Being blind and a poet is half way to Homer. If in addition, the blind poet is Argentinian, the path can't be very long. It isn't necessary to sail treacherous seas, nor follow chalky trails under a blue Argolid sun among pointy-eared goats. Anyone who calls himself Borges will find Homer on some corner of the Palermo neighborhood of Buenos Aires, enjoying a cup of tea in a candy store.
But it's not clear that Borges was really blind. Although his paternal grandmother died blind, his great grandfather died blind, and his father also wound up blind, it's possible that the blindness of the writer was merely the most famous of his metaphors. In any case, Borges confessed that his favorite color was amber-yellow, the only color that appeared on an imaginary horizon; the same color that shimmers above the infinite sands of the desert.
At a crossroads, Borges invoked chance, threw the amber dice onto the sand, and one of them offered him its seventh face. In it there were superimposed images of labyrinths, mirrors, tigers, and knives, all inescapable; an accumulation of metaphors: time as a river, life as fiction, death as a dream, and he himself as "the other". With this material, fate forced him to be Borges, a writer condemned to write fables without morals.
Blake had said that nothing existed if it had not been imagined.
His earliest memories were images of a saber that he used in the desert, of a cistern, of the old house, of the whistle of a night owl on the path. He was a sickly child dressed as a girl whom his mother never let out of her placenta.
Ever since his father took the adolescent Borges to a brothel in Geneva to become a man for the first time, he experienced love as a hypothetical entity that was always frustrated: "I, who have been all men, have not been the one in whose embrace Mechthild Ulbach fainted."
Although this woman was the heroine of a cheap novel, her name symbolizes the names of all the women that Borges, in love, could not win or only partially possessed. He realized, with some sadness, that he had spent his life thinking about one woman or another and they all led him to commit the greatest sin of all: He had not been happy.
Aside from that, Borges sailed all the seas, crossed all the deserts, traveled through all the cities while stranded on a sofa in the lobby of countless hotels with his hands resting on his cane, and his watery corneas directed to an indeterminate point on the wall in front of him where all the maps were concentrated.
At the summit of his creativity, Jorge Luis Borges had carved poems in ebony, had written books of sand, stories of infamy, fables that had rotted along with the paper that bore them; he had lost himself in the mist of the Norwegian sagas, had played the lottery of Babylon where the prize was always a stab in the back by a friend, or had gone down to the basement of the Library of Alexandria to share enigmas with the guardian. At that time, he was only read semi-clandestinely by a few initiates.
Fame arrived for the writer at the threshold of old age and was only due to the toxic malice and paradoxes that came out of his mouth in sinister interviews with journalists from the culture section. In the manner of a spoiled child, he would always proclaim the unexpected: whatever could surprise, irritate or amaze any neophyte.
To anger Spanish academics, he said that Castilian was a very ugly language and that he preferred English. To get on the nerves of the progressives, he claimed that Franco had been very positive for Spain. He admired Alonso Quijano more than Don Quixote and the latter less than Cervantes. He extolled the mediocre writer Cansinos Assens to get revenge on all the poets of the Generation of '27 and so on—until he created a character that was odious and at the same time admired.
The misfortune of his readers, when his name became known in the sixties of the previous century, was that hating Borges and loving him were one and the same obligation.
At times, he masqueraded as a reactionary but he was merely a conservative—a moderate liberal, whose hatred of Perón, a man who had condemned him to be a poultry inspector instead of a librarian, led him to cheer the arrival of the Argentinian military.
He believed that democracy was merely a statistic, although he boasted about having damned Hitler and Mussolini in their time while others were silent, and he ended up accepting a medal from Pinochet, an action that cost him the Nobel Prize.
One starts off by saying a mean-spirited thing as a joke and ends up falling into a ravine. From that moment on, Borges became the writer who was not awarded the Nobel Prize.
Perhaps he believed in God, perhaps not, because for Borges theology was a masterpiece of science fiction. Apart from that, although he boasted of having taken mescaline and cocaine in his youth, his persistent drug of choice was mint candy. His favorite dish was boiled hake.
When his mother died, he began to travel when he was already blind, just to smell the countries. He smelled Machu Picchu, he got to know Japan in his mind, he allowed himself to explore the streets of Paris, Texas, New York, and offered in return only his steps and the tapping of his cane.
In hotels, he allowed himself to be led by the elbow to the bathroom to give of himself, before returning to the sofa in the lobby to become the clairvoyant surrounded by yellow shadows before admirers and reporters.
In every city, there was always a woman to act as a screen between him and objects. He would have preferred to devote himself to the pleasures of metaphysics or linguistics, but in the end he gave it all up for a feminine whisper in his ear that offered a certain promise—enough to feed his imagination.
Borges lived gallant adventures through an interposed figure in the person of Bioy Casares, a devourer of women, the king of burlesque. With his friend, he shared dinner every night for thirty years with cultural gossip of high and low domain. Both men were nurtured by the great Victoria Ocampo, lord and mistress of the magazine Sur, where the fashionable intellectuals of Europe brought by her to Argentina at a high price were sheltered.
At the age of 80, he was bored of being Borges and wished to learn the dark secret of the greatest mystery of men. But at the last moment a mild doubt would surface: Why should I die if I have never done it before?
It was as if he had been told he were going to be a diver or a trainer of animals. Ultimately, he believed that his death was not permitted. He was not sure if God needed his immortality for His purposes.
But Jorge Luis Borges would die. He did so knowingly on June 14, 1986 and is buried in the cemetery of notables of Plainpalais, in Geneva, the city where he had first experienced sexual pleasure with a woman in a brothel. The ultimate metaphor.
He was afraid to continue being Borges. What does death matter if it has happened to an individual named Borges who lived in Buenos Aires in the twentieth century, so long ago? What does it matter if he were unhappy or happy if he has already been forgotten?
We are all running towards anonymity. It's just that mediocre writers reach the finish line a little earlier, he had said.
Borges’s most famous story is free on-line for anyone interested.