The Immortal

A new biography reaches the heart of the labyrinth—the intense and wondrous life of Jorge Luis Borges

Keeping up his cultural optimism about Argentina in public, and spending ever more of his private and literary life in codexes and codicils, Babels and Babylons, lotteries and labyrinths, Borges postponed for some time the disagreeable realization that his country and his culture were turning against him. In the 1930s he took a bold position against the local version of fascism while simultaneously distrusting and even disliking the great cats of the Hispanic literary "left," Pablo Neruda and Federico García Lorca, both of whom paid notable visits to Buenos Aires. Williamson suggests persuasively that there was an element of sexual envy involved in this too. But no such considerations would have influenced Borges in the detestation he felt for Juan Perón, and the fear that he experienced as he witnessed the birth of a raw, localist populism. The foul genius of Peronism lay in its demagogic dexterity: it was at once anti-oligarchic, anti-Jewish, and anti-English. By persecutions large and small—he lost his job at a library; his mother and sister were briefly imprisoned; "elitist" magazines and clubs were peremptorily closed down—Borges became persuaded that the masses who applauded this kind of thing were not to be trusted. Every time Perón fell or was exiled, the crowd yelled for him to come back. And in the sordid figure of his whorish wife Eva (or "Evita") all the brothels and tango bars, all the popular culture of the city, allied to all the suspect machismo of the Martín Fierro ballad tradition, underwent a horrid mutation into the philistine, the greedy, and the cruel. Borges's story "Ragnarök," about false gods and the need to destroy them, is very probably derived from his contempt for the votaries of such idols.

Perón, like Franco and Salazar, survived the supposed defeat of fascism in the Second World War, and he kept on torturing Argentina with his revenant third and fourth acts, ultimately dying and then ruling by posthumous proxy through the cult of his dead wife and the actual agency of his second one, the charmless Isabel. At a point in the mid-1970s the armed forces decided to put a stop to all this, and to much else besides, by an employment of the mailed fist. So when I called on Jorge Luis Borges in his upstairs apartment, 6B at Calle Maipú 994, just off the Plaza San Martín, in December of 1977, the streets of the city were being prowled by death squads.

The inscription on Edgar Allan Poe's door at the University of Virginia—"Domus parva magni poetae" ("Small home of a great poet")—would have been almost perfectly apt for the tiny quarters in which Borges and his tireless mother had for so long resided. But, no less aptly, the place was lined and piled with volumes, and the blind old man seemed to know the location of every one of them. He liked my English voice, and asked me if I would do him the courtesy of reading aloud (I later discovered, without chagrin, that he did this to a lot of visitors). Pointing to where a Kipling anthology could be found, he asked me to begin with "Harp Song of the Dane Women." "And please, read it slowly. I like to take long, long sips."

This lovely and stirring poem is made up almost entirely of Anglo-Norse words (and, incidentally, there is no way to read it fast). He told me that he'd taken up the study of Old English in 1955, when he went blind, and that "increasing blindness helped me to write 'The Library of Babel.'" Language in any permutation was a subject for which he showed immediate enthusiasm. "Do you know that in Mexico they say 'I am seeing you' when they mean 'I will see you'? I find the translation of the present into the future very ingenious." Without the smallest appearance of affectation, he said that reverse and obverse were always the same to him, "which is why I find infinity almost banal," and that in his dreams he was always "lost"—"hence perhaps my interest in labyrinths."

His shy invitation to return on the morrow and read further from his library was at once the mildest and the most imperative request I have ever received. Later leading him slowly downstairs, and across the perilous traffic to La Ciudad for lunch, I felt as if I had been entrusted with a unique coin or ancient palimpsest or precious astrolabe. (What if I tripped and took him down with me? It would be scant consolation to reflect that such a calamitous narrative would contain all other potential narratives: I was Anglo-Saxon enough to see myself being stuck with the ur-one.)Whatever I read, he commented on. "Kipling was not really appreciated in his own time because all his peers were socialists.""Chesterton—such a pity he became a Catholic!"When I queried his rather stilted praise for Neruda, he admitted that he preferred Gabriel García Márquez. (In 1926 Borges had written an essay, "Tales of Turkestan," praising stories in which "the marvelous and the everyday are entwined … there are angels as there are trees." In "The Postulation of Reality" (1931) he declared that fiction was "an autonomous sphere of corroborations, omens and monuments," as demonstrated by the "predestined Ulysses of Joyce."Along with so-called "magic realism," this prefigures the realistic magic of his "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius"—another work that it is highly inadvisable to read in a hurry.)

The enduring rapture with magic and fable has always struck me as latently childish and somehow sexless (and thus also related to childlessness). But "Orbis Tertius" ("Third World") had another, less innocent and more concrete meaning in those days, symbolizing the grainy and harsh battles of urban guerrillas against the metropole. Buenos Aires was the scene of such combat as we spoke: it was impossible to avoid the subject. Borges placidly replied with a couplet from Edmund Blunden: "This was my country and it might be yet, / But something came between us and the sun." That something, he left me in no doubt, had been Peronism. As for the generals and admirals who had seized power—he sounded like an Evelyn Waugh impersonator ("the sword of honor" is a frequent reference in his work) when he announced that it was better to have a government "of gentlemen rather than pimps." Seizing the occasion to elucidate the specific Buenos Aires dockland slang for "pimp," which is canfinflero (a term of almost untranslatable—or do I mean too easily translatable?—obscenity), he discoursed with some warmth about his enthusiasm for dictatorship. (Re-reading my notes of our conversation today, and knowing now about that shriveling moment in the Geneva brothel, I wonder if the flesh trade had a special horrorfor him.) When he invited me back for the following day, I had to decline, with real regret, because I was taking an early plane to Chile. At this he asked me with perfect gravity if I would be calling on General Pinochet, and hearing my answer in the negative, expressed regret in his turn, adding, "A true gentleman. He was kind enough to present me with a literary award when I last visited his country."

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Christopher Hitchens was an Atlantic contributing editor and a Vanity Fair columnist. More

Christopher HitchensFor nearly a dozen years, Christopher Hitchens contributed an essay on books each month to The Atlantic. He was the author of more than ten books, including A Long Short War: The Postponed Liberation of Iraq (2003), Why Orwell Matters (2002), God Is Not Great (2007), and Hitch-22 (2009). He was a contributing editor to Vanity Fair, and wrote prolifically for American and English periodicals, including The Nation, The London Review of Books, Granta, Harper's, The Los Angeles Times Book Review, New Left Review, Slate, The New York Review of Books, Newsweek International, The Times Literary Supplement, and The Washington Post. He was also a regular television and radio commentator.

Hitchens began his career in England, in the 1970s, as a writer for the New Statesman and the Evening Standard. From 1977 to 1979 he worked for London's Daily Express as a foreign correspondent and then returned to the New Statesman as foreign editor, where he worked from 1979 to 1981. Hitchens has also served as the Washington editor for Harper's and as the U.S. correspondent for The Spectator and The Times Literary Supplement. From 1986 to 1992 he was the book critic at New York Newsday. He also taught as a visiting professor at the University of California, Berkeley; the University of Pittsburgh; and the New School of Social Research.

Born in 1949 in Portsmouth, England, Hitchens received a degree in philosophy, politics, and economics from Balliol College, Oxford, in 1970.

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