Borges and I (and Bolaño)

On “page 1 of 1” of David A. Hernandez’s 2011 Amazon.com Order History, one can view a $52.04 purchase made on January 4, 2011 including Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. The Jorge Luis Borges anthology, Labyrinths, Hernandez notes, completed the order, an insignificant one, to be sure.

My spoof of Borges, however tactless, conveys a peculiar fact of history: my first brush with the Argentinian writer was only two years ago. Amazon.com don’t lie — no matter how convinced I remain that I came by my copy of Catch-22 while browsing a Borders Books (R.I.P.). Nevertheless, what I do remember from January 2011, a dark month in a dark year, was that I only read the first story from Labyrinths before I set it down in favor of Catch-22. I must have torn through the sweet-scented cardboard of the Amazonian package, and — looking to satisfy that hankering after something ordered off the Internet arrives to immediately watch it, wear it, smoke it, eat it, or feed it — I read “Tlön, Uqbar, and Orbis Tertius” in one standing. “Tlön, Uqbar and Orbis Tertius” is now in my top ten favorite short stories of all time, and I’m sure I recognized its importance on the first go-round. But at the time, I craved novels, and Catch-22 seemed more enticing. It wouldn’t be until summer, five or six months later, that the rest of Borges’ Labyrinths would enter my sphere.

This is incongruous with my reality.

The problem with Amazon’s timeline is that reading Borges resolved a crisis of identity I’d had my entire life related to my Latin American upbringing; 2011 seems too recent for that kind of drastic development.To me, Borges was a friend long before I read a word of his work. Not in some mystical, in-my-past-life sort of sense, but in that after reading Borges, it seemed as if I’d been reading Borges for a long time. When I sat down a week ago to review my Amazon shopping history, I didn’t expect to find Borges listed in that huge order. My mutinous memory had told me that I came upon Borges in high school. Perhaps an English teacher had recommended his stories based on the taste I projected in class, or based on my obsession with citing logical paradoxes in my essays, or simply based on our (Borges and I) mutual Ibero-American origin.

But that last one wouldn’t make sense. In high school, I made every attempt to slough my Ibero-American origin. I stood firm against any and all influence from my home country and language. I was born in Mexico and for the first six years of my life knew only a rudimentary Spanish. A decade later — a few “Star-Spangled Banner”s and “Pledge of Allegiance”s later — I had developed a passionate hunger for English and an ignorant distaste for my mother tongue, the language I maybe loved once before I knew what love even was but, dammit Clara, I’ve moved on. Spanish was like an ex-wife with whom I had joint custody of a child. Only, in this instance, I was the child as well as the ex-husband. At home, my parents discouraged my brother and I from speaking English out of fear we would unwittingly shed our language and culture. Thanks to their edict, I nearly shed my language and culture of my own accord. I rebelled against those two very important facets of my identity, hoping to better assimilate in my predominantly White and Asian classrooms. By the time my parents realized it would actually help them at work and in their now-American lives if we all spoke English at home, I had been conditioned to associate a certain language with a certain environment. I was embarrassed and unwilling to speak English at home, embarrassed and unwilling to speak Spanish in public.

What does Borges have to do with this individual drama? Meshing profoundly with Borges meant a reversal in my attitude toward my Spanish-speaking, Latin American roots. After reading Borges, I became interested in the Spanish language where before, I rejected its influence.

My parents aren’t rancheros; they lived their entire lives in the bustle of metropolitan Guadalajara and are somewhat educated. But they certainly didn’t have a library of over 500 books (or over 50), and their day-to-day Spanish wasn’t any more refined than the next Mexican’s. The cadence of my parents’ slang and their favored expressions annoyed the hell out of me in a way impervious to definition. Programs they watched on Spanish television didn’t help salvage whatever lingering respect I may have had for the language. However, reading Borges in English, I had an unmistakable intuition of the underlying source Spanish, at last a Spanish palatable to me.

Perhaps it came as a result of knowing Borges’ literati background, or the style and nature of the translations by James E. Irby and Donald A. Yates, or maybe further retroactive meddling from my memory. But somehow as I read “the Garden of Forking Paths” and “Funes the Memorious,” the sentences and paragraphs struck as if I were parsing them in their original Spanish — as if their English form on the page were a filter I’d used to facilitate my approach of these texts. Regardless, my mind would process them in what I knew to be their original lexicon. If prompted I could not produce a readable (i.e. tactful) back-to-Spanish translation of these stories. But the subliminal translation I brew internally as I read “the Library of Babel” — a difficult enough story to read in my fluent English — seems wholly adept, if only in the moment.

There couldn’t have been another author to rescue the Spanish language for me. Borges represents everything I love in literature — questions of identity and persona (“the Theologians,” “Three Versions of Judas,” “Borges and I”), unapologetic erudition, and needless to say, a healthy dose of paradox at every turn of the labyrinth. At the most basic level, Borges knows how to tell a good fucking story because of/despite/within the aforementioned. A story like “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote” is incapable of being written again today. Read it and note the irony of this statement.

What I mean when I say “after reading Borges, it seemed as if I’d been reading Borges for a long time” is that Borges is what I wanted to read for a long time. After Borges I felt I finally, truly had a literature I could love. Which makes it all the more impossible and disconcerting that I only first read him two years ago.

Whatever the case, I’ve adopted him, and begun seeing Clara again.

Which brings me to Roberto Bolaño, who has a story in the April 22, 2013 issue of The New Yorker. I have no conflated account — yet — of how I came upon Bolaño. I know the “when” and “what” of my first read. Unlike many who met Bolaño through 2666 or the Savage Detectives, I met him through his poetry, featured in the Paris Review No. 201 (an exceptional volume, and not just because of Bolaño). Laura Healy translates a cycle — three poems about a love-of-my-life type named Lisa — and two much longer and bolder narrative poems, the last one of which in its last three lines beautifully recalls the Lisa cycle. I thought all five poems brilliant and read up on Bolaño, who fortunately throughout this time was a frequent topic here on Anobium. Still, it would not be until March of this year when I developed the cojones for some down-and-dirty Bolaño prose. I picked up the Savage Detectives at Barnes & Noble and stuffed the tripartite 648-pager down my own throat over the course of four days. I am still recovering.

Reading Bolaño’s prose for the first time wasn’t the same experience as reading Borges’. Even in Bolaño’s poetry there wasn’t the revelation of the Spanish tongue that I had as I read Labyrinths. Perhaps by virtue of the translation, the sentences of the Savage Detectives didn’t exude in their style their Spanish source, at least not for me. There carried through, however, a connection to la patria: Mexico. The first part of the Savage Detectives takes place entirely in Mexico City. Though my family hails from a different Big Mexican City, I nevertheless felt connected to my country of origin in a way I had never anticipated. I wanted to visit Bolaño’s Mexico. This is the power of fiction, or one of its powers.

Perhaps Benjamin van Loon explains it best: “the big difference between [Borges and Bolaño] is that Bolaño is much more eager to cast off the metaphysics and get into the nasty meat of Being.” If I may be brash, the Borges/Bolaño dichotomy could be distilled to mirror Husserl/Heidegger, or more aptly Sartre/Merleau-Ponty — Merleau-Ponty being a definite proponent of getting into the flesh of the world. In each matchup, the former combatant remains committed to intentional structures that the latter strives to demolish.

The Savage Detectives, if anything, is complete Sein-zum-Tode. But no one in the novel will tell you. One must remember Bolaño is not Borges. Bolaño’s characters are erudite in the vein of hardcore punk band avatars and hardcore porn set prophets. (I have no real-life examples for either of these. Maybe there are none.) They’re visceral realists or viscerealists or vicerealists. They love poems and read them in the shower and recite them while getting blown. Despite the saturation of first-person perspective in the Savage Detectives it’s a novel that rejects Solipsism, which is just about the best compliment fiction can receive nowadays (and definitely not a compliment one could pay this essay).

But I haven’t touched 2666, in Spanish or otherwise. I don’t feel ready for that. After finishing the Savage Detectives, I became acutely aware of my mortality and of the mortality of fiction. What was frightening to me was that the latter seemed more frightening. I’m certain I’m plagiarizing, but completing a Big Book has increasingly felt like murdering a close friend, or at least watching one die. And it’s a dangerous gamble, rereading a novel. Reread Blood Meridian and one might find oneself lacking the luck needed to get through it the first time.

I stall my reckoning with 2666 — by its end, either I or it will die — and have got Poeta en Nueva York by Federico García Lorca to experience. It’s one-hundred pages of poetry, in Spanish, so I can promise I won’t be through with it in four days.

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