The Amber Universe
by Manuel Vicent (translated by Louis S. Bedrock), March 22, 2017
It’s possible that Borges learned from Oscar Wilde, or perhaps from Bernard Shaw, that to achieve fame, one ingenious, malevolent, surprising, paradoxical, polemical sentence that angers the official representatives of culture is sufficient.
—Throughout my life, I have been learning to be Borges —he said near the end of his life. But it’s not clear what he was referring to because he was two people: Borges the writer and Borges the speaker. It was the second incarnation, with his loose and unpredictable tongue, that made him popular, a phenomenon that occurred when he was already an old man, already deified by his adoring readers, who were captivated by the prodigious universal short story “El Aleph”, written with indisputable mastery, or by with other labyrinthine stories forged slowly, letter by letter, as if carved into ebony.
But all the fiction--books of sand, gardens of diverging paths, the gold of tigers--universal stories of infamy with their knives, shadows and mirrors, are obscured by some of the startling, cantankerous remarks by the loquacious Borges. For example, when commenting on a line by Fray Luis de León, Borges said:
—“I’ll lie my heart upon your wound” --What a strange line; it suggests a roast, doesn’t it?”
To go down in history, one sentence that is repeated later in literary circles or tertulias is enough.
Although he was antagonistic to modern technology, Borges would have been even more successful in the perverse world of Twitter with its curse of 140 characters in which his excessive praise of mediocre writers would fit—written merely to demean the more acclaimed writers that could overshadow him; his contempt for his own language—Castilian Spanish, whose spirit he dominated with absolute perfection, to the point of preferring the Quixote read in English; his sarcasm when he ridiculed Garcia Lorca, labeling him as an Andalusian poet, the one who writes of civil guards and gypsies. And so on, until he turned everything upside down.
We already knew everything about his life when suddenly Borges became the paradigm of the writer you love and hate at the same time. There have been other contradictory men and women of letters of this style, but Borges was the first among us to split the soul of his loyal readers; the one who most enthusiastically scandalized his progressive devotees with reactionary paradox.
We knew everything about his childhood in Buenos Aires, with his first trip with his family to Geneva as an adolescent in 1914; with his visit to a whorehouse, impelled by his father as a rite of initiation; of his arrival in Spain between the two world wars; of his one year stay in Mallorca; and of his first encounter in Madrid with more or less recognized writers that flirted with the avant-garde. Then he formed a friendship with Cansinos-Assens, a second-rate writer and a creature of the night; a Talmudic man devoted to the Cabala; and a man whom Borges considered his guru from the first moment.
—One of his perversities —said Borges—, consists in writing articles--and even books, in which he lavishes praise on minor authors. At that time, Ortega y Gasset was at the height of his fame but Cansinos didn’t take him seriously and spoke badly about him: he would say that he was a bad philosopher and a terrible writer. I owe many things to him, among which is his capacity to transmit his love for literature to me.
It also appears that Cansino-Assens transmitted to Borges the art of scandal. Cansino-Assens served as the dictator of the nightly tertulia at the café Comericial and passed himself off as an expert in ten languages which enabled him to translate A Thousand and One Nights directly from Arabic, Dostoevsky from Russian, Goethe from German, Marco Aurelio from Greek and Latin, and De Quincey from English.
But some would claim that actually he only knew French from which he exploited his skills as a translator of Barbusse to attack other languages. By the same token, some skeptics also doubt Borges’ extensive reading. Might not such a stockpile of arcane wisdom from impossible books that he never read be due to the prodigious imagination of a blind man?
The Borges family returned to Buenos Aires with the young writer imbued with ultraísmo—a revolutionary poetic movement of the 1920s (imagists, surrealists, etc): an avant-garde that went nowhere.
Over time, Borges was maturing to the point of becoming the writer who was the guardian of all the labyrinths and the poet of verses of mathematical exactness; who watched as before his eyes the universe acquired the amber color of blindness.
Later, he was that gentleman of double-breasted suits who was repelled by the popular vulgarity of Peronism; who was the friend of writer Bioy Casares and who was tutored by Victoria Ocampo; who would sit in the restaurant La Biela or in lounge of the Hotel Alvear, where ranchers gathered decked out in ties.
In his final years, when he had already written admirable and almost secret short stories, he transformed into Borges the speaker, who arrived in Spain in the sixties with the intention of breaking as much china as possible:
—A dictatorship doesn’t appear reprehensible to me. To the naked eye, it appears that limiting freedom is bad; but freedom lends itself to so many abuses. There are freedoms that constitute a kind of abuse. I always thought that democracy was a form of chaos filled with ballot boxes—a curious abuse of statistics.
These were hurtful opinions spoken at a time when his progressive readers were fighting for freedom in that country; and these, in turn, contrasted with lavish judgements, sentences that were always paradoxical and full of nonsense; however, this game lost its charm when his refined readers discovered that he supported through his silence the coup by the Argentinian military and the regime of Pinochet.
—How do we deal with this man? Do we admire him or hate him? —his bewildered readers asked themselves—. Is he a genius or an imposter?
—Not awarding me the Nobel Prize has become a Swedish custom; since I was born (24 August 1899) they have not awarded it to me.
Those who loved him believed the same thing. Not awarding him the Nobel meant conceding it to him every year by omission. But beyond good or evil, where great literature mixes with cynicism, there will forever reign Borges. Even those condemned to hate him believe this.