by Jorge Luis Borges, Alexander Coleman,
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|Seeking The Minotaur In The Labyrinth Of Buenos Aires
by Jorge Luis Camacho
This year marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986)—and publishers and conference organizers the world over have not wasted any time in getting into the centennial celebration spirit. In between the publication of Borges’ Collected Fictions in September of last year and his Selected Nonfiction this fall, Viking produced a beautiful, weighty, bilingual edition of his Selected Poems that will be pure pleasure to read and to hold.
Selected Poems is the largest collection of Borges’ verses ever assembled in English. It not only brings together some of his best lyric work, but also includes prologues and poems never previously translated. The volume is divided into fourteen chapters of varying length, each corresponding to a different book of poems.
Borges’ poetry gives evidence of his intimate knowledge of Anglo-Saxon literature. No other Latin American writer was closer to it than Borges. His books are filled with quotations from English and American authors and with references to English translations. Legend even has it that the first edition he read of Cervantes’ masterpiece, Don Quixote, was English.
Family background played a part in cultivating his interest in this literature: he had an English grandmother and a huge collection of classics that he never tired of reading. However, it must be emphasized that the way Borges reads other national literatures reflects Argentina’s multicultural diversity and a new attitude towards foreign traditions. After centuries of self-referentiality and a period of frantic searching for “local colours”, Latin American authors no longer took Spanish literature as their only point of reference. Modernist poets had opened the way, and Borges’ generation continued down the path. It comes as no surprise, then, that this cosmopolitanism coincides with Latin American literature’s coming-of-age and international recognition.
Borges’ most recurrent topics are literature itself and the act of reading and rewriting great masterpieces. Many of the poems in this Viking edition, even in their very titles, speak of such figures as Milton, Emerson, and Browning. Joyce is one of the most persistent references, and “Invocation to Joyce” is an eloquent example. The poem not only reveals Borges’ admiration for the Irish writer, but also functions as a sort of biographia literaria of Borges’ generation during his early creative years.
The poem begins by irreverently describing his own experience of the avant-garde movement that took the artistic world by storm in the early part of this century. Now in his old age, Borges looks back and calls them “sects” that “credulous universities venerate”:
Scattered in scattered capitals,
solitary and many,
we played at being the first Adam
who gave names to things.
Down the vast slopes of night
that extend into dawn
we search (I remember it still) for words
Of the moon, of death, of the morning
The act of renaming the world assumes, in Borges’ poem, an almost ritual-like character. Borges mythicizes reality. He sees himself as a new Adam, re-enacting Genesis through art and literature—a basically Romantic gesture. Where Walt Whitman had devoted a section of his famous book to his “Children of Adam”, and poets after him embarked on a similar round of renaming and cataloguing the world, Borges, for his part, is being ironic here. Like an ancient engraver, he pours acid into his verses. He subverts the myth by comparing his past literary experience to a child’s innocent play, and in doing so, he utterly dismisses anything new that came as a result. He questions the authenticity and reveals the futility of the myth of the poet as a privileged being. Suddenly, the poet turns away from his own past to address the Irish writer directly:
You, meanwhile, forged
in the cities of exile
in that exile which was
your loathed and chosen instrument,
the weapon of your art,
you raised your arduous labyrinths,
infinitesimal and infinite,
more populous than history.
Here, Joyce, like Dedelaus, is a builder of imagined realities, creating and escaping from the labyrinths in which he had trapped history. Each verse seems to echo Joyce’s words: “exile, silence”.
Borges’ passion for labyrinths is as present here as it is in the rest of his oeuvre. In his short story, “Asterion’s House”, for example, Borges rewrites the Greek myth of the Minotaur that is trapped inside a labyrinth of mythical proportions, but does it with a delightful ironic touch, turning the beast into an all-too-human figure anxiously awaiting his “redeemer”.
In “The Labyrinth”, the poet imagines himself wandering along circular walls, guided by a crack in the wall or the echo of a “desolate howl” in the distance. The poem is suffused with tactile and aural images. Shadows and darkness surround him. Here, memory plays an important role, reinforcing his knowledge and fears:
Zeus himself could not undo the web
Of stone closing around me. I have forgotten
The men I was before; I follow the hated
Path of monotonous walls
That is my destiny. Severe galleries
Which curve in secret circles
To the end of the years. Parapets
Cracked by the day’s usury.
In the pale dust I have discerned
Signs that frighten me. In the concave
Evenings the air has carried a roar
Toward me, or the echo of a desolate howl.
I know there is an Other in the shadows,
Whose fate it is to wear out the long solitudes
Which weave and unweave this Hades
And to long for my blood and devour my death.
Each of us seeks the other. If only this
Were the final day of waiting.
At the end, the reader is left wondering whether the narrator is in fact the Minotaur or the man called upon to kill him, Theseus. More importantly, he is not sure if both are separate beings or only one. Here, the English version does not fully convey the idea of the Spanish original. Borges writes, “se que en la sombra hay Otro”, thus leading us to believe that there is someone else in the shadows; and because he writes the word in the singular (sombra), he implies the shadow could also be his own. It should be noted that, by the time Borges wrote this poem, he had lost most of his sight, which explains why his poem to Joyce and this one appeared in the same book, In Praise of Darkness, a title suggesting Borges’ isolation and blindness.
His obsession with two selves, constantly mirroring each other, despising each other, is also present in a number of poems. One of the most enjoyable is “Borges and I”, a poem that demonstrates his consummate mastery of poetry and prose. I will quote the first paragraph:
The other one, Borges, is the one things happen to. I wander around Buenos Aires, pausing perhaps unthinkingly, these days, to examine the arch of an entranceway and its metal gate. I hear about Borges in letters, I see his name on a roster of professors and in the biographical gazeteer. I like hourglasses, maps. The other one likes the same things, but his vanity transforms them into theatrical props. To say that our relation is hostile would be an exaggeration.
In addition to being a superb writer, Borges was also a controversial figure when it came to politics. It is well known that when Argentina’s dictator, Juan Domingo Peron, asked Borges to support him, the poet refused, and that in retaliation so typical of despotic regimes, Peron sent him to “supervise chickens and rabbits”. But many Latin American intellectuals criticized him for being too conservative and for supporting right-wing parties. To that he would reply that he was just a poet who wished he had been born a century earlier, a poet of enchanted mirrors, books, and endless labyrinths.
Jorge Luis Camacho is a poet and essayist. His work has appeared in Cuba, Canada, Spain, and Austria.