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Don’t Fall For His Poor Old Blind Man Act

Jorge Luis Borges

Jorge Luis Borges

It is easy to be fooled by Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986). He spent the last couple decades of his life giving out interviews, some of them book-length. The damned thing of it all is that he was a devious interview subject. He would insist that he was apolitical:

I am not politically minded. I am aesthetically minded, philosophically perhaps. I don’t belong to any party. In fact, I disbelieve in politics and in nations. I disbelieve also in richness, in poverty. Those things are illusions. But I believe in my own destiny as a good or bad or indifferent writer.

Yes, but, at the same time he irked one Swedish literary critic that he single-handedly prevented Borges from receiving the Nobel Prize in Literature because, at one time, he accepted an honor from Chile’s dictator General Pinochet Ugarte. Also, he so burned up Juan Peron that he derisively appointed the Argentinean to be the poultry inspector for Buenos Aires.

In an article for the L.A. Review of Books that was reprinted by Salon.Com, Filipina writer Gina Apostol has an interesting perspective on Borges, who, as you may or may not know, is one of my favorite authors:

As a writer from the colonized world, I find Borges’s work almost intolerably revealing, as if spoken directly to the political debates that beset my country. Borges’s postcolonial critique and analysis in his ficciones are obscured by his philosophical sleights of hand, startling plots, and narrative wizardry, but though buried, his critique is powerful. In particular, I am struck by his logic of the inverse. His use of doppelgangers (sometimes triplegangers) and mirrors and refractions and texts within texts — spies that become victims, heroes that are villains, detectives caught in textual traps of their own making, translators who disappear in puffs of smoke in someone else’s writer’s block — in Borges’s stories, these astonishing mutations force us to see reality from new perspectives, force us to question our own encrusted preconceptions. While questions of ontology and Berkeleyan illusion and all those philosophical games beloved of Borges are paramount, the constant revisiting of the problems of fictionality and textuality in these stories have profound echoes for the postcolonial citizen, bedeviled by and grappling with questions of identity and nation, questions seething always under our every day, our working hours, our forms of art.

What I find interesting is that Borges himself claims he is an unreliable interviewee. He instructs his interviewers to doubt everything he says. Because he was an old blind man, we tended too often to give him the benefit of the doubt, when he was very artfully putting us on.

Because he lived through so many dictatorships, such as those of Peron and the juntas of the 1930s and 1970s, Borges has learned to be what Eastern Europeans used to call an aesopic writer. According to Dr. Gerd Reifahrt:

One possibility is for [authors] to seek refuge in the realm of the Aesopic. Aesop is said to have written fables in the sixth Century B.C. to veil his opinions, and writers 26 centuries later continue to use and develop his method. In symbolic and coded terms, they write fairy tales and fables, and employ myths and elements of folklore. New forms of discourse emerged, where political realities and social truths were referred to in symbolic and coded terms rather than explicitly mentioned, and where, concurrently, these realities and truths were re-framed and re-contextualized. Protest and subversion found a new voice.

So all those tricks with mirrors and identity that Jorge Luis Borges employs represent a sophisticated method of confronting what some dire realities were for Argentinians in the not too distant past. Apostol writes, “Borges’s writing was always, to some degree, a creative form of reading, and many of his best fictions were meditations on the condition of fictionality: reviews of invented books, stories whose central presences were not people but texts.” Behind the invented lay the unvarnished reality, which he confronted indirectly.