and bony. She had come in from the wilderness, from “the interior,” and everything seemed too small for her – the doors, the walls, the furniture.
A giant of South American literature who has hovered over my shoulder since I first dipped into it, to the point where I wondered if I was pointedly ignoring him. It is eleven years since I first got back from my travels, and delved into the world of Garcia Marquez, Jorge Amado and Mario Vargas Llosa amongst others. Borges I knew of, knew his stature but little else. In The Old Patagonian Express, Paul Theroux dedicates a whole chapter to his time with Borges, describing a humble but forthright character who had come to terms with his blindness and seemed to have an encyclopaedic knowledge of literature.
Maybe that was it, perhaps I didn’t feel I was a good enough reader for Borges. I seldom remember what I’ve read, only particular scenes if they are extremely vivid or provoke a strong reaction in me, to be able to quote lines and slide them into stories seems even now, a wondrous ability to me (although I couldn’t tell you why).
I finally succumbed while picking up my Roberto Bolano, by the cold precision of alphabetical ordering, Borges sat tight nearby, his books just waiting for me to notice them. I picked up the Aleph and added it to my growing pile.
I immensely enjoyed this from the first story, The Immortal, a beautiful, enveloping detailed Sunday afternoon escapism story that I did not want to end. As I submerged deeper I loved Borges style, his turn of phrase, cleverly translated in this edition by Andrew Hurley. This is Storytelling as an art, the learned, literary narrator, reminiscent of Saramago, or perhaps it is the other way round, I can only go by my order, not theirs.
Andrew Hurley in his afterword points out some of the themes in the collection, which I had only the vaguest sense of while reading. What I do remember is wondering if these stories, even the ones that bordered on the fantastical (Ibn-Hakam al-Bokhari, Murdered in His Labyrinth or The Aleph) could be real, or experienced, such was the power of Borge’s writing, the realness of the worlds and the characters that inhabit them. What is clear is that Argentina infuses his writing, from the epic of Martin Fierro and the wars of independence, the dictatorship of Rosas, even to the first person narratives that star Borges himself, similar to Bolano, where momentous events sit like a background to the writing, even when they are not specifically the subject, they still cast a certain colour over the words.
My favourites from the collection included The Dead Man, Story of the Warrior and the Captive Maiden, The House of Asterion and The Man on the Threshold. But others, such as Emma Zunz, The Theologians and Ibn-Hakam al-Bokhari, Murdered in His Labyrinth. It was The House of Asterion that I enjoyed the most though, a simple yet clever piece that seems to draw me back to a subject that I hold a certain unexplained fascination for.
This edition also includes texts from The Maker, shorter pieces that almost seem as a wind down from the short stories, as if you are slowly being released from the book, like a diver slowly rises to the surface, A Dialog between Dead Men being my particular favourite.
Aside from Hurley’s afterword, and the one chapter from Theroux, I still know little about Borges, for some reason with him more than any of the others it feels like I should know more, even after reading his works he still seems to have this pull on my imagination. For now I’ll settle with reading more of his works, perhaps for me it may well be the best way of learning about the man behind the pen.
At my feet, on the threshold of this house, as motionless as an inanimate thing, a very old man lay curled up on the ground. I shall describe him, because he is an essential part of the story. His many years had reduced and polished him the way water smooths and polishes a stone or generations of men polish a proverb.