The Immortal

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

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.

When his yearning heart and brain were not engaged with the Vikings and the gauchos, or the equally heroic explorers and cartographers of the New World, Borges would turn again and again to the shaded stone arbors of Córdoba and Baghdad and ancient Persia. He was evidently magnetized by the great scholars and reasoners of the Andalusian renaissance, as they sought to peer beyond the veils of clerical dogma. (His love for Fitzgerald and Omar Khayyam makes the same point in a different fashion; how marvelous that he praised Fitzgerald's "indolence and tenacity.") Other fascinations—with the Jewish Prague of Kafka and also of the golem—manifest the same commitment to cities that are at once authentic and imaginary. If Borges could have drawn at all, he would have wanted to fuse Piranesi with Escher. It was not by chance that one of his absolutely favorite critics was F. H. Bradley, the author of Appearance and Reality.

Borges may have secretly wanted a happy ending, and certainly appears to have secretly planned for one. Having survived a number of inconclusive courtships and a null marriage, all under the vulturelike surveillance of his mother, he managed at the end to form some kind of alliance with María Kodama, a devoted young half-Japanese student of his work who was, like him, a "seeker," albeit a more amateur one. His subsequent interest in Shintoism and Buddhism lacks the mordancy and introspection (the "agenbite of inwit," as Joyce liked to put it) of his earlier hermeneutic investigations. At a certain point talk about "essence" and "oneness" and the universal becomes more tautological than inquisitive. But Borges did live to be honored eventually by a democratic Argentina; did finally get some time to himself with a girl of his own choosing; and did ultimately elect to arrive in Geneva and to surprise Kodama by telling her with decision that he wouldn't leave again. Thus he managed to cancel—I should probably say "exorcise"—his adolescent humiliation in that city, and some of the disappointments of his maturity as well. His lengthy examination of his own life, one undevoutly hopes, had proved it to be worth living. Long before, F. H. Bradley had provided Borges with a reflection that is exactly right, in that it promises more than it delivers: "For love unsatisfied the world is a mystery, a mystery which satisfied love appears to understand."

Recent books by Atlantic authors:

Freedom Fries: The Political Art of Steve Brodner. Foreword by Ralph Steadman; introduction by Lewis Lapham. Fantagraphics Books. Steve Brodner's illustrations appear regularly in The Atlantic.

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