There are some books – and some poets – you come to when you are no longer young, but with a sort of recognition, as though they were travelling companions with whom you share a memory or two, but do not know well. The Black Heralds was such a book for me, stirring a vague awareness of something that lay just beyond my grasp or understanding.
César Vallejo (1892-1938) was a poet of utter authenticity and wholesale transgression: by which I mean he transgressed both in a spiritual and a literary sense. The former, a convoluted animism and solidarity with the oppressed peoples and creatures of the earth, and especially with the indigenous American notion of identity as being intrinsic to place, fomented the desire to practice in the latter a re-visioning of Castilian vocabulary; both tendencies which allows us to see him as an exacting and tortured example of postcolonialism long before the coining of the term. Born in a small mining town in northern Peru into a predominantly Indian family, Vallejo struggled to get an education, but did manage to complete his studies at the University of Trujillo, then supported himself as a primary school teacher while writing his first two books, Los Heraldos Negros (1918) and Trilce (1922). Robert Bly, an earlier translator of Vallejo, has called The Black Heralds “the greatest single collection of poems I have read.” That is quite a commendation. A troubadour of angst and spleen, fuming and bleeding like Verlaine, he lost his teaching job in Peru and moved to Paris, where he remained until his death in 1938, impoverished, hungry, and a committed communist.
His poetic consciousness is more complex, invert, pained and explosive than his near-contemporary, Neruda’s, and he has never been embraced by translators in the same way as the Chilean because, firstly he does not have access to the same seductive exoticism, and secondly because he is relatively difficult. Where Neruda’s metaphors (more usually similes) are astonishing and transformative, the literary equivalent, at times, of performing seals, Vallejo launches metaphor at the reader with a sense of frenzied restlessness. His habitual juggling with Castilian syntax (as though it represented the logos of Empire, and was a legitimate target for his guerrilla tactics) oddly parallels the insistence within the poetry on a pre-Columbian anima that seethes and writhes and brews its sticky alloys beneath the crisp white sheets of European hegemony. Rebecca Seiferle suggests that in the poetry Vallejo “disarticulates the Spanish language in order to disarticulate many of the dominant assumptions of Western culture” and even goes on to say that Vallejo is always “replying to the language of empire.” This would partly explain why the Americanism that Vallejo expounds is not shared by North American writers of the same era: by the end of World War One, the United States was already an imperial power. Vallejo’s driving force is more akin to Whitman’s: authochthonic, primeval, pre-logical, inspirational. If Vallejo has to write in the language of the enemy, the occupiers, he can at least lay claim to a diverse cosmology: he can interject from Inca beliefs, confounding the dualisms and even the symbology of Western thought, such as by introducing the figure of Mamá Cápac, the mother of the people, the Mamacona, the women who served the Sun, the native weaver-crone, spinning the yarn of human folly, also the Muse, or put more searingly, “the bitter grandmother / of the outcast’s neurasthenic epic – “ (in which the “outcast” is the poet and the “neurasthenic epic” his work). At the same time, Vallejo finds himself a prisoner of the very dualism he seeks to undermine, orphaned between Spanish and indigenous culture: he occupies Spanish, the language of the conquistadores, and can adopt that Hispanic voice both in contradiction too, as well as in elaboration of, the Indian identity that he idealizes. He was, it has been suggested, doubly othered. He is, moreover, always addressing someone who isn’t there. He speaks from absence and into absence. We can perhaps find a precise image for this in the poem ‘Nervous fit of Anguish’, with the lines:
It’s eight o’clock in the morning, in witch cream . . .
It’s cold. . . A dog goes by gnawing the bones of another
dog that used to exist. . . And a match that I smothered
with capsules of silence begins to cry out in my nerves.
Vallejo comes across most strongly as an articulate disemboweller of hegemonic thinking. His complaint is of the vast lack, the void, that this cultural hegemony leaves in its wake. Like St John of the Cross, he carries a wound suffered at the hands of Christ, but unlike St John of the Cross he cannot lift himself to a Christian transcendence, seeing rather the incomprehensibility of human identity and the absolute nothingness, the great nada, that lies behind it.
It pleases me that there is so much rain in Vallejo’s work: the almost constant presence of rain rouses the scepticism (and something approaching joy) that I experience on learning that anywhere is as wet as Wales. But rain there is in Vallejo, aplenty. Again, Vallejo harks back towards his Inca heritage, and the father-god Viracocha, bringer of rain. That the Catholic Church should figure as one of the main targets of Vallejo’s assault on hegemonic values comes as no surprise. Death shrouds every line in Vallejo; never more so than when he writes of love. In The poet to his beloved we get the theme of a sundering, rendering passion (and passion here extends into its meaning as the ‘Passion of Christ’) that reminds me of John Donne without the dualism:
Beloved, tonight you’ve been crucified
on the two curved timbers of my kiss;
and your pain has told me that Jesus has cried.
And there’s a Good Friday sweeter than that kiss.
The voiding of religious faith from the poet’s lines confines his hopes to a state of sleep, rather than redemption, as we are given, in the same poem, the liebestod refrain that “both of us will die together, so together;/ it will dry up our lofty bitterness / and our dead lips will have touched in shadow.” As it turned out, Vallejo died in Paris, in the rain, just as he had predicted years before in his poem Black stone lying on a white stone:
I will die in Paris, on a rainy day,
on some day I can already remember.
I will die in Paris – and I don’t step aside –
perhaps on a Thursday, as today is Thursday, in autumn.
If you don’t know César Vallejo’s work, try reading The Black Heralds, which is excellently translated by Rebecca Seiferle in a bi-lingual edition, from Copper Canyon Press. Alternatively, Shearsman have a 2007 edition, together with some of the early poems.
Here you are in the cerebral cortex, one fictional street leading into another campo of the imagination, the calli lined with deceit, each turning an extenuating circumstance into an invasion of the blind. No rabbit holes, no fox dens here, only the supercilious scrutiny of the gulls, and an exhausting labyrinth in which one false turning leads to another, and you have entered an unknown place where the sun has no welcome. You take another turning, glance at the name of the alley which bears no relation to the name on your or any other map, continue with a sense of desolate determination, long ago having lost all sense of your eventual destination, only to come across it unawares, as though the city had ensnared you, laid an ornate trap. You are forever the victim of your own confidence in finding the way. You propose a direct route – according to the map, of course – only to find that the phenomenal agglomeration of stone and water gets in the way, and you appreciate once again that the map describes instead a fictional version of the island, a kind of alternative city, one of many. Later, seated by a canal, staring at the reflection of the water on the side of an illuminated building, you come to another understanding; that what is being described in all these false turnings, dead ends, abrupt descents to water, intended paths, projected destinations, humorous asides and double bluffs, is a map of yourself, or of anyone else you care to name, and the city you are attempting so desperately to navigate likewise remains unknowable.
Imagine my surprise, on a crisp and cloudless day in March this year, sitting down to lunch outside a restaurant in Toledo, when I discovered that the young couple at the next table were speaking Welsh. I was skiving off from a rather dull conference in Madrid, and Toledo, less than an hour away, seemed an ideal distraction. It was one of those moments of apparent disconnect, when you need to make a quick inventory of your surroundings, pinch yourself, do some sums, listen doubly hard to make certain you are not hallucinating the sounds. We fell into conversation – this is almost inevitable if you happen to speak a minority language, however badly, and meet compatriots in foreign parts – and the talk came around to Welsh cinema. The film Patagonia had just been released: I had been away from Cardiff and unable to go and see it.
So I finally got around to watching it last night, and, on balance, I enjoyed it. Although I had reservations about the script, including the rather cheap trick of withholding vital information that undermines our response to the central protagonists’ relationship, the cinematography and acting were excellent. Nia Roberts gave a strong performance as a woman who wants more from life than she can reasonably expect; her boyfriend Rhys (Matthew Gravelle’s irritatingly dour and uptight photographer) goes through a minor epiphany on finding the body of a dead dog on the road, and later, in a redemptive act, befriends the dog’s shambolic, alcoholic tramp of an owner. Matthew Rhys, as their Patagonian guide, is an effective and powerful presence onscreen, subtly pitched the right side of brooding. This Patagonian part of the story comes close to being Big Cinema, but somehow just falls short. It was the Welsh adventure of the young Argentinian, Alejandro, cajoled out of his virtual life of sci-fi novels by his elderly neighbour Cerys (played by Marta Lubos) that most captivated. For both myself and Mrs Blanco, Alejandro (Nahuel Pérez Biscayar) was the star turn of this film, and we were most entertained by the scenes in which he appears, even his puppyish romp with Duffy, with whom he is improbably reunited after first meeting her when she passes out at a Cardiff nightclub.
But why do I always endure that nervousness, or painful sense of resistance, whenever Welsh artists (and that includes many of our writers, visual artists and film-makers) attempt to make a statement about contemporary Wales or any articulation of ‘Welshness’. However hard they try, there always seems to be some frantic element at work, as though we, as a nation, still have something to prove to the world. No one is interested. Certainly no one outside of Wales gives a shit, and many of us who live here just want to get on with our work without having to make continuous self-reflective reference to our Welshness. As if a Swiss writer had to pepper his stories with references to cuckoo clocks and dairy milk chocolate. So there seems to be something desperate about having to bring Blodeuwedd into the story as kind of smash and grab raid on the Mabinogion. It’s like stating outright: ‘Look, we have these early medieval antecedents, this embedded narrative mythology.’ I’m sorry, but it just doesn’t wash, and nobody cares anyway. And if you’re going to do it, do it in such a way that isn’t bloody obvious. Likewise the farcical pseudo-Celtic water burial ceremony awarded to Marta Lubos, poor thing – Health and Safety would have been down on that like a ton of bara brith.
Given my own self-confessed prejudices, I ended up enjoying this film far more than I had intended to. Er, four stars?
The Counts of Besalú and Olot formed a coalition to overthow the Count of Vic and take his lands. After several bloody encounters the hired mercenaries they had employed held out for more pay. The peasant footsoldiers grumbled that there would be no harvest that year and how would the Counts of Besaú and Olot feel about that? The skirmishes continued into autumn in a lackluster way, but the Count of Vic showed no signs of weakening. One morning, while breakfasting in their striped pavilion, the Counts of Besalú and Olot were interrupted by a messenger from the Count of Vic, who carried a letter proposing that the two conspirators cease their futile attempts to overthrow him, and return to their lands. If they did not, the letter continued, the Count of Vic would overrun both their estates, and subjugate the vanquished Counts to the most terrible indignities, culminating in the loss of their castles, their lands, and their lives. The Counts of Besalú and Olot laughed merrily and had the messenger impaled on sharp stakes, just for fun.
That night, their hired mercenaries left, but not without paying a visit to the Counts’ respective homes, ransacking their riches, raping their women, and slaying whoever crossed their paths. The peasant footsoldiers returned to their valleys and their farms. The Counts of Besalú and Olot, who had drunk too much wine the previous night, while entertaining themselves with the impalement of Vic’s mesenger, woke up to find the camp deserted. Even their servants had fled. A quantity of crows feasted on the remains of the messenger. The two counts contemplated their total dereliction. They decided to fight a duel, and whoever won, would seek refuge with the Count of Vic, blaming the other for the conspiracy. They set about each other with long-handled axes and, in the way of these things, managed to decapitate each other at precisely the same instant. Their two heads rolled a small distance and then came to rest, noses practically touching. Miraculously, the heads could still speak. “You know what?” said Besalú. “I never liked you anyway. It would have come down to this sooner or later, even if we had taken Vic.” “Precisely”, replied Olot, who was rather dim-witted. “In fact we’ve saved ourselves a lot of trouble, by getting this part over with first.” The Count of Besalú’s head rolled its eyes.
Later that morning, the two heads were found by scouts of the Count of Vic. They were still arguing. The soldiers stuck them on poles and displayed them in the town square, one at either end, so as to avoid having to listen to their interminable dispute.
It is not my intention to post a load of poems on this blog, but I am currently working on translations of the Argentinian poet Joaquín O. Giannuzzi (1924-2004). None of his work, as far as I know, has yet been published in English. This poem reminded me of the cartoneros of Buenos Aires, an impoverished, nocturnal tribe who make a meagre living by collecting and selling discarded cardboard and other rubbish left out on the street.
Incidentally, ashas pointed out, the poem was written 30 years before the cartoneros became an everyday sight, but the ideas in the poem linked to my own memories of them, so I added the images.
GARBAGE AT DAYBREAK
At dawn today, out in the street
possessed by a kind
of sociological curiosity
I rummaged with a stick in the surreal world
of garbage bins.
I realized that things don’t die but are murdered.
I saw outraged papers, fruit peel, glass
of an unknown colour, strange and tortured metals,
rags, bones, dust, inexplicable substances
that rejected life. My attention was caught by
a doll’s torso, with a dark stain,
a sort of rosy meadow death.
It seems that culture consists in
the thorough tormenting of matter
and pushing it through an implacable intestine.
Almost a comfort to reflect that not even this excrement
is obliged to abandon the planet.
In Stendhal’s Charterhouse of Parma the young protagonist, Fabrizio, is locked away in a prison tower, but is able to spy on his beloved through a slit in the shutter as she feeds her birds. His days are made meaningful only by these interludes of light in a life otherwise confined by darkness and solitude. He conjectures an idyllic existence lived with the obliging object of his gaze, and is kept in a state of ecstatic anticipation merely by her daily appearance in the courtyard. In Borges’ story, The Writing of God, the prisoner in his cell is kept in darkness throughout the day, excepting a single visit from his jailer, in which water and food are lowered down by rope, through a small door high above him. In the time it takes for this to take place, light enters the cell, allowing the prisoner to observe, for a few seconds, the jaguar in the neighbouring cell, and to attempt to decipher, on the cat’s black and yellow coat, the writing of God. For both these prisoners, the attainment of their respective goal is an irrelevance, since it is not fulfilment that matters, but the prolonging of hope, the feeding of illusion in that one moment of revelation.
The boy approaches the house. A pathway of larches. Leaves. A necklace of tears.
The student piece seems to take up the theme:
If you came close to the black windows you felt that inside there was something unseen, watching you as you stumbled back up the cracked path.
I see the two passages as sequential. The story that emerges belongs to both of them and neither of them, but only occurs because of the confluence in time of these two passages meeting in me. Perhaps this happens all the time, and we don’t notice, because we aren’t watching.
The days are beginning to fold into one another too, like freeze-framed wingbeats, on repeat. All those nights spent in railway stations return at once, a desperate collision of memories, a thousand forms of sadness. Seagulls scratch at the window, their coarse sounds intended to lure me out. I drink tea and tell myself I am bound to resort to this anecdotal life, this song and dance, this carnival, this lark. In the house in the story there is either a malevolent force or a hunchback. Take your pick. There are always trees near these places, though by no means always larches. They presage some kind of flow between nature and the occupancy of the house. An ancient tree, its roots no doubt ploughing through the soil like subterranean antennae towards the house and its foundations, intent on burrowing beneath the building’s skin. The tree and the house enter a symbiotic relationship, though it is the tree that has made the first move.
On my desk, two pencils lie on a yellow notebook, facing north-west. If I follow the direction of their points for two hundred miles I will find the house and the tree. An exercise for a desperate man. Outside, I can sense the movement in the street without hearing anything or even looking; the day begins, as always, with a slow intrusion of medical light, rustling sounds behind a curtain, the opening of a door, or a book.
From a Facebook posting I learned with horror last week that it was the fortieth anniversary of the death of Jim Morrison. In a misguided attempt to remember what it was I loved about The Doors, the band, last night I watched a DVD of the Oliver Stone film The Doors, and endured a particularly unpleasant evening, heaving with embarrassment on the film’s behalf, when I wasn’t squirming at the formulaic ‘debauchery’ of the characters.
This atrocious travesty of a film portrays the band’s singer Jim Morrison as a kind of incarnation of the god Dionysus, an identification with which the singer is alcoholically and erotically attuned. At one point in the film, one of the band’s members salutes Morrison’s departure for Paris – where he will die – with the words: “at least I will be able to tell my children that I made music with Dionysus.”
Classical mythology presents a dichotomy between Apollo and Dionysus, between the cerebral, intellectual and mechanistic against the instinctual, emotional and spontaneous. This conflict between Apollo and Dionysus is still with us today. The psychologist James Hillman has suggested that modern Western culture is prejudiced towards “the masculine over the feminine, the principles of light, order and distance over emotional involvement, or what has, in short, been called the Apollonic over the Dionysian”. He goes on to argue that “the fields of psychiatry and mythology . . . have been for the most part in collusion against the Dionysian, resulting in a repression, and thus a distortion, of all Dionysian phenomena so that they have come to be regarded as inferior, hysterical, effeminate, unbridled and dangerous.”
What strikes me as important about this passage is that Hillman emphasizes that the Dionysian is distorted because it has been repressed. Nowhere is this truer than in the episodes of religious fundamentalism, such as the total ban placed on music and dancing by the Taliban in Afghanistan, and their confiscation and destruction of musical instruments. The protestant countries of northern Europe have been through similar eras of prohibition, for example in Cromwell’s England, where Dionysus was identified with Satan. We can connect the demonization of Dionysus with the severe cultural schizophrenia still displayed towards drinking in the UK (the debate over licensing hours, the longstanding association of alcohol with extreme anti-social behaviour, domestic abuse and criminal violence and the epidemic of public drunkenness on our city high streets any night of the week). However, it might be argued, paradoxically, that there is a deeply anti-Dionysian streak in the make up the average Brit, who finds it difficult to loosen up, to improvise, to go with the flow, to be at their ease with strangers (all Dionysian characteristics), without large dollops of alcohol.
Everywhere – and this is crucial – that there is an anti-Dionysian stance there is deeply engrained repression of emotion. In fact, repression of Dionysus spells big trouble, which is why the classical myths attribute such terrible ends to those who deny the god: typically this meant being ripped into shreds, either by wild beasts or by the maenads, Dionysus’ frenzied followers. Perhaps we can identify this ‘ripping apart’, or tearing into pieces as a metaphor for the emotional shredding that an individual suffers if he or she denies the presence of Dionysus in their lives. Or if they take worship of Dionysus too far, which is a form of hubris. Either way – for extreme denial or extreme identification – they will suffer the same punishment:. To return to The Doors film, the problem with Morrison was – as the Ray Manzarek character in the movie points out – rather than being an acolyte of the god, he thought he was Dionysos. This is a very dangerous way to go.
The cult of Dionysus is a metaphor for an incredibly potent fantasy about the role of the artist, and more especially the poet. Why do we expect ‘Dionysian’ behaviour from our artists? And what does the cult of Dionysus really represent? What precisely does it signify for one to be touched by that god’s madness?
Walter Otto, the German classical scholar and a leading voice on Dionysus believed that madness was the basic characteristic of the god’s nature. But, he writes, it was a madness of a revelatory kind: “The word has infinitely more meaning here than the temporary or lasting disturbance which can affect a mortal and is depicted in Greek thought as a demonic force called Lyssa or Erinys. The madness which is called Dionysus is no sickness, no debility in life, but a companion of life at its healthiest. It is the tumult which erupts from its innermost recesses when they mature and force their way to the surface. It is the madness inherent in the womb of the mother. This attends all moments of creation, constantly changes ordered existence into chaos, and ushers in primal salvation and primal pain – and in both, the primal wildness of being.”
Dionysian madness then is a compulsive creativity, a frenzy of movement (hence music and dance), an appearance of the god that engenders shifting, swaying, spurting (traditionally of blood in sacrifice and of wine in festivity, but also of sperm in ejaculation), an orgasmic force that causes those touched by the god to shudder and be deranged.
The cult of Dionysus emphasises all that is in shadow, dark and secret. He is the god of vegetation, of creeping plants, the vine, ivy, of things that intoxicate and bring to frenzy, of wildness and of chaos. In the many stories about the god that we find in classical writing he is seen to transform himself magically into beasts of fierce power (lion, bull, panther, snake) but at the same time in his intimacy he is known to display feminine characteristics, to be ‘effeminate’ and of a girlish beauty; and this mutable force, this androgyny, is all the more subversive and powerful on account of the troupe of women who accompany him everywhere, the maenads, self-destructively orgasmic and obsessive, who will tear to shreds the unbelieving perpetrators of any common sense reality, for theirs is a wisdom borne of madness and of dislocation. Such was the fate of King Pentheus, who, in Euripides’ play The Bacchae, unwisely warns the shadowy and disreputable vagrant-god away from Thebes boasting that he would separate his head from his body, a fate ironically self-fulfilling, since this is precisely what the maenads in their frenzy do to Pentheus later in the drama.
We need to read the stories about Dionysus as profound metaphors on the nature of creativity. The pain of birth, of Dionysus’ own birth, gives an indication of the metaphoric force with which the myth was given life. According to one version of the story, Dionysus’ mother Semele, was consumed by fire while he was still in the womb. Rescued by Hermes, Zeus sewed him into his own thigh until the nine months was up, at which time he was ‘born again’, and given over to the nurses who were also his maenads. In another version the infant Dionysus was boiled in a cauldron on Hera’s orders after being torn into pieces (from the drops of blood that issued from his body the pomegranate tree was born), saved and reconstituted by his grandmother Rhea, and raised as a girl by foster parents. A further version has him transformed into a young goat or ram at an early age and raised by nymphs in a cave on a diet of honey. If the god’s early life might be read as a metaphor for the struggle of creation, we might not be far from the truth.
Dionysus is a metaphor for all that truly lives: the pain and wonder of birth, the pain and the ecstasy of living, the pain and sorrow of departure. Dionysus presides over change and renewal: he is, too, a prince of shadow, and possesses a demonic power. So he provides a figurehead for the satyrs, those satirical creatures who sustain permanent and painful erections. He is the god of a music that soars and dips, music that binds the mind to the repetitive rhythm of copulating felines, a music of ecstatic mirth and of boundless grief. His dance, the maenads’ dance, is the undanceable dance of perpetual frenzy, a twisting, turning, twirling, hovering, floating, dying dance of life that flows eternally, from the electric veins of Nijinsky’s calf muscles to the suicide leaping of the Cretan bull-dancers.
Transferred into literary and depictive art forms, he is the essence of a piece of work that takes the reader or viewer out of their heads, out of themselves, out of their minds, or more correctly speaking, to dig deeper and deeper into their own minds, because that is the paradox of the Dionysian phenomenon – as the god of duality he leads you into yourself by first taking you out of your self, out of your senses. Rimbaud understood this when he wrote of the desire for a ‘total dislocation of the senses’. And Rimbaud, having broken through all the literary frontiers that could be broken given his nature and environment, went to Africa, and into an extended Dionysian nightmare. Like Morrison, he took the metaphor as far as he was able and then began living it. Living it outwardly, might such figures be forgetting that the metaphor is only a metaphor: might they be mistaking the journey, as it were, for the journey?
It is a strange religion that promises enlightenment only at the expense of a terminal derangement of the senses. Is this all that the cult of Dionysus can afford its followers? To get stoned stupid, have a few visions, end up mad or dead? All in the name of Art? But it is a religion mightily appealing to the young, and to those who feel they can take on board endless intoxication, endless wonderment, unqualified oblivion, in the hope that they will attain a state of knowledge. It is a return to shamanistic beliefs without the initiation processes that made shamanism a force in the cultures to which it belonged: it is all the froth on the lake of experience without access to the deep resources of learning and intelligence that make sense of experience. It is ritual without substance, mindless consumption (of drugs, of alcohol) that fuses perfectly with the ideology of a consumer culture hooked on the concept of more, of more for its own sake, whether that be money, sex, tourism (i.e. more pleasureless ‘travel’ in identical and characterless ‘resorts’) or the alternative realities posing as entertainment, more obfuscation of the essential simplicity and beauty of living.
I feel that the god Dionysus, surrounded by his animals in the dark, fecund forest, despises and deplores such abuse. But isn’t this the mistaken notion of ‘Dionysian behaviour’ that predominates and is exalted? And isn’t it a falsification of the creative face of Dionysus, to make a rotten and corrupt god of overconsumption and bloated decay out of something which is and must remain a kernel of pure energy, a blast of poetic instinct, the force that through the green fuse drives the flower?
In Britain we tend to celebrate the anniversary of the births of famous people: in Argentina it is their deaths that are commemorated. Last month I was asked to contribute a piece for the Buenos Aires newspaper Clarín‘s special Borges supplement, looking at his influence on writers in the English-speaking world. It was published in Spanish on 14 June and is available here.
Here is the English version:
I first read Ficciones when I was eighteen years old and living in an abandoned shepherd’s hut half way up a mountain on the island of Crete. I had found the spot quite by chance while exploring an empty stretch of beach, and I moved in for the summer. I had just consumed The Brothers Karamazov and The Magic Mountain in rapid succession, and the brevity and intensity of Borges’ writing came as a revelation. Borges himself had something to say about big novels: “It is a laborious madness and an impoverishing one, the madness of composing vast books — setting out in five hundred pages an idea that can be perfectly related orally in five minutes. The better way to go about it is pretend that those books already exist, and offer a summary, a commentary on them.”
As an eighteen year old I was seduced by the idea that every instant contains the potential for an infinity of outcomes – a recurring motif in Borges’ work – or that our universe is only one in a multiplicity of possible universes, or that rather than being the proprietors of our own consciousness, we are being dreamed by some other entity. Not comfortable ideas to live with, but always pressing at the edges of comprehension, and always dissatisfied with received wisdoms.
Not everyone regarded Borges with such awe at the time, including the friend with whom I shared my idyll on the Libyan Sea. Over the next years I noted with curiosity whenever mention of Borges was made in relation to other writers. From the start, bearing in mind one of my favourite stories was ‘The South’, I always considered Borges to be a deeply Argentinian writer, and many of his stories are parables of Argentinian life. But I learned that there was also an ‘English’ Borges, not least because, due to the influence of his English grandmother, he grew up bilingual, and he reminds us in his cadences of the writers that influenced him; his beloved Stephenson, Kipling and Chesterton. It was perhaps this alleged ‘Englishness’ that appealed to some (although by no means all) of his fans in the UK. In any case, Borges cast a considerable influence over English language novelists of the 1980s, in particular, on both sides of the Atlantic, and the twenty-fifth anniversary of his death provides a suitable occasion to review that influence.
In his novel The Information (in which the twin protagonists, Richard and Gwyn, alarmingly constitute my own name), Martin Amis uses the concept of The Aleph – “a sphere whose centre is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere . . . one of the points in space that contains all other points” – as a central trope to infuse the book with astronomical detail, particularly with respect to the life cycle of stars, and the sun. According to the critic James Diedrick, Borges’ influence on the book extends further, ‘The Circular Ruins’ providing an allegory of how all literary works derive from other works, thereby confirming Amis’ own debt to Borges.
In a discussion with Ian McEwan held in London to celebrate the centenary of Borges’ birth, Amis said “Borges’ genius leaves me speechless, his work should not be considered minimalist, but extravagant. His way of facing the horror in the eternal and the transitory is extraordinary.” McEwan, similarly, praised Borges’ “colossal intelligence”, adding: “There is something liberating in Borges’ writing; it is the pure pleasure of the game of literary abstraction.”
Salman Rusdhie has also confessed to Borges’ influence, and in an essay refers to always carrying with him several ‘passports’, one of which is Borges’ Ficciones. Furthermore, in the acknowledgements to The Satanic Verses, Rushdie cites Borges’ Book of Imaginary Beings for the description of the Manitcore.
However, in a 1999 review of the Collected Fictions, on their publication in English, Mavis Gallant observed that: “it is all but impossible to find anyone who has read Borges recently (other than Spanish-speaking readers, translators, specialists in Latin American writing and graduate students preparing dissertations).” Not much has changed since then. I suspect that many of the conceits and tropes that are considered ‘Borgesian’ have seeped into the fabric of British and American fiction, often without writers knowing from whence they came. Fantastical cultures, absurd hierarchies, ludic ploys and recurrent self-referentiality might remind some of us of their origin, but for many others they are just the way things are: they have been normalised within the rubric of post-modern fiction. Among younger writers in Britain, Borges would certainly seem to be far less of a force than he was at the time of his death, although his influence is discernible in the works of fine authors such as Geoff Dyer, David Mitchell and Zadie Smith. I teach at a British university and startlingly few of my own students have read him, though most have heard of him. Every year I endeavour to rectify their ignorance, and their reaction is either one of incomprehension or else an astonished and grateful: ‘why did no one tell me about this before!’ Among writer friends his name is still practically sacrosanct, though I am beginning to wonder how many of those under the age of forty have actually read him. Almost everyone agrees that only the stories from 1939-49 are truly great: the later work is found by J.M. Coetzee, for example, to be “tired” and to “add nothing to his stature.” The poems are sadly underappreciated here too compared with those of his contemporaries, Neruda and Lorca. But the great stories of the 1940s are perceived as his enduring strength, and as I suggested above, his influence has been absorbed into a way of seeing the world – just as Foucault intimated, almost by accident, over forty years ago.
My own favourite tribute to Borges comes in Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow in which a group of Argentinian exiles, led by the adventurer Squalidozzi, and at large in Europe during World War Two, hijack a German submarine. Improbably, they are accompanied by the glamorous Graciela Imago Portales – a ‘particular friend’ of the Buenos Aires literati – to whom ‘Borges is said to have a dedicated a poem’. Two lines are cited: “El laberinto de tu incertidumbre / Me trama con la disquietante luna . . .” Of course, the quotation has puzzled scholars, as it is neatly consistent with the rhythms and motifs of Borges’ earlier work, and yet nowhere to be found in his oeuvre. It would no doubt have delighted Borges, the more so since Pynchon made it up.