Just had to share this with those of you who participated in and/or otherwise remember the Jorge Luis Borges group reads we did last year and those who, like Amateur Reader, Roberto Bolaño and me, profess more than a passing interest in the "extraordinary riches" of Argentinean literature. So I was reading Ernesto Sabato's 1961 Sobre héroes y tumbas [On Heroes and Tombs, here translated by Helen R. Lane in what I believe is an out of print 1981 edition put out by David R. Godine] the other day when the following previously nondescript Buenos Aires description really grabbed my attention:
They were walking down the Calle Perú; grabbing Martín by the arm, Bruno pointed a man out to him who was walking in front of them, leaning on a cane.
Now, although I had read somewhere that Borges made a cameo in the novel, I had somehow managed to forget that was coming by the time I got to this point almost a couple of hundred pages in. What followed was classic, though, and worth the wait for the increasingly unflattering portrait of Borges that initially emerges:
When they drew closer, Bruno said hello to him. Martín found himself shaking a tiny hand, with scarcely any bones or strength in it. The features of the man's face seemed to have been sketched in and then to have been half rubbed out with an eraser. Borges mumbled something, acknowledging the introduction.
"Martín's a friend of Alejandra Vidal Olmos's," Bruno said.
"Caramba, caramba...Alejandra...that's fine."
He raised his eyebrows, observed Martín with watery blue eyes and an abstract cordiality addressed to no one in particular, his mind obviously elsewhere.
Bruno asked him what he was writing.
"Well, caramba...," he mumbled, smiling a half-guilty, half-wicked smile, with that air that Argentine peasants assume, an air of modest irony, a mixture of secret arrogance and apparent diffidence, every time someone admires one of their horses or their ability to do fine leatherwork. "Caramba...well, in a word...trying to write a page or two that's something more than a scribble, eh, eh?..."
And he mumbled something else, accompanied by a series of clownish facial tics.
And as they walked on toward Rinaldini's, Bruno imagined Méndez saying sarcastically: A lecturer for snooty women's clubs! But everything was much more complicated than Méndez thought (171).
Sabato's apparent comedic malevolence aside, what makes these details so delicious to me--so Argentinean, if you will, within the context of Argentinean literature as a whole--is that this unexpected description of a chance encounter with Borges then segueways into a discussion of what Argentine identity and letters are all about. Introducing Borges as a character isn't a cheap stunt or a sideshow act:
"They say he's not very Argentine," Martín ventured to remark.
"What else could he be but Argentine? He's a typical national product. Even his so-called Europeanism is national. A European is not Europeanist: he's simply European."
"Do you think he's a great writer?"
Bruno pondered the question for some time.
"I don't know. What I'm certain of is that his prose is the most remarkable of any being written in Spanish today. But his style is too precious for him to be a great writer. Can you imagine Tolstoy trying to dazzle his readers with an adverb when it's the question of the life or death of one of his characters? But not everything in Borges's works is Byzantine: far from it. There's something Argentine in his best things: a certain nostalgia, a certain metaphysical sadness..."
He walked along in silence for a time.
"The fact is that people say all sorts of ridiculous things about what Argentine literature ought to be. The important thing is for it to be profound. All the rest is just an added fillip. And if it isn't profound it's useless to introduce gauchos or colorful picaresque rascals into the picture. The most representative writer in Elizabethan England was Shakespeare. Yet many of his works don't even have an English setting" (172).
After a pause in which Bruno makes fun of those who would deny Argentina's European roots and yet touches on the situation in which Latin Americans find themselves to be the inhabitants of a "different, violent continent," the discussion of Borges opens the door for a rant on the notion of originality in literature. Love this talky book stuff:
"So critics want total and absolute originality, do they? Such a thing doesn't exist. Neither in art nor in anything else. Everything is built on what has gone before. Nothing that is human is perfectly pure and pristine. The Greek gods too were hybrids and were infected (so to speak) with Oriental and Egyptian religions. There's a little passage in The Mill on the Floss in which a woman tries on a hat in front of a mirror: and it's Proust. What I mean to say is, it's the seed of Proust. All the rest is simply a process of development. One touched with genius, cancerous almost, but in the final analysis simply a process of development. The same thing is true of one of Melville's stories, called Bertleby or Bartleby or something like that. When I read it I was impressed by its Kafkaesque atmosphere. And that's the way it always is. We're Argentines, for example, even when we reject our own country, as Borges frequently does. Especially when he repudiates it with real fury, the way Unamuno repudiates Spain; the way violent atheists put bombs in a church, that being their way of believing in God. The true atheists are those who are indifferent, those who are cynics. And what we might call an atheistic attitude toward this native land of ours is to be found among cosmopolitans, individuals who live no differently here than they would in Paris or London--they live in a country as though it were a hotel. But let's be fair: Borges is not one of them. I think that in a certain way his heart aches for his country, despite the fact that he doesn't have the sensitivity or the generosity, of course, for it to ache for his country the way the heart of a day laborer in the fields or a worker in a meat-freezing plant does. And that explains his lack of grandeur, his inability to understand and feel the whole of the country, including all its deep-rooted, complex rottenness. When we read Dickens or Faulkner or Tolstoy on the other hand we feel that total understanding of the human soul" (173).
One brief Roberto Arlt commentary, another extended Borges discussion, and about fifty pages later, young protagonist Martín will feel the full brunt of the complex rottenness of the country when he's a witness to the carnage of the 1955 aerial bombardment of the Plaza de Mayo. Can't wait to get back to the rest of Sobre héroes y tumbas which, despite some ups and downs from a tonal standpoint, is giving me the sense that Sabato's playing for keeps. Not bad for a back-up book, eh, eh?