The Immortal

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

This may be the moment to say that Borges's repeated fascination with tigers, knife fighters, daredevils, and solitary horsemen, some of it passed on from his stiff-necked criollo mother, has a tinge of the vicarious about it, and strikes the only faintly inauthentic note in his fiction. It corresponds, probably not all that obliquely, to his oft manifested wince of fascinated disgust at sexual relations. In his intense story "The Cult of the Phoenix," for example, the initiates are wedded to lubricity and, indeed, "slime" (légamo), and the penny will drop for most readers long before Borges closes by saying,

On three continents I have merited the friendship of many worshipers of the Phoenix; I know that the Secret at first struck them as banal, shameful, vulgar and (stranger still) unbelievable. They could not bring themselves to admit that their parents had ever stooped to such acts … Someone has even dared to claim that by now it is instinctive.

Williamson permits himself a rare lapse into the dead-literal by noting with solemnity that "years later Borges would tell Ronald Christ that he meant the Secret to refer to sexual intercourse." Perhaps the name of this interlocutor was irresistible …? Incidentally, I have taken the quotation above, and also the title of the story, from Andrew Hurley's translation. Some may prefer Norman Thomas di Giovanni's version, "The Sect of the Phoenix." It sometimes amazes me that Borges, with his immaculate English, felt he needed a dragoman at all. But who would not have desired the job?

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."

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Christopher Hitchens is a contributing editor of The Atlantic and a columnist for Vanity Fair. 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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