CONJUNCTIONS: A Web Exclusive
The Other Borges: A Fiction
The encounter I will describe here occurred in the Buenos Aires mid-winter of 2004; it has taken me until now to muster the courage to recount it and to conclude, as the gentleman involved insisted, that it contains a story that must be told.
It was a rainy afternoon1 and I was sitting at a small square table in La Ideal, one of the few confiterias in Buenos Aires that has not been remodeled to attract tourists. I was at my favorite table, in the center section of the expansive room, near one of the large marble columns.
I am drawn to La Ideal for the very reasons that keep tourists at bay. It has seen finer days. The brass and glass chandeliers are dusty, some of the elaborate moldings are cracked or missing, the crimson tablecloths have the occasional hole, and the display cases near the front door, once filled with trays of freshly prepared pastries and candies, are now mostly empty. Outside the front door stands a decrepit sandwich board covered with fading photographs of the daily lunch specials.
The place was almost empty, as the lunch crowd had dwindled and the tea crowd had yet to arrive. Only three other tables were occupied and the ancient waiters sat reading newspapers at a table in the corner or leaned against the counter at the far end of the room.2
I had been there for more than an hour (working on an early draft of this story in fact)3 when someone bumped into the corner of my table. The spoon clinked against my cup and coffee sloshed into the saucer.
I looked up to find an elderly gentleman, perhaps in his eighties, looking down at me, the corner of the table still pressed into his left thigh. He wore a black overcoat, white shirt, a silver and black striped tie, a dark gray jacket, and suit pants. His thinning silver hair was combed straight back from his high forehead, the comb marks still visible on the sides of his head.
Although he had a placid face, his crystalline blue eyes seemed on the verge of tears. He pulled out the chair opposite me and sat down.
“Your sister was born during a hurricane.” He spoke English with a hoarse voice and a slight accent.
“Excuse me? I’m sorry?”
“I said your sister was born during a hurricane.”
I glanced around the room for a hidden camera and a laughing friend, but no one was looking at us. The couple at the nearest table went on with their conversation and the waiters continued to read and lean.
“Your sister Judy was born in Texas on the third day of September, 1961.”
I chuckled uncomfortably. “Yes, sir, you are right, she was, but how …?”
He ignored me and continued.
“We almost died in that hurricane. It is a coincidence worthy of poetry, don’t you think? As your mother was giving birth to your sister, my mother and I were near death in the sky. We were flying to Texas on that very day and the plane almost crashed.”
A mixture of curiosity, confusion, and embarrassment kept me frozen and silent in my seat. He looked directly into my eyes and continued.
“My name is Jorge Luis Borges.”
I knew the impossibility of what he said. I thought that perhaps the old man was demented. Borges was dead, buried in Geneva, if I recalled correctly what I had only recently read. And Borges was blind, yet this man appeared to have sight.
He shook his overcoat off his shoulders, pulled the tail of it from under himself and folded it across his lap. He leaned toward me across the table and lowered his voice.4
“I want to tell you a story and you must promise that you will not only listen carefully to what I have to say but that you will repeat what I tell you.”
My habitual deference to the elderly prevented me from pushing for an explanation and thus my passivity provided tacit consent for him to continue. I also hoped that if he remained I might have an opportunity to ask him again how he knew of the story of my sister’s birth.5
He rested his forearms on the edge of the table and laced his fingers together in front of him. He lengthened his spine and pushed back his shoulders. He was twenty years younger and full of life. His eyes were wise yet gleeful. He looked like a brilliant young professor preparing to begin a lecture to a group of eager students.
“I want to speak to you in English for two reasons. It seems appropriate that the language in which I first heard stories told should be the language in which I tell my own final tale and, quite frankly, I cannot bring myself to speak the words necessary to tell the story in the language of my native country.
“Before I begin I must also insist that you understand the subtleties of my identity. I am Jorge Luis Borges, but I am not the Borges you may already know. I am not the one who feebly felt his way along these boyhood streets. Time and the memories of others have changed me. I am more like Hamlet’s father, but returning to admit to suicide, not to ask for vengeance.
“I am the author of the books whose titles you are trying to recall at this very moment, but I am also, as self-identity is an impossible challenge, even for the living, the other Borges. But I am not an imposter, for I am impersonating a man who never existed.
“The world knows another Borges. I have at last become the Borges I never allowed myself to be. I am now the one I wished I could have been, the one I imagined myself to be, the one who had all the things I desired, all the things denied to me by others, and those I denied myself. I am the Borges for whom actions and self-understanding are one. I am finally honest, but still a coward.”
“Do you know the Borges story ‘The Other’?”
I was embarrassed to admit I did not. (I do now.)
“That is fine.”
He paused, lifted the sweating stainless steel pitcher on the table, poured himself a glass of water into my unused glass, and took a drink.
“I once thought, and wrote, that there were two Walt Whitmans. The Whitman who breathed and the Whitman who spoke in the poems of Leaves of Grass. I believed that Whitman wrote his poems as mere projections, the realization of desires he only dreamed of fulfilling. Because I could not imagine fulfilling my own desires, and writing about them, I couldn’t imagine Whitman doing the same. This was a failure of my imagination. I now know that there were at least four Whitmans. The Whitman of living breath, the Whitman of the poems, the Whitman known to Whitman alone, and the Whitman of memory (that conjured by the memories of others, biographers and scholars). The same is true for Jorge Luis Borges.”
He looked over my shoulder and into the distance. His expression suddenly changed, as if he had remembered a name he had been trying to recall for weeks. He reached for my pen, removed the cap that I had studiously replaced when he first began to speak, unfolded one of the small paper napkins, and wrote a note. From my position across the table I could not read what he had written.
Returning his gaze to my eyes, he spoke again.
“I continue to revise my work. I work to reconcile the Jorge Luis Borges of the work, the Borges who drew breath, the Borges of biographers and memory, and the Borges known only to me. Each day I find more in my work and life to revise. I fear that as time passes I might have to disavow my entire corpus.
“My past dishonesty, or at least silence, threatens to obliterate my identity. I no longer recognize myself. My imagination has failed again. I have lost the ability to imagine something I actually experienced. This failure of imagination has created a lacuna that continues to grow. I am afraid it will swallow me whole. I want the story I tell to fill that void.
“Yet insisting on the reality of my story is contradictory to everything I believe. There are no intellectual certainties. All we have are our felt experiences. What our bodies tell us are real. Memory fails but the body remembers.”6
He now took a small stack of napkins from their metal holder and placed them on the table in front of him. He unfolded the top napkin and wrote another note. I again tried to see what he was writing. He blocked my view with the back of his hand.
“My present situation is the mirror opposite of that described in the Borges story ‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis, Tertius.’ Do you know the story?”
I shook my head and he sighed at my ignorance. (I know it now.)
“Persistent denial of the actual can retroactively mean something did not happen as easily as the insistence on the reality of something that never occurred can make something appear to have been real. A conspiracy of current denial can work to obliterate an experienced fact.”
Taking another napkin from the stack, he wrote another note, then continued.
“Despite my best efforts at repression I apparently left clues behind. Yet no one believes them when they are found. Despite my obfuscation, this story found its way into the thoughts of men in Paris and women in Santiago, into private conversations over cooling cups of coffee at scholarly conferences in Prague and Taipei. Perhaps my efforts here are futile as well, for a single grain of sand cannot turn back a crashing wave.”
I looked into his eyes and noticed for the first time that his right eye was slightly closed as if half asleep and his left eye was open wide, as if in shock. Neither eye appeared at home and both seemed to mourn the loss of their intended faces.
He may have sensed my confusion. He then asked, “Can you imagine the difference if Hamlet’s father had returned as a ghost to confess suicide, rather than ask for vengeance?”
He paused to write another note, this time filling two napkins with his careful script. He sighed.
He leaned back in his seat and shrank before me. The mien of the confident professor faded and was replaced by the countenance of a frightened boy. He finally told his story as a man pursued, the way a witness reveals an important clue to a detective in a police novel only to be gunned down outside the coffee shop where it was told.
After such a lengthy prologue the story itself, at least in its length if not its import, was a disappointment. For when he finally related the story it was a statement of fact, rather than a tale. A revelation, not a narrative.7
The story was simple. It only requires a single sentence to tell.
Jorge Luis Borges loved Adolfo Bioy Casares.8
Or perhaps two sentences.
For Adolfo Bioy Casares also loved Jorge Luis Borges.9
He was adamant that this was not a Platonic ideal. Their love was a physical matter. He said that the details of their lovemaking were unimportant in direct proportion to the importance of their actuality. The when and where and why were of no consequence.10
Having told the story, he sighed, and wrote another note. He stared at what he had written, shook his head and sat silently before me.11
Not understanding fully the significance of what he had just revealed and not wanting to provoke his return to the vulnerability I saw associated with this truth, I asked him what I hoped were distracting questions. I asked him how, if he was Jorge Luis Borges, he could explain his presence before me. He said he could not. I asked him how he knew of the details of my sister’s birth. His speaking voice changed slightly, became more casual, and he said, “You know how things are these days. If you dig deep enough you can find out almost anything about almost anyone, even if it isn’t true.” And he dismissed as trivial my enquiries about his sight.
Then I asked him about his widow. He responded by speaking about his mother. With a tone I have just now decided to describe as matricidal resentment, he said that the only time during his life that he was able to put his mother completely out of his mind was when his body was against the body of Adolfo Bioy Casares, the other Bioy Casares, companion to the other Borges—the one he knew, not the one known now.12
He then quickly changed the subject.
He said that he had an idea for a story, a story he had never had the time to write, that he would give to me as a gift. He asked me to write it and publish it as my own. (Perhaps I will someday.) It is the story of a man who makes a fortune producing unauthorized copies of a book detailing the rituals and secrets of a global fraternal organization. The first rule of the secret book obligates members to purchase, and thereby remove from circulation, any copies of the book that find their way into the public marketplace. The man’s fortune was made by printing copies of the book in all the world’s languages and selling them through antiquarian booksellers around the world via the Internet.13
He disappeared as quickly as he arrived. After carefully stacking the napkins he then folded them in half and placed them in front of me on top of my opened notebook on the table. He rested his hand over them for just a moment. I knew he did not want me to read them until he had gone.
We did not shake hands or say goodbye. He simply stood, pushed the chair back under the table opposite me, walked past the display cases, and disappeared through the huge wood and glass doors.
I unfolded and read the napkins. (I kept them and have them here with me now.)
Having fulfilled the first part of my double obligation, to listen, I sat in Horatio’s stunned silence. I tried for more than a year to forget this story, to attribute it to an overly vivid imagination or an encounter with an insane man.14 But the force of promise persists. I have been haunted by the obligation of knowing.
But now I have told it, fulfilled the second part of my obligation, and returned here to sit in the exact spot in La Ideal, to complete the story that I began more than a year ago.
The notes, written in Spanish, were quotations from the stories of Jorge Luis Borges. I have since located the exact passages. The changes are his and appear as they did on the napkins.
“ … la historia que registraré es
“ … the story I am about to tell is
“El hombre de
“Si Whitman la ha cantado es porque la deseaba y
“If Whitman sang of that night it’s because he desired it
“Oh noches, oh compartida y tibia tiniebla, oh el amor que fluye en la sombra como un río, oh secreto, oh aquel momento de la dicha en que cada uno es los dos, oh la inocencia y el candor de la dicha, oh la unión en la que nos perdíamos para perdernos luego en el sueño, oh las primeras claridades del día y yo contemplándo
“Oh night, oh shared warm darkness, oh love that flows in shadow like a secret river, oh that moment of joy in which two are one, oh innocence and openness of delight, oh the union into which we entered, only to lose ourselves afterward in sleep, oh the first soft lights of day, and myself contemplating
“Afirmar que es verídico es ahora una convención de todo relato fantástico; el mío, sin embargo, es verídico.”
“To say that the story is true is by now a convention of every fantastic tale; mine, nevertheless, is true.”
1I found my calendar from last year and determined that the exact date was 14 July 2004. I have since realized the date’s significance. It was the anniversary of his death.
2Despite its shabbiness La Ideal could still cast a spell. A young man who ducked inside innocently for a quick lunch with his officemates might find himself depressed the entire afternoon after recalling how, when he was a little boy, he stood outside La Ideal’s doors with his abusive father and waited for his mother who was inside celebrating a reunion with her high school classmates. How could she have known at the time that she would die that year? Or an older woman while waiting for friends for coffee after work might find herself crying at her table against the wood paneling of the right-hand wall. She simply recalled how when she was nineteen years old she refused the kind offer from a gentleman she had just met on the flight from London to join him on his friends’ yacht from Valencia to Alicante. She instead took the slow train through the orange and olive groves and had since lived a life of regret.
3In the story I constructed, with deft simplicity, a plot that would secure the interest of any Argentine editor, inflame the Argentine public, in short, cause a scandal, and thus ensure that I would be “noticed” as a new, expatriate American voice in the world of Argentine letters. I wanted editors to commission immediate translations of my work and offer me a contract for first reading rights for any of my subsequent work. I wanted to write a story that would cause a scandal, make news, prompt me to be interviewed on television or at least for the major newspapers. Little did I know at the time that the economic crisis of January 2001 had all but destroyed the few serious publications in which one could publish literary fiction.
4In the awkward seconds before he continued to speak I recalled a story I published in The New Yorker. I fictionalized an incident that had happened to me years before in Minneapolis when I asked an old lady at a bus stop if she knew what time it was. She responded by pulling out a plastic bag filled with wrist watches and began to read the time from each one, saying “This one says one o’clock, this one says three-fifteen, this one has no hands, this one says a quarter to nine … ” In that story I likened my inability to move or speak to the frozen moment when confronted by a man wielding a knife on a dark street corner. And at that moment, both in the short story and in reality, as now, I simply thanked her and stood silently until our bus arrived.
5Had I been writing this encounter as a short story I might have had him justify the connection between us by knowing that I speak English, that I am an American literature professor and that I have recently been reading the work of Argentine writers—Jorge Luis Borges, Silvina Ocampo, Pablo Perez, and Copi among them. Given the opportunity, I might have written words for him with which he would say, “I know many things about you. You are a professor of American literature and you escaped the noose of tenure to come to Buenos Aires to write. You are an expert on the life and work of a novelist in that broad second tier of American writers, one of Faulkner’s daughters as she is known, and that most of your academic work is biographical, that soft scholarship that is out of favor in the American academy. As well, I have chosen you for that other reason, that we both know, and therefore I do not need to mention.” That he should begin our conversation by saying that my sister was born during a hurricane was even more spectacular because this story, strictly speaking, was a lie. A lie I have often repeated. A lie I learned from my mother who often told it herself. Hurricane Carla was in the Gulf of Mexico when my sister was born, and did, as I have since confirmed, interfere with Jorge Luis Borges’s flight to Texas, but the storm did not reach the coast of Texas until days after my sister’s birth.
6I wasn’t following his rhetoric but I hoped that his revelation would provide some clarity to this extended, and at times confusing and contradictory, discourse on his identity.
7He asked me not to construct an artful story from his tale, not to impose another veneer of fiction over this truth. He also asked me not to quote him in telling the story itself. He felt it appropriate for it to be paraphrased, for as he said, “Like the original versions of stories, those retold are also fabrications.” I felt, when he asked me to perform this rhetorical box step, that he was attempting to provide himself with plausible deniability; to preserve his right to disavow, should he need to at some point in the future, having told me the story. I also knew that without his own words he was perhaps providing me with an out as well.
8Adolfo Bioy Casares (15 September 1914–8 March 1999), Argentine fiction writer. Long-time collaborator and friend of Jorge Luis Borges, with whom he published a series of detective novels using the pseudonym H. Bustos Domecq. A wealthy sportsman and bon vivant, Casares fathered at least two children out of wedlock. Casares married the wealthy Argentine heiress and writer Silvina Ocampo in 1940.
9Although my knowledge of Borges was limited, I had been in Argentina long enough to do a bit of reading of the country’s most important writer. This revelation regarding his sexuality came to me more as a confirmation than a revelation, for as I read Borges’s work and biography I was always struck by what I would describe inelegantly as a “queer” vibe from his life and texts. Beyond the stereotypes of the gay man that he represented (the momma’s boy, unmarried until very late in life), I had a sense of recognition of what might be described as a queer aesthetic in his work—the literary equivalent of cruising down a city street and exchanging a knowing glance with another gay man. In addition, my friends in Argentina all pointed me to Borges’s essay “Our Impossibilities,” in which Borges laments the feeling of superiority that anal sex engenders in the active partner and how, among his countrymen, this relationship is seen as a form of domination.
10He did recall however that he held his breath in fear the entire afternoon after the first time they made love and that he tried to write a poem that night. The central idea of the poem was that the force of their newfound passion reversed the flow of the River Plate and flooded its delta.
11To be frank I hoped that what he said was true. I also immediately understood the abuse I risked if I, as he already requested, repeated this revelation or story. Friends in Argentina, with whom I have since spoken about this encounter, have counseled me not to fulfill this Borges’s wish. They said that I risked being expelled from the country and becoming the target of hatred should I suggest that Borges had had a sexual relationship with Bioy Casares, or, as they almost all said, “say what everyone suspected of Borges (but not of Casares) yet couldn’t or wouldn’t admit.”
12I asked about proof. He assured me that my effort to find proof of what he said would prove futile. His word and my words would have to suffice. He said that his own efforts, along with those of editors and censors, the ashes of burned papers, the torn scraps of destroyed letters and appointment books, prevented confirmation of their times together. And he said “In Whitman’s case the memory of courageous ecstasy from cool windswept nights on the Long Island seashore was later warmed by the flames of burning letters and journals on a hearth in Camden, New Jersey.”
13He also said that he saw the Internet as the final realization of his imagined infinite library and that, were he still at work creating fiction, he would write stories about consciousness lost in the “web.” He emphasized the word “web” and noted with joy that the word web is used to describe the Internet. He lamented that the word “red” for network in Spanish did not carry as much significance.
14Beyond the obvious difficulties I faced in how to tell this story, I also weighed the legal implication of telling it. Would I be sued for defamation by Borges’s widow or Casares’s descendants?