Whose Borges?

Thomas Jones

In 2009, the Argentinian writer Pablo Katchadjian published a short book called El aleph engordado, which he made by adding 5600 words to Jorge Luis Borges's 4000-word story 'The Aleph'. A Quixotic enterprise, you might think, or at least a Menardian one, if not quite a Borgesian one. Borges wrote about people undertaking such projects, rather than undertaking them himself. One of the jokes in 'The Aleph' is that a story about a magical spot, 'probably two or three centimetres in diameter', in which it is possible to see everything in the universe at once, should be only a dozen pages long. Borges spends one of those pages describing some of what he saw in the Aleph, but he can't remember everything: 'Fortunately, after a few unsleeping nights, forgetfulness began to work in me again.' The story's antagonist, meanwhile, in whose cellar the Aleph is located, is writing an immense – and immensely boring – poem in which 'he proposed to versify the entire planet.'

El aleph engordado isn't that, of course, but Borges's widow and literary executor, María Kodama, took against it and in 2011 filed a plagiarism lawsuit against Katchadjian. The case was dismissed, but after a labyrinthine series of appeals, Katchadjian was this month indicted by the judge who'd initially ruled in his favour. His assets have been frozen and in theory he faces up to six years in prison. His lawyer has lodged an appeal. There's to be a public meeting calling for his acquittal at the Biblioteca Nacional in Buenos Aires on Friday evening.

Katchadjian's book doesn't sound much like plagiarism to me. As the poet Charles Hartman wrote after discovering he'd been plagiarised a couple of years ago, 'Defining plagiarism is trickier than you might think, but most of the time we distinguish it from other kinds of copying (allusion, quotation) fairly easily: it’s plagiarism if the copyist hopes no one will notice.'

Pierre Menard, 'author of the Quixote’, Borges's character whose 'admirable ambition was to produce a number of pages which coincided – word for word and line for line – with those of Miguel de Cervantes', is no plagiarist either. 'His goal was never a mechanical transcription of the original; he had no intention of copying it.' Rather his plan is to write it from scratch. He doesn't get very far, though the two-and-a-bit chapters he manages are an impossible enough achievement. Borges quotes a pair of identical phrases from Cervantes and Menard before discussing how different they are: 'the archaic style of Menard... is somewhat affected', while Cervantes ‘employs the Spanish of his time with complete naturalness'. 'Borges's deepest subject,' Michael Wood has written, is the 'elusive idea of the same not being the same, with its attendant implication that the different might not be different.'


  • 2 July 2015 at 10:59am
    ejh says:
    "it’s plagiarism if the copyist hopes no one will notice"

    As, for instance, with the many-more-than-one-hundred instances committed by the chess correspondent of the Times and Spectator, who remains nevertheless in both posts. But then again, other than the chess community and Private Eye, who bothered to notice?