The Immortal

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

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."

Edwin Williamson's biography passes what I consider to be a small but by no means paltry test. It is absolutely solid wherever it can be checked against this reviewer's knowledge. In particular it brought back to me with extraordinary vividness the vertiginous shifts in feeling that I experienced during those two Borgesian days of languorous conversation, attentive reading, and sheer alarm. Moreover, the book shows with great care and fairness what had brought Borges to this pass. The world now knows, and some of us knew even then, that the regime of General Videla, too, was depraved by violence and corruption, and was viciously anti-English and pathologically anti-Semitic. As for the canfinflero question: Henry Kissinger's old confrere Videla is now in prison for his part in selling the babies of the rape victims he held in secret prisons—something a little rawer than mere "pimping."

At our lunch Borges joked a bit about his failure to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. ("Though when you see who has had it … Shaw! Faulkner! Still, I would grab it. I feel greedy.") In another context he described the sport of denying him the prize as "a minor Swedish industry." Williamson shows that by his defense of Videla and especially Pinochet, and his public attack on the memory of García Lorca during a visit to post-Franco Spain, Borges was almost willfully denying himself the laureateship. That was a measure of how distraught he felt about chaos and subversion in Argentina. Thus it speaks doubly well of him that before the dictatorship fell, he signed a statement of concern about the desaparecidos ("disappeared") and wrote a sardonic poem lampooning the mad war of grandiose and futile aggression launched by the generals against the Falkland Islands.

If there is a key story in Borges, as Williamson seems to imply, it may be contained in or near The Aleph. Much of his work led up to this collection, and much depends on it. In one of the tales within—"The Immortal"—we come upon this:

There is nothing very remarkable about being immortal; with the exception of mankind, all creatures are immortal, for they know nothing of death. What is divine, terrible, and incomprehensible is to know oneself immortal. I have noticed that in spite of religion, the conviction as to one's own immortality is extraordinarily rare. Jews, Christians, and Muslims all profess belief in immortality, but the veneration paid to the first century of life is proof that they truly believe only in those hundred years, for they destine all the rest, throughout eternity, to rewarding or punishing what one did when alive.

It is this capacity, I believe, that promotes Borges so far above the level of the exotic antiquarian, the obsessed bibliophile, the cloistral mapmaker, the crazed pedant, and the unreliable editor: diverting roles that he vastly enjoyed and at which he excelled. So often one comes across a passage as perfectly cut and honed as that one, uttered with a certain diffidence and yet—as is frequent with perfectionists—the product of much silent labor, reflection, and, I might add, stoicism.

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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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