The Brass Plaque Said 'Borges'
By PAUL THEROUX
Despite its eerie name, the Buenos Aires Subterranean is an efficient five-line network of subway trains. The same size as Boston's subway, it was built five years later, in 1913 (making it older than Chicago's or Moscow's), and, as in Boston, it quickly put the tram cars out of business. The apartment of Jorge Luis Borges was on Maipu, around the corner from Plaza General San Martin Station, on the Retiro-Constitución line.
I had been eager to take the Subterranean ever since I heard of its existence; and I had greatly wished to talk to Borges. He was to me what Lady Hester Stanhope had been to Alexander Kinglake: "in all society, the standing topic of interest," an eccentric genius, perhaps more than a prophet, hidden in the depths of an unholy country. In Eothen, one of my favorite travel books ("'Eothen is, I hope, almost the only hard word to be found in the book," says the author, "and signifies. . .'From the East'"), Kinglake devotes an entire chapter to his meeting with Lady Hester. I felt I could do no less with Borges. I entered the Subterranean and, after a short ride, easily found his house.
The brass plaque on the landing of the sixth floor said Borges. I rang the bell and was admitted by a child of about seven. When he saw me he sucked his finger in embarrassment. He was the maid's child. The maid was Paraguayan, a well-fleshed Indian, who invited me in, then left me in the foyer with a large white cat. There was one dim light burning in the foyer, but the rest of the apartment was dark. The darkness reminded me that Borges was blind.
Curiosity and unease led me into a small parlor. Though the curtains were drawn and the shutters closed, I could make out a candelabra, the family silver Borges mentions in one of his stories, some paintings, old photographs, and books. There was little furniture–a sofa and two chairs by the window, a dining table pushed against one wall, and a wall and a half of bookcases. Something brushed my legs. I switched on a lamp: the cat had followed me here.
There was no carpet on the floor to trip the blind man, no intrusive furniture he could barge into. The parquet floor gleamed; there was not a speck of dust anywhere. The paintings were amorphous, but the three steel engravings were precise. I recognized them as Piranesi's Views of Rome. The most Borges-like one was The Pyramid of Cestius and could have been an illustration from Borges's own Ficciones. Piranesi's biographer, Bianconi, called him "the Rembrandt of the ruins." "I need to produce great ideas," said Piranesi. "I believe that were I given the planning of a new universe I would be mad enough to undertake it." It was something Borges himself might have said.
The books were a mixed lot. One corner was mostly Everyman editions, the classics in English translation–Homer, Dante, Virgil. There were shelves of poetry in no particular order–Tennyson and e.e. cummings, Byron, Poe, Wordsworth, Hardy. There were reference books, Harvey's English Literature, The Oxford Book of Quotations, various dictionaries–including Doctor Johnson's–and an old leatherbound encyclopedia. They were not fine editions; the spines were worn, the cloth had faded; but they had the look of having been read. They were well-thumbed, they sprouted paper page markers. Reading alters the appearance of a book. Once it has been read, it never looks the same again, and people leave their individual imprint on a book they have read. One of the pleasures of reading is seeing this alteration on the pages, and the way, by reading it, you have made the book yours.
There was a sound of scuffing in the corridor, and a distinct grunt. Borges emerged from the dimly lighted foyer, feeling his way along the wall. He was dressed formally, in a dark blue suit and dark tie; his black shoes were loosely tied, and a watch chain depended from his pocket. He was taller than I had expected, and there was an English cast to his face, a pale seriousness in his jaw and forehead. His eyes were swollen, staring, and sightless. But for his faltering, and the slight tremble in his hands, he was in excellent health. He had the fussy precision of a chemist. His skin was clear–there were no age blotches on his hands–and there was a firmness in his face. People had told me he was "about eighty." He was then in his seventy-ninth year, but he looked ten years younger. "When you get to my age," he tells his double in the story "The Other," "you will have lost your eyesight almost completely. You'll still make out the color yellow and lights and shadows. Don't worry. Gradual blindness is not a tragedy. It's like a slow summer dusk."
"Yes, " he said, groping for my hand. Squeezing it, he guided me to a chair. "Please sit down. There's a chair here somewhere. Please make yourself at home."
He spoke so rapidly that I was not aware of an accent until he had finished speaking. He seemed breathless. He spoke in bursts, but without hesitation, except when starting a new subject. Then, stuttering, he raised his trembling hands and seemed to claw the subject out of the air and shake ideas from it as he went on.
"You're from New England," he said. "That's wonderful. That's the best place to be from. It all began there–Emerson, Thoreau, Melville, Hawthorne, Longfellow. They started it. If it weren't for them there would be nothing. I was there–it was beautiful."
"I've read your poem about it," I said. Borges's "New England 1967" begins, They have changed the shapes of my dream. . . .
"Yes, yes," he said. He moved his hands impatiently, like a man shaking dice. He would not talk about his work; he was almost dismissive. "I was lecturing at Harvard. I hate lecturing–I love teaching. I enjoyed the states–New England. And Texas is something special. I was there with my mother. She was old, over eighty. We went to see the Alamo." Borges's mother had died not long before, at the great age of ninety-nine. Her room is as she left it in death. "Do you know Austin?"
I said I had taken the train from Boston to Fort Worth and that I had not thought much of Fort Worth.
"You should have gone to Austin," said Borges. "The rest of it is nothing to me–the Midwest, Ohio, Chicago. Sandburg is the poet of Chicago, but what is he?" He's just noisy–he got it all from Whitman. Whitman was great, Sandburg is nothing. And the rest of it," he said, shaking his fingers at an imaginary map of North America. "Canada? Tell me, what has Canada produced? Nothing. But the South is interesting. What a pity they lost the Civil War–don't you think it is a pity, eh?"
I said I thought defeat had been inevitable for the South. They had been backward-looking and complacent, and now they were the only people in the states who ever talked about the Civil War. People in the North never spoke of it. If the South had won, we might have been spared some of these Confederate reminiscences.
"Of course they talk about it," said Borges. "It was a terrible defeat for them. Yet they had to lose. They were agrarian. But I wonder–is defeat so bad? In The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, doesn't Lawrence say something about 'the shamefulness of victory'? The Southerners were courageous, but perhaps a man of courage does not make a good soldier. What do you think?"
Courage alone could not make you a good soldier, I said, not any more than patience alone could make you a good fisherman. Courage might make a man blind to risk, and an excess of courage, without caution, could be fatal.
"But people respect soldiers," said Borges. "That's why no one really thinks much of the Americans. If America were a military power instead of a commercial empire, people would look up to it. Who respects businessmen? No one. People look at America and all they see are traveling salesmen. So they laugh."
He fluttered his hands, snatched with them, and changed the subject. "How did you come to Argentina?"
"After Texas, I took the train to Mexico."
"What do you think of Mexico?"
"Ramshackle, but pleasant."
Borges said, "I dislike Mexico and the Mexicans. They are so nationalistic. And they hate the Spanish. What can happen to them if they feel that way? And they have nothing. They are just playing–at being nationalistic. But what they like especially is playing at being red Indians. They like to play. They have nothing at all. And they can't fight, eh? They are very poor soldiers–they always lose. Look what a few American soldiers could do in Mexico! No, I don't like Mexico at all."
He paused and leaned forward. His eyes bulged. He found my knee and tapped it for emphasis.
"I don't have this complex," he said. "I don't hate the Spanish. Although I much prefer the English. After I lost my sight in 1955 I decided to do something altogether new. So I learned Anglo-Saxon. Listen. . ."
He recited the entire Lord's Prayer in Anglo-Saxon.
"That was the Lord's Player. Now this–do you know this?"
He recited the opening lines of The Seafarer.
"The Seafarer," he said. Isn't it beautiful? I am partly English. My grandmother came from Northumberland, and there are other relatives from Staffordshire. 'Saxon and Celt and Dane'–isn't that how it goes? We always spoke English at home. My father spoke to me in English. Perhaps I'm party Norwegian–the Vikings were from Northumberland. And York–York is a beautiful city, eh? My ancestors were there, too."
"Robinson Crusoe was from York," I said.
"'I was born in the year something-something, in the city of York, of a good family. . .'"
"Yes, yes, I had forgotten that."
I said there were Norse names all over the north of England, and gave as an example the name Thorpe. It was a place name and a surname.
Borges said, "Like the German Dorf."
"Or Dutch dorp."
"This is strange. I will tell you something. I am writing a story in which the main character's name is Thorpe."
"That's your Northumberland ancestry stirring."
"Perhaps. The English are wonderful people. But timid. They didn't want an empire. It was forced upon them by the French and the Spanish. And so they had their empire. It was a great thing, eh? They left so much behind. Look what they gave India–Kipling! One of the greatest writers."
I said that sometimes a Kipling story was only a plot, or an exercise in Irish dialect, or a howling gaffe, like the climax of "At the End of the Passage," where a man photographs the bogeyman on a dead man's retina and then burns the pictures because they are so frightening. But how did the bogeyman get there?
"It doesn't matter–he's always good. My favorite is "The Church That Was at Antioch.' What a marvelous story that is. And what a great poet. I know you agree with me–I read your piece in The New York Times. What I want you to do is read me some of Kipling's poems. Come with me," he said, getting to his feet and leading me to a bookshelf. "On that shelf–you see all the Kipling books? Now on the left is the The Collected Poems. It's a big book."
He was conjuring with his hands as I ran my eye across the Elephant Head Edition of Kipling. I found the book and carried it back to the sofa.
Borges said, "Read me 'The Harp Song of the Dane Women.'"
I did as I was told.
What is a woman that you forsake her, And the hearth-fire and the home-acre, To go with the old grey Widow-maker?
"'The old grey Widow-maker,'" he said. "That is so good. You can't say things like that in Spanish. But I'm interrupting go on."
I began again, but at the third stanza he stopped me. "'. . .the ten-times-fingering weed to hold you'–how beautiful!" I went on reading this reproach to a traveler–just the reading of it made me feel homesick–and every few stanzas Borges exclaimed how perfect a particular phrase was. He was quite in awe of these English compounds. Such locutions were impossible in Spanish. A simple poetic phrase such as "world-weary flesh" must be rendered in Spanish as "this flesh made weary by the world." The ambiguity and delicacy is lost in Spanish, and Borges was infuriated that he could not attempt lines like Kipling's.
Borges said, "Now for my next favorite, 'The Ballad of East and West.'"
There proved to be even more interruption fodder in this ballad than there had been in "The Harp Song," but though it had never been one of my favorites, Borges drew my attention to the good lines, chimed in on several couplets, and continued to say, "You can't do that in Spanish."
"Read me another one," he said.
"How about 'The Way Through the Woods'?" I said, and read it and got goose pimples.
Borges said, "It's like Hardy. Hardy was a great poet, but I can't read his novels. He should have stuck to poetry."
"He did, in the end. He gave up writing novels."
"He should never have started," said Borges. "Want to see something interesting?" He took me back to the shelves and showed me his Encyclopedia Britannica. It was the rare eleventh edition, not a book of facts but a work of literature. He told me to look at "India" and to examine the signature on the illustrated plates. It was that of Lockwood Kipling. "Rudyard Kipling's father–you see?"
We went on a tour through his bookshelves. He was especially proud of his copy of Johnson's Dictionary ("It was sent to me from Sing-Sing Prison, by an anonymous person"), his Moby Dick, his translation by Sir Richard Burton of The Thousand and One Nights. He scrabbled at the shelves and pulled out more books; he led me to his study and showed me his set of Thomas DeQuincey, his Beowulf–touching it, he began to quote–his Icelandic sagas.
"This is the best collection of Anglo-Saxon books in Buenos Aires," he said.
"If not in South America."
"Yes, I suppose so."
We went back to the parlor library. He had forgotten to show me his edition of Poe. I said that I recently read The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym.
"I was talking about Pym just last night to Bioy Casares," said Borges. Bioy Casares had been a collaborator on a sequence of stories. "The ending of that book is so strange–the dark and the light."
"And the ship with the corpses on it."
"Yes," said Borges a bit uncertainly. "I read it so long ago, before I lost my sight. It is Poe's greatest book."
"I'd be glad to read it to you."
"Come tomorrow night," said Borges. "Come at seven-thirty. You can read me some chapters of Pym and then we'll have dinner."
I got my jacket from the chair. The white cat had been chewing the sleeve. The sleeve was wet, but now the cat was asleep. It slept on its back, as if it wanted its belly scratched. Its eyes were tightly shut.