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Excerpt: 'Borges and the Eternal Orangutans'

Luis Fernando Verissimo's "Borges and the Eternal Orangutans"

Chapter One: The Crime

I will try to be your eyes, Jorge. I am following the advice you gave me when we said goodbye: "Write, and you will remember." I will try to remember, with more exactitude this time, so that you can see what I saw, so that you can unveil the mystery and arrive at the truth. We always write in order to remember the truth. When we invent, it is only in order to remember the truth more exactly.

Geography is destiny. If Buenos Aires were not so close to Porto Alegre, none of this would have happened, but I did not see that I was being subtly summoned or that this story needed me in order to be written. I did not see that I was being plunged headfirst into the plot, like a pen into an inkwell.

The circumstances of my visit to Buenos Aires were, as I now know, planned with all the care of someone setting a trap for a particular animal. At the time, however, enthusiasm blinded me to this. I did not realise that I had been chosen as an accessory to a crime, as neutral and innocent as the mirrors in a room.

The 1985 Israfel Society Conference, the first meeting of Edgar Allan Poe specialists to be held outside the northern hemisphere, was to take place in Buenos Aires, less than a thousand kilometres from my apartment in Bonfim, and was, therefore, within the budget of a poor translator and teacher of English (which, as you know, is what I am). One of the invited speakers was to be Joachim Rotkopf, who was to lecture on the origins of European surrealism to be found in Poe's work, precisely the topic that had provoked the controversy with Professor Xavier Urquiza from Mendoza, and that had kept me so amused in the pages of The Gold-Bug, the Society journal. All this seemed to me a mere accumulation of happy and irresistible coincidences. I decided not to resist. At least, I thought I decided.

I am fifty years old. I have led a cloistered life, "without adventures or surprises", as you put it in your poem. Like you, master. A sheltered life spent among books, and into which only rarely did the unexpected enter like a tiger. Not that I am an innocent. I am a sceptic, books have trained me in every category of disbelief and caution when confronted by illogicality. I could never have believed that destiny was calling me by name, that everything had been decided for me and before me by some hidden Borges, that my role was waiting for me, just as Mallarmé's vide papier was waiting for his poems.

The prospect of hearing the Argentinian's comments on the lecture by the German with whom I had corresponded, but whom I did not know personally, was enough in itself to justify the price of the air fare to Buenos Aires (paid for on credit). The conference would take place in July, when my students of English would be taking refuge in their hyperactive hormones, so as to protect themselves from the cold, thus enabling me to have a holiday. No urgent translation required my attention, at least nothing that could not wait a week, the duration of the conference.

The final coincidence: one day after the arrival of the journal containing both the remarkable announcement that the 1985 Israfel Society Conference had been transferred from Baltimore to Buenos Aires and instructions on how interested parties should apply, my cat Aleph died. Not from any discernible cause, but merely out of consideration for the old bachelor who had taken him in. Aleph was the only obstacle to my making the trip, because, now that my Aunt Raquel had gone into a home, there was no-one I could leave him with. Aleph's death convinced me not to miss this never-to-be-repeated opportunity. Yet even his all too convenient demise failed to arouse my suspicions.

Everything that happened to me there in Buenos Aires I owe, in some way, to Aleph's death. Or to geographical destiny. Or to the God behind the God who moves the God who moves the player who moves the pieces and begins the round of dust and time and sleep and dying in your poem, Jorge. Or to the designs of an ancient plot set in motion exactly four hundred years ago in the library of the King of Bohemia. Or merely to the trapped animal's unconscious feelings of respect for a well-made trap and a desire not to disappoint the person who went to so much trouble to set it...

My role is to see, describe and, now, write about what I saw. Someone or something is using me to untangle the tangled plot over whose direction I have as little influence as the pen has over the poets who wield it, or man over the gods who manipulate him, or the knife over the murderer. A plot whose denouement lies in your hands, Jorge.

Or should I say "in your tail".

* * *

This wasn't my first visit to Buenos Aires. When I was a child, I went with my Aunt Raquel to visit my Aunt Sofia and the Argentinian branch of the Vogelsteins. These two aunts brought me with them from Europe at the beginning of the Second World War. The third of the Vogelstein sisters, my mother, Miriam, stayed behind in Nazi Germany. She had a "protector" and so would come to no harm. Raquel set up home with me in Porto Alegre, where we had some poor relations; Sofia went to Buenos Aires, where we had some wealthy relations. Raquel used to say that they had drawn lots during the voyage, and the loser had got stuck with me. It wasn't true; of the two aunts, she was the most attached to me and would never have abandoned me. She proved an affectionate and devoted mother. In order to dedicate herself solely to me, she never married, and, in a sweetly sly way, she never let me marry either so as not to have to share her protectorate. It didn't take much persuasion to keep me single. I had always thought of a permanent domestic commitment to any woman other than Aunt Raquel as an intellectual threat. Not that another woman would steal my soul, but she would fatally interfere with the organisation of my books, for which Aunt Raquel had a reverential respect that she had transmitted to a long line of terrified cleaning ladies. The "young master's books" were not to be touched, wherever they were in our small Bonfim apartment, and the shelf containing my editions of Borges was a kind of reliquary which, if profaned, could cost them their hands.

In the end, before she asked to be sent to an old folks home, Aunt Raquel was obliged to be cared for by me, always cursing herself for putting me to so much bother. I should be devoting myself to my translations and to my books, not dealing out sedatives to a useless old woman. Going into a home was her way of freeing me from my gratitude and was yet another way of protecting me. Aunt Raquel protected me far too much throughout her life.

Perhaps she was afraid I might have inherited the fatal ingenuousness of her sister, Miriam, my mother, who died in a concentration camp in Poland, having been handed over to the Gestapo by her so-called "protector". Everything I know about my mother comes from my Aunt Raquel. Her red hair, her very white skin, her far too innocent heart. In the one photograph I have of her, the three Vogelstein sisters — Raquel, the oldest, Sofia, the second oldest, and Miriam, the youngest — can be seen sitting at the table of a sidewalk café on the Unter den Linden in Berlin, in the company of a man. My mother's "protector", according to Aunt Raquel. The monster about whom we never heard anything more. The four of them are smiling at the camera. My mother is the prettiest of the three sisters. She looks radiant in her summer dress and broad-brimmed hat. The man is wearing a woollen scarf around his neck and has one arm resting on the back of his chair. With the other, he is raising his glass to the photographer.

But that has nothing to do with our story, Jorge. All I remember of that visit with Aunt Raquel to Buenos Aires - the first time the two sisters had met since fleeing Germany - was a fat cousin called Pipo, who had a high-pitched voice and kept kicking me.

Not until years later did I visit Buenos Aires again. Anxious to patch up our misunderstanding, Borges, I went (by bus!) in search of you. I was in my twenties at the time and, amongst other things, had done a few translations for Mistério Magazine, produced in Porto Alegre by the old Globo publishing house. The magazine printed translations of stories that appeared in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, and, once, I translated a story by a certain Jorge Luis Borges, of whom I — an anglophile and americanophile already obsessed with Poe — had never heard. I thought the story was dreadful, confused and lacking in excitement. It wasn't clear at the end who the criminal was, and the reader was forced to draw his or her own conclusions. I decided to improve it. I added a few lugubrious Poe-like touches to the plot and a completely new surprise ending that belied everything that had gone before, including the author's account of events. Who would notice these changes in a translation into Portuguese of a translation into English of a story written in Spanish by an unknown Argentinian who should be grateful to me for adding a bit of extra blood and inventiveness to his text?

Your indignant but ironic letter did not take long to reach the publisher. Something about one mystery too many being on the loose in his magazine and which not even "Mr Queen" himself could explain. Some Brazilian bright spark, endowed with the most unbelievable arrogance, had been attacking defenceless texts and changing them out of all recognition. This was obviously a case for a committee of literary detectives or for a study of the criminal mind at work on fiction.

Since I was the criminal in question, I was charged with answering the letter. I tried to respond in the same tone saying that, far from seeing myself as a treacherous mutilator, I thought of myself more as a plastic surgeon undertaking minor corrective surgery, and I was very sorry that you did not appreciate the results of my poor attempts at cosmetic improvement. I apologised for having forgotten the first rule in plastic surgery which was to ask if the patient liked his new nose.

In your reply, Borges, you wrote that although you were accustomed to the arrogance of translators, I had clearly taken this occupational disease to new pathological heights. As a translator, I constituted quite enough of a danger, but as a plastic surgeon, I would be a positive public menace, since I displayed an alarming lack of anatomical precision. I had not tampered with the face of his text, I had added a grotesque tail, an ending that transformed the author into the worst villain a detective story can have: an unreliable narrator who conceals or falsifies information.

My "tail" did not even have the redeeming virtue of elegance. Or even of usefulness, which might have recommended it to an orangutan as a way of helping it to keep its balance, but not as a way of stripping someone else's text of all its original character. He requested that, in the future, I keep well away from both his texts and his nose.

By then, I had found out who Borges was, and my second letter was full of contrition and pleas for forgiveness. You did not respond to that second letter, nor to the third or the fourth. The fifth (in which I declared my growing remorse, my passionate conversion to your work, or to the few books of yours I had been able to find in Porto Alegre, and my intention of coming to Buenos Aires to meet you and apologise in person) was answered by a secretary, or your wife, or your mother, who wrote to say that Borges forgave me, but asked me, please, to leave him in peace. This only intensified both my remorse and my determination to come and see you.

I did everything possible to speak to you on that second visit to Buenos Aires. Without success. It was like walking round and round the outside of a labyrinth and never finding the way in. At your address in Calle Maipú or in the places where I knew I would be able to find you, I was told either that you were away or that you were ill or that you never ever received visitors, and that I should not insist. But I did. I asked for help from my relatives, to whom, after our visit to Buenos Aires, Aunt Raquel took to referring rather scornfully as "the Argentinian grandees", for although she was grateful to them for taking in Aunt Sofia, she clearly considered them our intellectual inferiors, unworthy of the cultural traditions of the Berlin Vogelsteins.

Fat Pipo, despite being only slightly older than me, was already an important figure in the financial world of Buenos Aires. He told me to leave everything in his hands. He would track down Borges and arrange for us to meet. Doubtless driven by remorse (for the way he had kicked me), he mobilised secretaries and influential acquaintances in order to fulfil his promise. Since the milieux in which Pipo and Borges lived were worlds apart, misunderstandings proliferated. One day, I found myself sitting in the bar in the Hotel Claridge with a little old man called Juan Carlos Borges, who was astonished at my interest in his work and at its success in Brazil, given that it had been years since he had published one of his brief botanical poems. I, of course, knew as soon as I saw him that Pipo had tracked down the wrong Borges. I didn't have the courage to disabuse the old man, however, and so I paid for his tea and toast and reaffirmed my devotion to his unjustly neglected work.

On another occasion, in the same Hotel Claridge, I found myself with a strange fellow called Borges Luis Jorge. He, at least, looked like you - to whom he referred as "an impostor" - but he wore dark glasses because, unlike you, he could see far too much. He had absolutely nothing to do with literature, which he abominated as "a waste of perception". His particular line was astronomy. He even told me that he was the only astronomer in the world who had dispensed with telescopes, because he could make out details on the Moon's surface with the naked eye. Borges Luis Jorge did not want tea, preferring a glass of cognac as compensation for his wasted time.

In the end, I gave up and returned to Porto Alegre, embittered by the failure of my penitential trip. I did not write to you for a long time after that. I only did so again when I sent, for your approval and possible use, a comparative study, in English, of your detective stories and Poe's Auguste Dupin stories which I had submitted to the editor of The Gold-Bug, who had duly returned it. You did not reply. The five or six letters that followed remained unanswered too, nor did you comment on the three "Borgian" stories, a mixture of plagiarism and homage, which I also sent to you, having first failed to get them published. The grotesque "tail" had clearly not been forgotten.

Excerpted from Borges and the Eternal Orangutans by Luis Fernando Verissimo, translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa. By permission of New Directions Publishing Corporation. All rights reserved.

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