My first perception of Borges is Borges himself. In other words: I see Borges. Let me explain. I must be nine or ten and I’m walking my uncle, who’s in his twenties, along the pedestrian Calle Florida in Buenos Aires. I say that I’m walking my uncle because my uncle is blind. My uncle hoped to become a great painter. During his adolescence he’d won important scholarships and prizes, but he went blind from juvenile diabetes, and at this point – he doesn’t know it, but he senses it – he has two or three or four years left to live. So we’re walking and suddenly someone says, ‘There’s Borges,’ and I look and I see Borges and I say to my uncle, ‘There’s Borges.’ Borges is coming toward us and he, too, is on the arm of a friend or a fan and then my blind uncle – who was the humorous type, wickedly funny – shouts ‘Borges! How are you? You look great.’ And Borges turns his unseeing gaze on the precise spot from which the voice of my blind uncle issues and reaches him and the two of them look at each other without seeing each other, and there I am, in between, unable to believe what I’m seeing.
At the time, I hadn’t read Borges, but, like most Argentinians, I knew perfectly well who Borges was. It was easy to run into him on the street, near the Plaza San Martín. Borges was a constant presence on television, where he was the subject of many long interviews, often around the date of the Nobel Prize ceremony, and even on sketch comedy shows where the comedians imitated Borges because Borges was inimitable and unique. What did his imitators respectfully poke fun at? His voice, his manner of speaking, his haughty modesty, his almost psychotic erudition, and the polite but pointed way that he was always undermining his interlocutors. I also knew who Borges was because my father – a graphic designer who had already done a book based on the story ‘House Taken Over’ by Julio Cortázar – was at the time putting together another book whose title was Bio-autobiografía de Jorge Luis Borges and whose premise was decidedly Borgesian. What my father had done was to clip and shuffle many passages from the short story collection A Universal History of Infamy and – with plenty of graphic material on the writer and his times – ‘assemble’ a biography of Borges that didn’t depart from reality but at the same time reshaped it and rewrote it, without changing a thing. So my house was full of photographs of Borges. They were everywhere. Cut-and-paste Borges, and, if I remember right, more than once I cut out little Borgeses for my father. Borges trading cards, to fill an album. Borges, when he found out about the project, sent my father a message. ‘Infamy isn’t me,’ my father said Borges said.
A few years later, far from Calle Florida, with no chance of seeing Borges again for a long time, in Caracas, Venezuela, a fugitive along with my parents, I read my first book by Borges.
The first book by Borges that I read was A Universal History of Infamy. In the Alianza Editorial paperback edition with a magnificent cover by the underappreciated but forever brilliant Daniel Gil. I remember the cover. A blurred and sketchy face upon which floats a glass eye in an allusion to the story ‘Hakim, the Masked Dyer of Merv’. I like to think that I read that Borges and every other Borges in the Alianza collection in the same way that Borges read the Thousand and One Nights, Stevenson, Chesterton, Poe, and Wells. In other words: that I read Borges as if he were a children’s book writer, in the noblest sense of the term, as a formative and foundational writer, as a spinner of perfect yarns, as one of those storytellers who open the door for us to play in other books, and – I’ve said this many times – it never exactly surprises me but always makes me happy, the way books open like doors. Maybe because of that – and here comes a confession that many will consider scandalous – I never went back to read Borges. It isn’t that I never read him. I reread a few stories several times, I looked up an exact quote, I made sure to read the few new books that came out over the years and that ceased with the almost-end of my adolescence (which, say what you like, stretches to the age of twenty-nine).
Borges had said ‘when I was young I always wanted to be invisible,’ and I – just twenty-one, suddenly of age, legal – aspired to the most pious invisibility of wanting to become a writer. I got along very badly with my then-girlfriend. My then-girlfriend – who isn’t my wife now, in case you were wondering – was always telling me that she ‘couldn’t see me’. In other words, I was ‘invisible’ to her. And we fought a lot, too much. And I was invisible, but I hadn’t lost physical substance. And that was how my real collision with literature came about: one day my girlfriend slapped me in the street and went running. It was our 500th fight. She slapped me and went running down the passageways of the Galería del Este and I went running after her, along Calle Maipú. I had to catch up with her so we could start fight number 501. Upon turning a corner (my girlfriend ran fast, she was already a long way ahead; she belonged to a gym, did aerobics, was in much better shape than me) I barreled into a lightweight old man. The man flew through the air, clutching his stick and uttering choked little cries. He fell face up and then I discovered that the man was Borges and that I, maybe, had killed Borges.
Was this the most significant moment of my life so far? Who knew if this collision with great literature would be the trigger of other stories, or the Fukuyama-esque end of my history as a writer – because what would be the point of writing anything if I went down in history as the person who killed Borges? Luckily for me, Borges was alive. I saw Borges, on his back, the stick across his chest, opening and closing his mouth like one of those canaries sent down into the bowels of coal mines to detect a lack of oxygen. It was poetic justice, I think: the plot that brought together two invisible men who managed to meet, and, upon not seeing each other, collide. That was my great run-in with literature and it bothers me a little not to be able to remember – no matter how hard I try – whether I helped him up or not. I don’t think I did. And enough of this story, because I’ve told it so many times. Because by now it’s like the ace in my sleeve or the king in the collar of a stand-up comedian who, to top it all off, hasn’t even bothered to reread Borges.
And it was very easy for me not to reread Borges because – for complex reasons that are beside the point – I was deprived of the academic obligation to return to him. This means, too, that I didn’t receive the order to read the many essays on Borges that take his name in vain, the countless and often demented theories that ascribe absolutely everything or nothing to him; and that – when I sat down to read about Borges – I did it not out of a need to take him apart and later reconstruct him before a panel of examiners, or for an inevitable theoretical plan for how to proceed with my work, but for the pure pleasure of enjoying a great character.
And at this point I also come to the key of my very personal (some wouldn’t hesitate to call it ‘primal’ or ‘savant’) relationship with Borges. I remember, too, the personal Big Bang I experienced when, on a tropical morning, probably rainy (one always remembers oneself reading while it’s raining), I first read that brief page from The Maker titled ‘Borges and Me’, in which Borges, for the first but not the last time, shows himself to be so definitively Borgesian and blurs the line between author and character and – at least so it seemed to me – also muddles the identity of the reader. Because if in it Borges confesses ‘I don’t know which of the two of us is writing this page,’ then how could one be sure that a spore of Borges wouldn’t detach itself from the paper and infect the reader and – a second ‘and me’ – that the reader wouldn’t suddenly also be Borges? The person to whom things happen or who writes them down or both? It doesn’t matter. What I felt then was that not only could one make a living from literature but one could live literature, and literature could live in and off the writer. Because, Borges, for me, always is and will be the Great Writer who understands writers as great characters and as great readers. Borges as the Reader-Writer, who, in my view, with his manner of being, defines a hypothetical and elusive Argentinian literary tradition. This is a tradition that passes for the idea of the betrayal of tradition – roots that don’t burrow into soil but into the wall against which the books are shelved. The wall that throbs with the cosmic virus of the silent and slow but constant invasion from Tlön. The wall that houses the genius of a librarian, blind and polymorphic and perverse, who recommends so many things all at once and who’s convinced that salvation and paradise will always live inside a book. Inside a book that contains the whole universe.
Photograph © Sara Facio