Productive Mischief

Michael Wood

‘Not everyone can be Whitman,’ Borges said in an interview in London long ago. He paused, pretending to reflect. ‘Not even Whitman could be Whitman.’ We knew Borges was only pretending to reflect because we recognised the joke and the timing as belonging so perfectly to him, a Borges short story in miniature, a shortest story. And also because, if we were still sceptical, we could find the joke in his writings. In ‘The Simulacrum’, which Andrew Hurley translates as ‘The Mountebank’, a man arrives in a small village in northern Argentina and exhibits a blonde doll in a cardboard box which serves as her coffin. People file by, offering their condolences, addressing the man as ‘General’. He shakes their hands, murmurs a platitude, and they drop their two pesos in a collection box. The time is July 1952. But this ‘funereal farce’, as Borges puts it, is of course not the real thing. ‘The man in mourning was not Perón and the blonde doll was not the woman Eva Duarte, but then Perón was not Perón either, nor was Eva Eva.’

The implication here, immediately spelled out, is that Perón and Eva were figures in ‘a crass mythology’, and that we know nothing about the anonymous persons who played those roles, a performance only marginally less farcical than that of the man with his doll and his box. But a name is always a role for Borges, an idea of the self, and the interplay between actor and part takes many forms in his writing. In one of his early prose works, The Universal History of Infamy (1935), Borges says of Billy the Kid that he ‘never fully measured up to the legend of himself, but he came closer and closer as time went on’. In a story in the late volume The Book of Sand (1975), a woman makes a remark that is ‘not like her’. ‘But what we say,’ Borges adds, ‘is not always like us.’

‘Not often like us’ is the implication, if indeed there is an ‘us’. ‘Years do not change our essence, if in fact we have an essence.’ But who else would we be, apart from ourselves? Who else could we be? The counterpart of Whitman’s failing to be Whitman is Whitman’s inability to be anyone else, his imprisonment in what his name has come to mean to others. Borges, too, is a figure in a mythology, although certainly not in a crass one, and the man who is also called Borges watches with amazement.

It’s the other one, Borges, that things happen to ... I get news of Borges by mail and I see his name on a shortlist of professors or in a biographical dictionary. I like hour-glasses, maps, 17th-century typography, etymologies, the taste of coffee and the prose of Stevenson; the other man shares those preferences, but in a boastful way which converts them into the attributes of an actor ... Years ago I tried to free myself from him and moved from mythologies of the slums to games with time and infinity, but those games belong to Borges now ... I don’t know which of us is writing this page.

He doesn’t know as he is writing, perhaps, but we do; and he knows as soon as he has written the page. It’s the other one, Borges. It’s tempting to think that fame, or finding his voice as the inventor of his own form of fiction, turns Borges into Borges, and this trope is very common in discussions of his work. ‘The birth of “Borges” ’, in Emir Rodriguez Monegal’s biography (1978), means the arrival at blindness and celebrity. But the writer in the above quotation is quite specific. The ‘games with time and infinity’ we now associate with Borges, particularly the stories in Ficciones (1944) and The Aleph (1949), were written in an attempt to escape from Borges, the author of stories and poems full of Argentinian local colour, and a volume called Fervour of Buenos Aires (1923) especially. It’s writing that creates the other, and in Borges we witness the death of the author from the author’s point of view. Or more precisely the lapse of the person into the author, the birth of the textual play actor at the expense of the mere civilian, who becomes nameless, like the historical Perón and Eva once politics and mythology take them up. But again, it’s not exactly fame that performs this operation. It’s the script of their play which seeks out, as Borges would say any writing does, the lurking unreality of human arrangements, both psychological and social, whatever it is in us and in our world that waits to be colonised by flamboyant or domineering illusions, or even decorous ones.

‘Almost immediately,’ Borges writes in one of his most famous stories, in which historical reality is infiltrated by an immense hoax, the apparent evidence of a world far more ordered and far less solid than ours, ‘reality gave in on more than one point. The truth is, it longed to give in.’ ‘Ten years ago,’ he says, writing in 1947, ‘any symmetry with an appearance of order – dialectical materialism, anti-semitism, Nazism – was enough to dazzle mankind.’ Contact with the imaginary world of Tlön, Borges says, ‘has disintegrated this world ... In our memories a fictitious past has already taken the place of the other one, of which we know nothing with any certainty – not even that it is false.’

The translations so far are mine, and I’m following the grammar of Borges’s sentence particularly closely here, as Andrew Hurley does (‘already a fictitious past has supplanted in men’s memories that other past, of which we now know nothing certain – not even that it is false’), and as James Irby does in his 1962 version (‘already a fictitious past occupies in our memories the place of another, a past of which we know nothing with certainty – not even that it is false’). But it’s possible that the grammar itself is a bit loose, and Alastair Reid’s wording (also 1962) makes more sense to me: ‘Now, in all memories, a fictitious past occupies the place of any other. We know nothing about it with any certainty, not even that it is false.’ Either: we don’t know enough about our real past even to doubt it. Or: the current fiction is so dominant that we no longer have any way of thinking of it as fiction. The readings are not incompatible, of course, so maybe the looseness is just what’s needed.

It’s important to see the productive mischief of what Borges is up to. Whether we have in mind Perón and Eva, Borges himself, or the world with and without the intervention of Tlön (and there are plenty more variants on the same story in Borges’s work), tempting simplifications are being conjured up only to be set aside. We are not watching a sturdy and reliable reality being taken over by fantasy, crass or delicate. We are not watching a welcome flight into the freedom of fantasy, all drab realities left behind. We are being invited to inspect the criss-crossing complicity of reality and fantasy: of the reality we can’t bear and the reality we would miss horribly if we lost it; of the fantasy we can scarcely live without and the fantasy which is likely to ruin us. It is because what we call reality is already so threaded through with fantasy that it ‘longs’ to give in; because fantasy is so rooted in reality that it always returns, like a boomerang, to the scene it meant to abandon.

This is heady stuff, but it’s just a beginning. Borges’s deepest subject is less visible and more diffuse. It is also everywhere in his work, in the largest and the smallest structures. We can think of it in the language we are already using if we look again at Whitman failing to be Whitman or obliged to be Whitman, and ask, not about the person and the role, but about the more elusive idea of the same not being the same, with its attendant implication that the different might not be different.

Pierre Menard, a fictitious modern French author, rewrites Don Quixote verbatim, or seems to. In fact, we are told, he doesn’t rewrite it, and he doesn’t copy it. He writes it. That is, he arrives on his own, magically, at precisely the words that Cervantes uses. Borges’s narrator quotes a passage from Cervantes, followed by one from Menard. The quotations are ‘verbally identical’, and the sight of them on the page is already funny and disturbing enough, but Borges’s finest touch is more discreet, and truly dizzying. Having commented on the Cervantes sentence, the narrator introduces his second example with the phrase: ‘Menard, on the other hand [en cambio], writes ...’ On the other hand? On the same hand, surely, since the words which follow are the words we have just read. No, on the other hand, because the writer is different, and the meaning of the words is also different. How could Menard, a 20th-century writer using a foreign language, setting his novel in the 16th century, not write differently from the native speaker Cervantes addressing his own time and country? But are we saying the words aren’t the same? They are the same, even if their meanings are altered. The head spins, but we can induce reason to return. Menard, an entertaining impossibility as a writer, offers a remarkable metaphor for the act of reading, where the words in front of us both change and do not change, belong both to Cervantes, for instance, and to us. The same in one sense, different in another. But these sage and comforting gestures are also a retreat from the brilliant comic shock of the first impression, a sort of unmanageable double vision, where the same in all senses just fails to stay the same. I think of a wonderful line in Leonardo Sciascia, who probably borrowed the move from Borges. ‘Oh well,’ a character says in The Council of Egypt, ‘things are what they are’ ‘No,’ another character thinks, eminently aware that things, especially in the matter of forgery, are what you make them, ‘things are not what they are.’ Of course Sciascia may also be remembering a famous line from Othello, as Borges does in his little parable about Shakespeare, ‘Everything and Nothing’, reminding us that ‘Iago claims with curious words: “I am not what I am.” ’ This is much spookier than his just not being what he seems – anyone can be that – and the effect in all these cases is very close to what Foucault describes as the ‘laughter which shakes us at the naked impossibility of thinking that’. That, in Foucault’s example, is the cataloguing of a weirdly heterogeneous number of objects and creatures as if they had something in common and could be sensibly put in order.

If sameness and difference can always show up with each other’s faces, they can also fall apart. We then have sheer difference, or something beyond difference, since the items are no longer comparable enough for difference to be a question. This whole drama, which we might think of as a compacted meditation on the need of words for each other, and our need for them to stay in touch, has already been played out earlier in the Menard story, in one of Borges’s most beautifully thrown away clauses. Menard, we are told, had thought of working on Don Quixote, but he didn’t want to adapt or modernise it. He hated ‘those parasitic books which put Christ on a boulevard, Hamlet on the Canebière, and Don Quixote on Wall Street’, designed to ‘trick us with the elementary idea that all ages are the same or are different’. We are so ready to agree that it’s elementary to think all ages are the same that we are bowled over – or at least I am – by Borges’s fast follow-up suggestion that it’s equally elementary to think all ages are different. Northrop Frye, writing of literature and genre, reminds us that most parents think their children are unique, but take some solace from the fact that they belong to the right species. Borges’s conceptual gag is more upsetting, less conciliatory. It asks us not only to juggle sameness and difference without letting either drop but to wonder whether the right track isn’t always also the wrong track. When we remember difference, we forget some crucial sameness, and vice versa. And if we wisely remember them both, we lose what we would have gained from their conflict.

The most elegant and haunting narrative form of this proposition occurs in ‘The Lottery in Babylon’. The lottery doesn’t merely offer rewards, it rewrites existence completely, granting death, punishment, fabulous fortunes to its players, and indeed finally becomes synonymous with life itself as many people see it, since a world intricately devoted to programmed chance would be indistinguishable from a world left to chance on its own. At one point a slave steals a ticket which entitles him to have his tongue burned out. But the punishment for stealing a ticket was to have one’s tongue burned out. ‘Some Babylonians argued that he deserved the burning iron because he was a thief; others, more magnanimous, that the executioner should apply the iron because chance had determined things that way.’ ‘More magnanimous’ is a throwaway like ‘on the other hand’. It’s all the same: the man’s tongue is burned out. It’s not the same: the reasons are quite different. In an eerie anticipation of this story, Walter Benjamin and his friend Gershom Scholem conducted just this sort of argument over a metaphor Benjamin had used about Kafka’s work. Kafka’s characters are students who have lost the scripture, Benjamin said. Scholem suggested they were students who had the scripture but couldn’t decipher it, and Benjamin said it came to the same thing, since they couldn’t understand it either way. Scholem, distressed, said this opinion was the greatest error Benjamin could run into. ‘More magnanimous’ in this instance, Scholem was seeking a distinction between forms of failure, a glimpse of hypothetical difference within demonstrable sameness.

Collected Fictions brings together all Borges’s prose fiction specified as such, from The Universal History of Infamy, which is largely Borges’s retelling of curious stories collected in his multifarious reading, to what is here called Shakespeare’s Memory, a small collection of 1983. Borges, born in 1899, died in 1986. The volume excludes poems and essays. This arrangement makes conventional sense, and the book is long enough, but it does make Borges seem slightly less adventurous than he is, since it confines him firmly to a category we already (think we) know. His stories often, famously, take the form of the mock-essay, and his essays often have the pace and tone of the literary practical joke. The stories are not essays, and the essays are not jokes, but they are in constant dialogue with each other, formally as well as intellectually, and to slice off a zone of ‘fiction’ in Borges is to miss something of what has happened to the very notion of fiction thanks to his ministrations.

Hurley’s versions read well, and he has obviously thought about them a lot. He says ‘at least 17 translators’ have preceded him ‘in translating one or more of the fictions of Jorge Luis Borges’, and he dedicates his book to ‘all translators, Borges included’. But he doesn’t say anything about his forerunners, and since in some cases their work is very well known and easily available, this silence gets a little loud. Borges is not exceptionally difficult to translate, and there are very few cruxes or contentious passages, so the need for a new version is not obvious. Of course all translators find a slightly different tone, and make different local decisions, but in keeping with the argument I’ve just been pursuing, their texts are also often the same, even verbatim. Hurley says he has ‘rendered Borges in the style that I hear when I listen to him’ and so to the extent that he is successful we hear what he hears. But then what do we hear in Anthony Kerrigan’s Ficciones (1962), which has translations by Kerrigan himself, Alastair Reid, Anthony Bonner, Helen Temple and Ruthven Todd? Or in Donald Yates and James Irby’s Labyrinths (1962), with translations mainly by Irby, but also by Yates, Kerrigan, L.A. Murillo, Dudley Fitts, Julian Palley, Harriet de Onis, John Fein? There are also the volumes, notably The Aleph (1970) and Dr Brodie’s Report (1972), which Norman Thomas di Giovanni translated in collaboration with Borges.

Well, which of these versions do you prefer? ‘I come from a vertiginous country where the lottery forms a principal part of reality’ (Kerrigan). ‘I come from a dizzy land where the lottery is the basis of reality’ (John Fein). ‘Mine is a dizzying country in which the Lottery is a major element of reality’ (Hurley). Kerrigan’s is the most literal, maps almost exactly onto the Spanish. How about these? ‘In his twenties, he went to London. Instinctively, he had already trained himself in the habit of pretending he was someone, so it should not be discovered that he was no one’ (Kerrigan). ‘At the age of twenty-odd years he went to London. Instinctively he had already become proficient in the habit of simulating that he was someone, so that others would not discover his condition as no one’ (Irby). ‘At twenty-something he went off to London. Instinctively, he had already trained himself to the habit of feigning that he was somebody, so that his “nobodiness” might not be discovered’ (Hurley). Irby’s ‘condition as no one’ is striking and almost idiomatic, and closely follows Borges’s condición de nadie. Hurley’s ‘feigning’ and ‘nobodiness’, along with the formality of ‘mine is’, suggest that his Borges is a little fussier and more old-fashioned than others. ‘I know that you’ll comport yourself like a man,’ Hurley has one character saying. Di Giovanni has ‘handle yourself.’ Hurley refers to ‘an old quip of Schopenhauer’s’ – an unlikely idea for a start – where the Spanish and Di Giovanni simply say ‘a joke’, una broma. But then Hurley translates ‘kinder’, mas buenos, as ‘more loving’ – a leap into the soggy late 20th century.

There are small questions of accuracy too. Hurley translates Borges as saying: ‘A mere handful of arguments have haunted me all these years; I am decidedly monotonous.’ ‘Arguments’ here is a ‘false friend’. In this context, argumentos must mean ‘story-lines’, ‘plots’. Di Giovanni translates the word as ‘plots’. Facilmente violentos must mean ‘easily moved to violence’, as Di Giovanni has it, rather than Hurley’s ‘casually violent’. ‘We were too different, yet too alike,’ Hurley writes, preserving the order of the Spanish, but changing an ‘and’ to a ‘yet’, surely a fairly large logical move. Di Giovanni keeps the logic but reverses the terms: ‘We were too similar and too unalike.’ But sameness mainly prevails in all these translations, we have to keep digging if we want difference. Borges isn’t monotonous, but he is not multicoloured either.

In one of the stories Borges recounts in The Universal History of Infamy, an imaginative crook gets someone to pretend to be an aristocratic lady’s long-lost son. The impostor doesn’t resemble the son in the least, but that’s the trick. ‘Bogle knew that a perfect facsimile of the beloved Roger Charles Tichborne was impossible to find; he knew as well that any similarities he might achieve would only underscore certain inevitable differences. He therefore gave up the notion of likeness altogether. He sensed that the vast ineptitude of his pretence would be a convincing proof that this was no fraud’ (Hurley’s translation). This confidence trick is something like the polar opposite of Pierre Menard’s duplication of Don Quixote, but both performances address the riddling question of identity, the troubled return of the same. They both ask whether what returns can ever be the same, or can ever be different, and what it would take for us to settle these matters.

Translation, of course, enacts this question both literally and metaphorically. It can’t be the same as what it’s translating, but it’s not supposed to be too different. Both precision and inaccuracy are a problem, and Borges, as always, has been here before us. His metaphor this time is cartography, and he takes the paragraph, he says, from the 17th-century writer Suárez Miranda. The title Borges gives the piece is ‘On Exactitude in Science’, ‘Del rigor en la ciencia’, and the pathos of this ruined map is precisely the pathos of Pierre Menard: wishing to remodel the world or a masterpiece, we only succeed in parodying portions of it, like the man and his doll in the Perón and Eva show. Or with a little more luck, we make a different world which is also the same. This is Andrew Hurley’s translation, with one word changed: ‘impiety’ for ‘pitilessness’.

In that Empire, the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City, and the map of the Empire, the entirety of a Province. In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers’ Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it. The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears had been, saw that that vast Map was Useless, and not without some Impiety was it, that they delivered it up to the inclemencies of Sun and Winters. In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of that Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars; in all the Land there is no other Relic of the Disciplines of Geography.