Jim Aitken unearths the radical and progressive meanings in Borges' writings
It was his fellow Argentinian writer and, like his mentor, a former Director of the National Library of Argentina, Alberto Manguel, who told us in Packing My Library (2018) that Borges, while trapped in Geneva during the Second World War, came across the story of the Golem. Borges was sixteen years old and reading Gustav Mehring’s book The Golem (1915), which totally captivated his mind and helped to form the writer he became.
The story of The Golem has quite a lineage. The word is first mentioned in Psalm 139: ‘Thine eyes did see my golem.’ In the 1st century C.E. it was Rabbi Eliezer who wrote that the golem was ‘an inarticulate lump.’ And in the fourth century C.E. the Babylonian teacher Rava created a creature out of clay and sent it to Rabbi Zera. The Rabbi attempted to speak with it and in anger at its refusal to reply, the Rabbi said ‘return to dust’ whereupon the creature crumbled into a shapeless heap.
Then in 16th century Prague another Rabbi, Rabbi Loew, the spiritual leader of the Jewish people in the Prague ghetto, divines from his astrological tables that a disaster is imminent. He decides to summon the dead spirit of Astaroth and build a clay figure of a Golem. This is built to serve him in this time of need. However, the creature escapes his master’s control and caused chaos in the ghetto. The Rabbi had then to turn it to dust by removing from its brow the first letter of emet – meaning truth – so that the word now read met meaning death.
The German film-makers Carl Boese and Paul Wegener brought out in 1920 one of the first horror films called Der Golem, wie er in die Welt kam (The Golem, how he came into the world) and this film is still popular with the more discerning film buffs around Halloween. In 1957 Borges, along with Margarita Guerroro, published the Book of Imaginary Beings which mentions the Golem and in 1969 Borges travelled to Israel to meet with the scholar of Jewish mysticism, Gershom Scholem. The scholar’s surname was used to rhyme with golem in Borges’s poem The Golem, chosen by Borges for inclusion in his Personal Anthology, published by Picador in 1972.
Scholem and Borges discussed issues on art. Borges wondered how a writer could ever achieve his purpose when all he has at his disposal is the imperfect tool of language. He asked the scholar what is created when an artist sets out to create and is the work of art a lasting reality or an imperfect lie. Effectively, he asked Scholem, is the work of art a living Golem or a handful of dust?
The politically liberating power of culture
All of this reads remarkably like one of Borges’ own stories. It is a description of links in a chain that go back through history and tradition and make us – as readers – marvel. And that is what great art should always do. It should create wonder but also apply it with warning. The Golem shows us how periodically the embodied hopes of individuals or the masses themselves can give birth to monsters that create disastrous consequences for us all. Or to put it more plainly we should sometimes be careful what we wish for. Borges had died long before Golem Trump came on the scene but Trump’s arrival, sanctioned by the vested interests of the few and supported by the basest of bases, has most certainly wrought havoc.
While Borges could clearly not make such an analogy, his work allows us as readers to do this because of its relevance regardless of era. His stories take his readers on labyrinthine journeys with no discernible exits that could ordinarily be expected from more conventional fiction. It is in this way that Borges gives his readers a radical extension of reality. While a good story can transport the reader, under Borges’ direction you are transported further still.
It is by radically extending reality through the power of his creative vision that his art has to be seen ultimately in a progressive light. Culture more broadly, and great art forms more particularly, can be seen as a kind of imaginative liberation. And, of course, once the artist has created this leap there is the suggestion at play of a deeper, more material liberation that can be implied. While Borges may have called himself a Conservative in his politics, his art can nonetheless inspire the greatest of all possible worlds.
The Argentine critic Ana María Barrenechea called his method ‘irreality,’making such a pronouncement largely on account of the influence of Husserl’s phenomenology and Heidegger’s existentialism, which she detected in his writing. However, though the term ‘irreality’ may certainly have some mileage, Borges worked under many more influences.
In an interview given to Rita Guibert in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1968 Borges was asked the following question:
If an intellectual shuts himself up in an ivory tower, and sometimes even ignores reality, can he contribute to solving the problems of society?
The reply by Borges was both perceptive and illuminating with regard to his own work:
Possibly shutting oneself up in an ivory tower and thinking about other things may be one way of modifying reality. I live in an ivory tower – as you call it – creating a poem or a book, and that can be just as real as anything else. People are generally wrong when they take reality as meaning daily life, and think of the rest as unreal. In the long run, emotions, ideas, and speculations are just as real as everyday events. I believe that all the dreamers and philosophers in the world are having an influence on our present-day life.
The notion of the ivory tower, of course, takes us back to Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592) who lived in a tower in Guyenne in Renaissance France. It was there that he wrote his famous collection of Essais (1580) giving us the first essays that would go on to influence countless writers from Francis Bacon and Shakespeare to Pascal, Rousseau, Nietzsche, Marx and Freud, Sartre, Camus and Foucault along with many others.
We want bread and roses, too
What Borges has in common with Montaigne is a scepticism about things. Montaigne had made a medal with the words Que sςay-je? meaning ‘what do I know?’ in Middle French, rendered as Que sais-je? in modern French. However, Montaigne’s scepticism seeks to deal with the human condition in all its multiplicity and complexity whereas Borges’ scepticism was grounded in his conservatism. While his imaginative stories can offer a radical extension to reality, he is not seeking to change actual lived reality in any way except by offering us intellectually illuminating diversions from reality. As the song goes, ‘yes we want bread, and roses too.’ Borges certainly provides roses, but his conservatism means that the bread will always be in short supply if actual reality does not change, with only the conservatives getting the bread since they own all the bakeries.
Not for Borges the Sartrean ‘literature engagée’ that sought to make the artist politically responsible and engaged within society. Not for him the notion of the committed artist except his commitment to his craft. And not for him any Gramscian sense of being an ‘organic intellectual’ on behalf of those desperate for bread. Conservatism has and always will be about seeing that you are well catered for and keeping it that way in order to maintain such privileged status. A case of ‘I’m alright, Jorge.’
Borges did speak out against both Nazism and communism as well as anti-Semitism but seemed to revile Peronism even more. This made him somewhat ambivalent about democracy. The Peronist government punished him for not supporting it by ‘promoting’ him from his position at the Miguel Cané Library to inspector of poultry and rabbits at a market in a suburb of Buenos Aires. He resigned immediately from the position.
The figure of Juan Perón dominated Argentinian politics and Borges detested him. He was a populist politician who was much enamoured by Italian fascism and after the Second World War he enabled former Nazis like Eichmann and Mengele to escape to Argentina along with the Croatian fascist leader of the Ustaše, Ante Pavelić. Argentina also had a sizeable Jewish population - the largest in Latin America - which Perón supported being there. He appointed several Jews to advise him and he was also an early supporter of Israel – the first Latin American nation to recognise Israel. He actually sent his wife Evita to meet with Golda Meir.
While he was outspoken against military dictatorships saying that they fostered oppression, servitude and cruelty, he also said that ‘more abominable is the fact that they foster idiocy.’ This comment was addressed to the Argentine Society of Letters in 1946 but he seemed somewhat quiet on the General Videla and General Galtieri dictatorships of the 1970s and early 80s. By this time Borges had become internationally renowned and words from him could have embarrassed the junta. He did, however, quite brilliantly quip to Time Magazine in 1983 that he thought the Falklands war was akin to ‘a fight between two bald men over a comb.’ And he did sign petitions and letters condemning the military once it had fallen – but he had also accepted honours from the regime of Augusto Pinochet in Chile.
This shows that conservatives will fall in line with military juntas if their wealth and position seems in any way threatened. This is precisely what military regimes feel empowered to do. For them the problem is always with the left and any plans they may have to redistribute wealth. In our own era the key supporters of Trump and Johnson remain traditional conservatives even if these more populist leaders go along the road of becoming the uglier brands of American and British nationalism respectively.
It draws us from our hovels
Yet the influence of Borges on Latin American literature has been immense. He was one of the first to receive international acclaim for his unique art. As Carlos Fuentes put it in 1973:
The work of Borges is the first to put us in connection, to draw us from our hovels and throw us out into the world, to which it relates us without diminishing us. It gives us reality. For the final meaning of Borges’ prose – without which there would be no modern Spanish-American novel is that it bears witness that Latin America has no language and must create one.
This is telling praise and justified. Borges did put Latin American literature on the map and this was in part achieved by his incorporation of the world into his stories. His work is peppered with references from Chinese philosophy, Jewish and Islamic mysticism and philosophies and literatures from across the world. His realm is incredibly vast. The other part concerns his craft. He manages to make the incredible seem credible, and he achieves this through a style that is relaxed and at ease with his reader. For Borges a story has to be made as plausible as it can be, because if not, the reader’s imagination would surely reject it.
Borges is often credited as being the founder of the so-called school of ‘magical realism.’ While his influence is certainly clear there are other writers who can also be mentioned in this regard. The Mexican writer Juan Rulfo (1917-1986), more generally a short story writer, found acclaim with the novel Pedro Peramo which came out in 1955. The novel describes a man’s search for his unknown father, and it is written in a haunting way as if a recurrent nightmare. Time seems to shift in one state of consciousness after another, in an almost hypnotic flow of dreams, desires and memories, in a world populated by ghosts and dominated by the figure of Pedro Peramo himself. Susan Sontag described the book as ‘one of the masterpieces of twentieth-century world literature’ and one that could not ‘overestimate its impact on literature in Spanish.’ Both Miguel Asturias (1899-1974) and Gabriel García Márquez (1927-2014) said it was the novel they would have loved to have written themselves.
Asturias and Alejo Carpentier (1904-1980) have both had a major impact on the development of the Latin American novel and their association with magical realism. Miguel Angel Asturias was the Guatemalan Nobel laureate who, although he served his nation as foreign ambassador, wrote the trilogy El Senor Presidente (Mr President) which came out in 1946 and is a searing indictment of economic, social and political power and its privileges.
Alejo Carpentier was the living embodiment of internationalism. His father was French and his mother Russian and he was born in Switzerland. They moved to pre-revolutionary Cuba and Carpentier became involved in the Cuban Minority Group which was a forum for discussion on artistic and political matters. The group produced a manifesto which anticipated the revolution and Carpentier was briefly jailed for signing it. After moving to Europe and settling in Venezuela he returned to revolutionary Cuba and was appointed Vice-President of the National Council of Culture and Professor of the History of Culture at the University of Havana. He was also active in the National Campaign against Illiteracy and considered himself proudly Cuban.
The unexpected richness of reality
It was Carpentier who wrote the first major essay on what came to be known as magical realism. Carpentier’s term was lo real maravillosa (marvellous realism) and he wrote ‘On the Marvellous Real in Spanish America’ in 1949. In it he talks of:
an unexpected alteration of reality…an unaccustomed insight that is singularly favoured by the unexpected richness of reality.
Many of these great Latin American novelists had travelled in Europe. After Borges, Asturias and Carpentier came the likes of Fuentes, Márquez and Mario Vargas Llosa. They were all influenced by European, in particular Spanish literature and thought.. Carpentier was particularly attracted to surrealism and its influence can be seen in his own novels. It has been said that when Márquez was writing his landmark Cien anos de Soledad (One Hundred Years of Solitude 1967) he ripped up his first draft after reading Carpentier.
Like Asturias’ great trilogy on the abuses of power, Carpentier also explores such themes in Caribbean-set novels like El Reino de Este Mundo (The Kingdom of this World) which came out in 1949 and in El Siglo de las Luces (Explosion in a Cathedral) which was first published in 1962. His novels show much the same literary inventiveness associated with all these writers along with startling imagery and vividly described scenes.
The other aspect that never seems to get too much of a mention when scholars discuss magical realism is the nature of Latin American landscapes. What is real and unreal or surreal can be occasioned by the sun, the shimmering heat, the abundance of colour that abounds in parts of this great continent. Carpentier, in his novel Los Pasos Perdidos (The Lost Steps) which came out in 1953 introduces us to a composer from New York who goes off to the jungles of Venezuela in search of primitive musical instruments. As his journey takes him to the upper reaches of the Orinoco he becomes overwhelmed by the primordial wonder of the place. His changing levels of consciousness and understanding brought on by the magnificence of the landscape make him question his whole sense of what it is that constitutes civilisation. His American sense of this is certainly challenged and ultimately denounced. One thinks of Gauguin seeking to leave his so-called civilised France behind him as he goes in search of a newer, less contaminated and more natural world in Tahiti.
All of this is important in order to place Borges not as the father of Latin American literature – as some do – but as one parent among others. His importance is clear but it is worth stressing that artists like Asturias and Carpentier were engaged writers with genuine political commitment; they were ‘organic intellectuals’ who used their craft in support of those who could not support themselves.
It is worth looking at a couple of stories by Borges to test some of the claims already made about his work. In The Zahir we are initially told by Borges that ‘in Buenos Aires the Zahir is an ordinary coin worth twenty centavos.’ Long before this, however, towards the end of the 18th century:
the Zahir in Guzerat was a tiger…in Java it was a blind man from the Mosque of Sukarta…in Persia it was an astrolabe which Nadir Shah caused to be sunk to the bottom of the sea …in the Mosque of Córdoba, according to Zotenburg, it was a vein in the marble of one of the twelve hundred pillars.
Such a flight of the imagination is created by the word Zahir. Borges marvels at words. They are scrutinised like a scientist, their etymologies dissected. What happens now is a series of walks around Buenos Aires and by way of various encounters he pays for things with the Zahir and receives change in the Zahir. Now he digresses and expounds philosophically on the nature of money, claims to be obsessed by the Zahir and seeks psychiatric help for his obsession. He then discovers a copy of Julius Barlach’s Urkurden zur Geschichte der Zahirsage (Breslau, 1899) which diagnoses his disease. This rare book now opens up a whole series of ‘fictions’ concerning the disease and leads him to even more obscure sources such as the Asar Nama (Book of Things Unknown) where there is the verse ‘the Zahir is the shadow of the rose, and the rending of the Veil.’
The radical extension of reality
The mention of ‘the rose’ brings to mind that wonderful novel by Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose (1980) which was also made into a film starring Sean Connery and released in 1986. In this novel the Franciscan friar William Baskerville is sent to a medieval abbey to solve a deadly mystery. There seems a play on the friar’s surname with a clear nod to the Sherlock Holmes stories.
What is so incredible about this novel is its Borgesian atmosphere. The library is a labyrinth full of learned texts and esoteric manuscripts and the librarian, like Borges, is blind and celibate. The Franciscan librarian is actually called Jorge de Burgos which sounds not too unlike Borges’ own name. Though Eco’s work shows a whole host of influences there are clear affinities in The Name of the Rose with the following three stories by Borges – The Library of Babel, The Secret Miracle and Death and the Compass. The Borgesian atmosphere of Eco’s text can clearly be attributed to them.
Such a digression as this one is in the very nature of Borges’ own method of writing. All of Borges’ stories refer constantly to other books and texts and the reader has no way of knowing if these texts are real or not. That is precisely the point, of course, for Borges. If they seem real or are presented as real then why should they not be taken for real? This is one way he radically extends reality.
At the end of The Zahir Borges suggests in an epiphanous moment that he will:
wear away the Zahir through thinking of it again and again. Perhaps behind the coin I shall find God.
In this ‘fiction’ Borges has managed to transform an everyday, a commonplace object – a coin – into something magically, marvellously real. He has radically extended the reality of an apparently inconsequential thing into something that points to God. It is the word Zahir that has enabled him to do this; it is his love of words that allows this to happen.
In a short piece called Borges and I the writer duels with his public and private personas. The private persona he describes as liking:
Hourglasses, maps, eighteenth century typography, etymologies, the taste of coffee.
This admission concerning ‘etymologies’ lies at the heart of The Zahir and many of his other stories. This ability that Borges has in transforming the ordinary into the extraordinary can remind us of Blake’s lines at the start of Auguries of Innocence:
To see a world in a Grain of Sand
And Heaven in a wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.
While Borges can radically extend reality by magnifying the mundane, it should be recalled that it is the mundane that finds us where we invariably are. A coin can take us in an elevated direction under Borges’ art but a pot can remind us where we really are, as in Beckett’s character Watt (1953):
It remained a pot, it was almost a pot, but it was not a pot of which you could say Pot, pot and be comforted.
Beckett’s art, in many ways as contracted as Borges’s, shows us the existential predicament we find ourselves in whereas Borges, who also knows this, seeks to redirect his reader into fictional flights of the imagination. The key point as far as art is concerned is that both have authenticity and both can offer great insight. For Beckett writing was a compulsion to describe the mess we find ourselves in whereas for Borges, as he says in the Preface to Dr Brodie’s Report:‘writing is nothing more than a guided dream.’
The Zahir has a certain resonance with The Aleph. The former was an actual object whereas the latter is a radiance perceived in a cellar, beneath a staircase:
On the underpart of the stairs I saw a small iridescent sphere of almost unbearable brightness. At first I thought it spun round; then I realised this was an illusion produced by the dizzying visions contained in it. The Aleph’s diameter might be two or three centimetres, but all cosmic space was within it, actual and undiminished. Everything (a mirror glass for example) was an infinity of things, for I clearly saw everything from every angle of the Universe. I saw the teeming sea, I saw dawn at night, I saw the hordes of America, I saw a silver cobweb in the centre of a black pyramid, I saw a broken labyrinth (in London). I saw endless eyes near to, watching themselves in me as in a mirror, I saw all the mirrors on earth and none of them reflected me…I felt infinite veneration, infinite compassion.
The Borges who saw this vision was the same Borges who, in The Zahir, took a small coin in his change and simply extended it into another realm of being. Then he had walked the streets of Buenos Aires mourning the death of Teodelina Vilar and now in The Aleph he mourns after Beatriz. Her name reminds us of the lost love Beatrice in Dante’s La Vita Nuova (1294) where the writer sought to incarnate his intellectual vision of the universe.
The Aleph now introduces us to a secondary character, one Carlos Argentino Daneri with a name clearly at play with the name of Dante Alighieri. This character seems to be psychologically related to Borges in that he is the first cousin of the lost Beatriz and is also a librarian and a poet. It is Daneri who discovers The Aleph and it is he who shows it to our narrator, Borges. Like The Zahir earlier, The Aleph becomes something obsessive but in this story it is easily got rid of as a team of demolition men come to knock down the house and the stone in which The Aleph is set will be destroyed. Rather than wishing to fight for the survival of this wondrous radiance set in a stone Borges instead muses that it may in fact have been ‘a false Aleph.’
Our narrator then simply conjures up another Aleph. He manages to do this through his usual device of etymological indulgence with the word Aleph itself. Off the reader goes on another journey as Borges references a wide and varied selection of books which seek to locate the true Aleph. Borges seems at one with the ancient Chinese sage Lao Tzu who declared, ‘The Name that can be named is not the constant name.’
Just as in the tortuous prose of Beckett, Borges keeps on writing and keeps on inventing. Both writers have searched continuously in their writing after the Golden Fleece of illumination and exit from it, and because the Fleece of ultimate reality and meaning is never found they both have no choice but to keep on writing.
Borges became totally blind by the age of 55. This was a condition he inherited from his father and it is true to say that blindness was responsible for the imagined worlds he created. In Poem of the Gifts he tells us, ‘I have always imagined Paradise as a kind of library.’ Libraries enable dreams to take place and it is libraries along with dreams, mirrors, labyrinths, fictional writers, philosophers and myths that Borges has constructed his canon. Reading – when he was able to – and later being read to, allowed him to use his marvellous imagination to write his unique stories.
The self-portrait Borges drew after going blind
Even his blindness was something to be incorporated into his realm of possibilities. He said of his blindness in Seven Nights, a series of lectures he gave and published in the year he died, that his blindness 'was not a complete misfortune. It is one more instrument among the many – all of them so strange that fate or chance provide.'
Many of Beckett’s characters have illnesses and infirmities and keep on going and there is a similar kind of heroism in the way that Borges kept going. To keep going is to continue the struggle and for him to have often said that he was ‘a Spencerian anarchist’ as well as being a conservative seems somewhat disappointing in such a brave and visionary individual. His Spencerian anarchism sounds a lot like many of today’s Conservatives, who claim that they believe in the individual and not the state. The Janus-headed conservatism of today with its authoritarianism on the one hand and its libertarianism on the other works only to enable those with wealth to enjoy freedom to the full. It is an exclusive ideology and Borges, who read and re-read Cervantes, should have noted the comments of Don Quixote when he said, ‘To change the world is neither a utopia nor an act of madness, it’s simply justice.’
Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius
And that is something that political conservatives simply fail to see. In the story Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius Borges is at his most indulgent. The story is essentially a piece of science fiction, in that it takes us to a completely different planet called Tlön. Borges has gone on this encyclopaedic journey with his collaborator Adolfo Bioy Casares and they discover that the inhabitants of this place believe in a form of subjective idealism that denies the existence of objects and they speak in a language without nouns. The people here also understand a totally different concept of time. Philosophical ideas are turned on their heads in this place and we find that Tlön, through a kind of wish-fulfilment of its inhabitants, has managed to supplant the earlier world of Uqbar and now Tlön is inflicting its alien ideas on planet Earth because our world is becoming idealistic and receptive to such alien ideas.
The backdrop to the story was obviously the Nazism and Stalinism of the 20th century but Borges, like so many conservatives before and after him, seems to possess the same affliction as the Tlönites themselves. He singularly failed to see that it is the idealism of market forces that gives rise to the chaos of our world. Conservatives like to imagine that it is forces on the left who are ideological and that they are not. Conservatives often claim that they are not even political and that to be political you must be on the left. We have all met people and engaged in discussion with them and when a political issue arises out of that discussion they invariably say something like, ’Well, I am not really political myself’ or ‘ I don’t really know very much about politics myself’ thus tacitly admitting to their unquestioning adherence to conservative thought. Borges certainly fell short in this area.
A final word on labyrinths. Queen Pasiphae, in the ancient Greek myth, slept with a bull sent by Zeus and she gave birth to Minotaur, a creature that was half-man and half-bull. King Minos, though deeply embarrassed, did not wish to kill the Minotaur so he hid it in a labyrinth that was constructed by Daedalus at the Minoan Palace of Knossos. It was Theseus who volunteered to kill the Minotaur and the woman he loved, Princess Ariadne, gave him a long thread to take with him so that he could exit the labyrinth if he did manage to kill the Minotaur. He was successful in both killing the monster and in finding love.
The Two Kings and the Two Labyrinths, by Nima Abadeh
We are all walking through a labyrinth called life and it constantly poses problems for us. We have often lost our way, but we keep going because we have to. Which direction should we take? Robert Frost’s The Road not Taken is a similar form of this metaphor. We could equally say that politically we need to find a way out of our troubles. Though this was not envisaged by Borges because, as a bourgeois conservative, his troubles were few economically speaking. However, it is an ingenious metaphor to use for his fictions because they take us on mysterious journeys that radically extend reality – and such stories are the welcome roses we all need.
His English collection of his stories was called Labyrinths and came out in 1962. The title was apt when we consider how often labyrinths are used in his work. In the story Ibn-Hakim Al- Bokhari, Murdered in his Labyrinth we are told:
There’s no need to build a labyrinth when the entire universe is one.
In Marquez’s novel El General en Su Laberinto (The General in his Labyrinth) the Great Liberator of the South American continent, Simón Bolívar, is facing death. He cuts a lonely, tragic figure as all his amazing triumphs lie in his past. He looks back while hearing news of the opportunist generals and emerging bourgeoisie who seek to carve out for themselves chunks of a continent he had hoped to unite into one great nation. Bolívar, knowing he is dying, dictates his last will and testament and then his doctor insists that he confess and receive the sacraments. Bolívar reportedly said ‘How will I ever get out of this labyrinth?’
Capitalism is never happy with the past
Right at the independent birth of this continent, its greatest leader Simón Bolívar uses the word labyrinth. The Mexican writer Octavio Paz (1914-1998) also uses the word in his deeply penetrating study of his nation’s psyche in the work called El Labertino de la Soledad (The Labyrinth of Solitude 1950, revised 1959). This radically humane and intellectually rich study of his nation concludes along the following lines:
Modern man likes to pretend that his thinking is wide-awake. But this wide-awake thinking has led us into the mazes of a nightmare in which the torture chambers are endlessly repeated in the mirrors of reason. When we emerge, perhaps we will realize that we have been dreaming with our eyes open, and that the dreams of reason are intolerable. And then, perhaps, we will begin to dream once more with our eyes closed.
In this essay Paz is attempting to unravel the internal solitude that seems to inhabit the everyday temperament of his fellow citizens, despite the lively siesta celebrations that may occur. His analysis could apply not just to Mexico but to the entire continent of South America and, indeed, to the rest of the world:
The past has left us as orphans, as it has the rest of the planet, and we must join together in inventing our common future. World history has become everyone’s task, and our own labyrinth is the labyrinth of all mankind.
Capitalism is never happy with the past and seeks to eradicate the historic memory of all peoples so that they can simply enjoy as many commodities as they can buy, such as Coca-Cola or Pepsi along with a bigger and bigger Big Mac. This is the freedom that Capital speaks of and if you cannot buy such commodities you are not a victim, but a loser.
Borges, who admired America, never dealt with the historic pain of his continent nor with the psyche that emerged from conquest, colonialism, national liberation and the neo-colonialism of giant conglomerates who continued the plunder and pillage. That was left to some of the writers already mentioned and also to two seminal works by the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda (1904-1973) in Canto General (1950) and by the Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano (1940-2015) in Las venas abiertas de América Latina (Open Veins of Latin America 1971).
What Neruda does in poetry Galeano writes in prose. Both works look at this magnificent continent before Columbus and before conquest, then during and after conquest and consider the ongoing exploitation of the lands that make up South America. Borges, while disagreeing with Neruda’s communism, was nonetheless generous enough to admit that Neruda was a better poet than himself and called him a great poet. Márquez went further and in The Fragrance of Guava, 1983 called him ‘the greatest poet of the twentieth century, in any language.’
The veins that Galeano refers to in his title are the veins of gold, silver, cocoa, cotton, rubber, coffee, fruit, sugar, oil, iron, tin, copper and nitrates that guaranteed the riches of the continent went elsewhere. The subtitle to Galeano’s book is Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent and it is that historic memory that writers have to address in order for any radical movement to emerge in the future.
Interestingly, Asturias, Fuentes, Paz and Neruda were all ambassadors in Paris at certain times. Paz had also been ambassador to India and Neruda had spent time as the Chilean ambassador in Burma and Indonesia. They were all international figures of world renown, yet it seems that the customary Eurocentrism seeks to see them simply as Latin American writers, when their influence has been global. The work of Borges has obviously been enormously significant in drawing attention to Latin American literature and along with the ‘magical realist’ writers already mentioned we would have to add Isabel Allende of Chile, Jorge Amado of Brazil, Hanuki Murakami of Japan, Umberto Eco and Italo Calvino of Italy, Toni Morrison of America, and Salman Rushdie of England together with a number of Bengali writers who all show an enormous debt to the magical realist style of writing.
We can also find magical realism in the paintings of Frida Kahlo (1907-1954), Edward Hopper (1882- 1967) and Georgia O’Keefe (1887-1986). This is a major achievement for a subjugated continent, and it shows that all life wherever it is lived can be magical and strange, nightmarish and wonderful. In this regard it remains somehow magically real that the greatest export from Cuba is not tobacco but her doctors.
Borges died in Geneva in 1986. His funeral service was an ecumenical one presided over by a Catholic priest in memory of his mother, and a Protestant pastor in memory of his English grandmother. Father Jacquet spoke of a man ‘full of love, who received from the Church the forgiveness of his sins.’ Pastor de Montmollin took as his text St John’s Gospel. He said that no-one can reach that word through his own efforts and in trying becomes lost in a labyrinth. He concluded by saying ‘It is not man who discovers the word, it is the Word that comes to him.’
Borges could not have put it better himself.
Jim Aitken is a poet and dramatist living and working in Edinburgh. He is a tutor in Scottish Cultural Studies with Adult Education and he organises literary walks around the city.