As a teenager, and on into my twenties, I developed a real affinity for existential philosophy, and really enjoyed reading the works of Kafka, Alain Robbe-Gruillet, Satre, Camus, Samuel Beckett and others. Though these writings aren’t what you might call “easy reading”, they appealed to this somewhat narcissistic, isolated youth who already felt as if he didn’t really belong anywhere.
One author that I never encountered as part of that group was the Argentinian writer and translator Jorge Luis Borges, and it wasn’t until I stumbled across a collection of his work that I even heard of him.
Borges the Translator
Borges was a translator into Argentinian of popular Western works. I get the sense that this work must not have challenged him very much, since he didn’t exactly stick to the material he had been given. I am told that he sometimes introduces new text, plot lines and even entirely new characters.
I know what you’re thinking, “that is a betrayal of what it means to translate” … and perhaps you would be right.
But perhaps there’s another view.
I’ve often thought that the work of a translator is an act of co-creation, not merely one of replacing one word for another. What got me thinking along these lines is when I heard that people signing for the deaf are called “interpreters”, not “translators”, since they are interpreting words into something else - thoughts or phrases that can be understood in a different medium.
Was Borges trying to force this point? Or was he just being facetious, taking liberties because he knew his audience would be none the wiser. I guess we may never know.
Borges the Writer
When he came into his own as a writer, Borges’ tales can verge on the kind of creepiness HP Lovecraft fans would adore; tales of vast, hidden cultures with special knowledge in dense jungle lands, of unintelligible worlds existing just beyond our own.
As an example of this type of story, “The Garden of Forking Paths”, takes a somewhat paranoid narrator trying to escape a determined killer by finding some hidden garden through which he can escape, only to find that the killer knows the maze better than he knows it himself, and so the narrator cannot escape the inevitable.
But what I really love is Borges’ ability to get me to question my own world view: more often than not, his mostly short, single page or two-chapter stories end with a plot twist sure to cut you to the quick; quite often playing tricks with the role of narrator to spin your interpretation of the story completely on its heels.
My absolute favourite of these stories is “Borges and I”, the last story in the compendium I own. I’ll reproduce the entire delicious text here by way of a conclusion.
I argue that Borges should not so readily be ignored, and be much less eagerly forgotten as he seems to be today. Instead I think he should be considered as among the core group of existentialist writers that I mentioned at the start of this article. I’d love to see more people recognise this talented, mischevious and thought-provoking artist for what he was, a true original among his contemporary 20th century authors.
Borges and I
It’s to that other one, to Borges, that things happen. I walk through Buenos Aires and I pause, one could say mechanically, to gaze at a vestibule’s arch and its inner door; of Borges I receive news in the mail and I see his name in a list of professors or in some biographical dictionary. I like hourglasses, maps, eighteenth-century typefaces, etymologies, the taste of coffee and the prose of Stevenson; the other shares these preferences, but in a vain kind of way that turns them into an actor’s attributes. It would be an exaggeration to claim that our relationship is hostile; I live, I let myself live so that Borges may write his literature, and this literature justifies me. It poses no great difficulty for me to admit that he has put together some decent passages, yet these passages cannot save me, perhaps because whatsoever is good does not belong to anyone, not even to the other, but to language and tradition. In any case, I am destined to lose all that I am, definitively, and only fleeting moments of myself will be able to live on in the other. Little by little, I continue ceding to him everything, even though I am aware of his perverse tendency to falsify and magnify.
Spinoza understood that all things strive to persevere being; the stone wishes to be eternally a stone and the tiger a tiger. I will endure in Borges, not in myself (if it is that I am someone), but I recognise myself less in his books than in those of many others, or in the well-worn strum of a guitar. Years ago I tried to free myself from him by moving on from the mythologies of the slums to games with time and infinity, but those games are now Borges’ and I will have to conceive of other things. Thus my life is a running away and I lose everything and everything is turned over to oblivion, or to the other.
I do not know which of the two is writing this piece.