The Lost Book of Jorge Luis Borges
For Bebe Martinez
I've never mentioned this before, and even now I wouldn't know how to explain why. I think it was at the end of 1980, on a flight from Mexico City to New York. Jorge Luis Borges was on the same plane, although, of course, he was in first class. At one point, I worked up enough courage to ask a stewardess if she would let me to sit next to him for a few minutes. Kind, as Mexican women are known to be, she said it would be alright and even treated me to a glass of wine.
Borges had his eyes closed. On his lap rested a bishop-colored leather portfolio. He seemed to be praying, but given the fact that it was Borges, he was more likely composing or reciting a poem. He was very friendly, and when I introduced myself as a compatriot, he said, smiling: "Perhaps it's no accident that two Argentines meet at such an altitude. After all, we both know how hard it is for us keep our feet on the ground."
He asked what he could do for me, and I answered that I simply wanted to say hello. I told him, briefly, that I'd just published a tale titled "The Interview" in which I imagined that he, Borges, had reached the age of 130 without winning the Nobel Prize and that a U.S. publisher with a mellifluous voice had contracted me, by then an old, retired newspaper man 80 or so years old, to interview him.
Naturally, Borges took no interest in my fiction, but he did inquire about my interest in him. He wanted to know what works of his I'd read, or at least, which ones I knew. I realized it was important to him to determine whether I was just an autograph hound or if I was a reader, so I told him I'd read everything he'd written thanks to a chess tournament for writers. That, no doubt, flattered him and aroused his curiosity. So I gave him a brief history of my years as an editor at the old Abril Publishing Company, which was staffed by scores of good poets and fiction writers almost all of whom were rather good chess players. I mentioned, of course, many distinguished writers of the time -that is, the early '70s. I pointed out that all of them had read him and wanted to win the chess prize for that ominous year 1975: the prize was his Complete Works. Chance decreed (I told him, knowing he'd be delighted at the intervention of the unforeseen), that I, an infatuated young man who at the time ranked Revolution higher than Literature hadn't read his works because of pure juvenile prejudice, won the championship and the prize.
"Perhaps you were right," he interjected. "That was the year I said that Pinochet and Videla were both gentlemen. A foolish error I'm ashamed of now."
In any case, it was an unforgivable sin of omission that I, a young man aspiring to be a writer, had not read him and read him well, so I told him that I immediately filled that gap. Then I then enumerated my favorite texts. At a certain moment, he interrupted me to beg that I not be so superlative, but finally I confessed I was much taken by his insistently referring to works as unfindable as the Nekronomikon, The First Encyclopedia of Tlon, The Approach to Almotasim, the works of Herbert Quain--The God of the Labyrinth, April March, The Secret Mirror, etc., and to the authors he always referred to, such as Johann Valentin Andrea, Mir Bahadur Ali, Julius Barlach, Silas Haslam, Jaromir Hladik, Nils Runeberg, the Chinese Tsui Pen, Marcel Yarmolinksy, the confessions of Meadows Taylor and (according to him) the always obscure, incomprehensible philosophical concepts of Robert Fludd.
Borges laughed out loud and said, enigmatically: "Of all those books, only one is real. I've written it."
All I could do was stare at him, dazzled by that delicate and thin man whose blindness saw better than anyone the infinite emptiness on the other side of the windows while he unconsciously rubbed the handle of his cane.
He noticed the density of my silence.
"Moreover, I have a draft of it right here," he said softly, almost in a whisper. "Would you like to take a look at it?"
The text had a strange, borgesean title that I sincerely cannot remember precisely. Stupid me, I confusedly think it was The Irregular Judas or something like that. It was a novel, or what I suppose would have been Borges novel, typed out by someone to whom he would have dictated it. The plot was simple: Egon Christensen, a Danish engineer from Copenhagen, came to Buenos Aires in 1942 as the chief mechanic of a cargo ship whose captain did not dare to leave port for fear of being sunk by the German battleships that infested the South Atlantic. Egon took up residence near La Plata, validated his credentials as an engineer, and went off to Jujuy, to work for the Ledesma Sugar Mill. His passion was chess, he was an admirer of Max Euwe, and in Jujuy he had two adventures, one sporting, one amorous, both charged with paradox. The extraordinary thing, of course, was Borges's prose -the infinite rigor of his vocabulary, the precise, unadorned structure of the sequence of exposition, the inevitable references to Adolfo Bioy Casares, the perfect rhetoric, and above all the erudition, which left the privileged reader perplexed.
When I finished, trembling with emotion and thankfulness, I brought the portfolio back to him. Borges was asleep, with his head on his shoulder, like a broken cotton boll. It just didn't seem right to awaken him, and besides I was so impressed that I was only going to be able to mouth nonsense. I chose instead to place the portfolio gently on his lap.
When he landed at Kennedy Airport, he was received by a crowd of people who came onto the plane (publishers or ambassadors, I suppose), and I watched as they immediately whisked him off to a VIP lounge.
As I passed through customs, I was horrified to see the same bishop-colored leather portfolio in the hands of a very tall, blond man with an unmistakably Scandinavian air. I thought I remembered seeing him in first class, but I wasn't sure. Besides, that was irrelevant: What was clear was that he'd stolen Borges's manuscript.
I was alarmed, but I vacillated between screaming accusations and running after the man to recover the portfolio. There was no way for me to tell Borges or any of the people with him. The customs official said something to me, and at that instant I lost sight of the Dane, because he was, no doubt about it, a Dane. I felt a strange panic that lasted several days. In a state of anguish, I read the newspapers all that week, expecting to find accusations, demands by Borges or his representatives that the manuscript be returned. I even thought he might accuse me of the crime.
Nothing. Nothing happened, and so far as I know, he never said a word about the episode. And I never saw him again until one night in 1985, when I was now in my de-exile, when the Sudamericana publishing company invited me to a talk by Borges about a travel book he'd written with María Kodama. I went with the intention of asking him about that bishop-colored leather portfolio. But at one point a certain moment, at the first question from the audience, Borges revealed that once, on a plane trip, he'd dreamed about a man from tourist class who'd come to him and whom he'd tricked by handing him an apocryphal text which the man never returned to him.
I, of course, decided to keep my mouth shut. As everyone knows, Borges died a short time later in Geneva.•
Translated by Alfred Mac Adam.
Pat Proudhon is a farmer in New Hampshire who likes to hunt bears. For years he has been absorbed with killing a huge Brown Bear that the locals call "Sixteen Tons". Pat has searched and waited for the animal countless weekends -chasing him with dogs and tracking him down during endless days and nights. Each futile attempt frustrates him more and rekindles his desire to kill the bear. The farmer knows where, of what and how the animal feeds. He knows the bear’s routine and path, but can never run into him. For the last three years the obsessed farmer has done nothing but dream about his encounter with the immense beast.
In this fourth Spring his friend, Frank, runs across him on the side of the road from Lyme to Lebanon. He stops when he sees a grief-stricken Pat crying next to his truck. Since he knows of his friend’s obsession, he asks him with gentle irony if this has to do with a new frustation... Pat shakes his head negatively, blows his nose into a dirty handkerchief, and pointing to the back of the truck explains that he’s crying because two terrible things happened to him simultaneously: he has finally killed "Sixteen Tons", but has just realized that he had come to love the bear so intensely, that now he feels like the most wretched individual.
Translated by Roberto G. Fernandez.