University of Pittsburgh

Beatriz Sarlo
Borges: a Writer on the Edge

 Back to the Index   -   Next Chapter


Chapter 2


Borges and Argentine Literature


Borges's work offers one of the paradigms - perhaps the paradigm - of Argentine literature. This is a literature constructed, like the nation itself, in a marginal country, out of different influences: European culture, the criollo tradition and the Spanish language spoken with a River Plate accent. The place which Borges inhabits, which he invented in his first three books of poetry published in the nineteen twenties [1] , is what he called 'las orillas'. From the outset, Borges rejected the kind of utopian ruralism that Ricardo G üiraldes had put forward in Don Segundo Sombra (1925), a classic novel which traces the education of a boy in the habits and morals of the pampas, guided by the most successful figure of a gaucho mentor. For Borges, the imaginary landscape of Argentine literature should instead be an ambiguous region where the end of the countryside and the outline of the city became blurred.

Borges works with all the meanings of the term orillas (edge, shore, margin, limit) to create a powerful ideologeme that would define his early poetry and prove to be powerful enough to reappear in many of his short stories. Through this ideologeme, Borges writes a myth for the city which, in his opinion, stood sorely in need of myths:

"There are no legends in this land and not a single ghost walks through our streets. That is our disgrace. Our lived reality is grandiose yet the life of our imagination is paltry [....] Buenos Aires is now more than a city, it is a country and we must find the poetry, the music, the painting, the religion and the metaphysics appropriate to its greatness. That is the size of my hope and I invite you all to become gods to work for its fulfillment." [2]


In those years in Buenos Aires, the term orillas described the poor suburban neighbourhoods that lay in close proximity to the pampas that surrounded the city. The orillero was the inhabitant of those neighborhoods, usually considered coarse and often violent, who preserved many of the habits and attitudes of his recent rural past. The orillero worked in semi-rural and semi-urban enterprises such as the slaughterhouses, where many of the skills of the rural workhand were needed and employed. He knew how to use a knife, as his forefather the gaucho, and he continued, so the myth goes, to use it as a weapon in duels. A more mythic version of the orillero was the compadrito, a character who became well-known later through tango lyrics. The archetypal orillero belongs to the criollo cultural tradition, prior to the arrival of Italian and other European immigrants. But, as Borges himself ironically admitted, the sons of the Italian immigrants who managed to become integrated into criollo culture could also aspire to being a compadrito. However, by the time Borges began to write, orilleros and compadritos were losing their more aggressive and distinctive traits and were blending into a common popular culture. When he names the orillas, Borges is writing more about the last decades of the nineteenth century and the first decades of this century, than about the twenties and thirties. Aware of this temporal displacement he uses the past tense and inserts dates that point to something that has been lost, and could not be retrieved again:

"Calle Serrano,you are no longer the same as at the time of the Centenario then you were more sky and now you are pure buildings" [3]


For Borges, the orillas possess the qualities of an imaginary territory, an indeterminate space between the plains and the first houses of the city, an urban‑criollo topology, defined in the now classic formulation as the street "sin vereda de enfrente" (without a sidewalk opposite). The frontier between city and countryside widens on the orillas when these become a literary space. And, at the same time, it becomes porous. The landscape of the orillas is punctuated by vacant stretches of wasteland and mud walls with niches, by the clarity of the decorative grilles and the hedges of cina-cina and honeysuckle, by patios which break up the indeterminacy of the sky:

"Patio, chanelling the sky,

 The patio is the slope

 down which the sky pours into the house" [4]

"Los carros del verano" (the summer carriages) come to the orillas and they smell of the plains. The pale pink, sky-blue and white-washed-walls of the rural houses- are also the colours of the orillas. In the orillas, imperceptibly, the pulpería, the rural drugstore and saloon, becomes an almac én (a grocery store), and the intersection of two rural roads becomes a streetcorner.

From a memory of Buenos Aires which is almost not his own, Borges sets against the modern city this aesthetic city without a centre, built totally on the matrix of a margin. What was evident to his contemporaries, becomes invisible in Borges's poetry of the 1920s. Two of his most eminent contemporaries, the novelist Arlt and the poet Girondo were fascinated by the movement of the new: trains and tramways, high buildings, the city blocks. Instead, Borges reconstructs something which probably had not quite existed and which, for that very reason, could be transformed into nostalgia. The threatened orillas of literature can be found in any part of the city, precisely because they are margins with no centre. They can be defined in the movement of the flâneur who wanders with no fixed aim through the far flung suburbs and the more familiar petty bourgeois neighborhoods, drinking in the past that unfolds before his eyes in the buildings and the landscape:

"There was a time when this neighborhood was a friendship,

an argument of aversions and affections, like other things of love;

that faith yet barely persists

in some distant feats which will die:

in the milonga that calls to mind the Five Corners,

in the patio like a firm rose beneath the climbing walls,

in the unpainted sign that says, still, The Flower of the North

in the men playing guitars and cards in the general store

in the static memory of the blind man.

This dispersedlove is our disheartened secret.

Something invisible is disappearing from the world,

a love no wider than a tune.

The neighborhood is leaving us,

the stout little marble balconies do not bring us face to face, with the sky." [5]

In one of his many prologues to Martín Fierro, the major oeuvre of nineteenth century Argentine literature, Borges affirms that: "One function of art is to bequeath an illusory yesterday to men's memory." [6] This illusory yesterday is also, or perhaps fundamentally, a place which Borges reclaims from the countryside, because he prefers "those long streets which overflow the horizon, where the suburb becomes steadily poorer and tears itself apart outside in the afternoon." [7]

Borges liberated las orillas from the social stigma of the compadrito, who was also occasionally called an orillero. Instead of considering the orillas as a frontier from which it is only possible to leap into the rural world of Don Segundo Sombra, Borges pauses there and makes the border a territory and a metaphor. He chose to locate a literature on that margin, recognizing that in some way a coded form of Argentina could be found there. That might explain his reluctance to acknowledge the gaucho revival heralded by Ricardo G üiraldes in Don Segundo Sombra, and his weakness for a minor poet of Buenos Aires, Evaristo Carriego, on whom Borges wrote a book length essay, published in 1931.

Borges could not help but be interested in Carriego. There, perhaps in a clumsy fashion, could be found a subject matter which the elite writers of the period considered marginal. In the first decade of this century, the centre of the field was occupied by Leopoldo Lugones and by modernismo, a poetry rich in sound and rhyme, exotic images built on an elaborate system of visual, tactile and musical perceptions, inspired by French Parnassianism and Symbolism, Victor Hugo and Walt Whitman. Although modernismo (and its major poet Rub én Darío) had been highly original in its capacity to combine different aesthetic influences and blend them into a distinctive new tone and cultural landscape, by the nineteen twenties it had exhausted its potential, and its novelty had faded to become part of what could be considered the literary mainstream. The avant-garde writers opposed, and showed contempt for, the mainstream: modernismo had become a well-established movement that had to be overthrown.

Borges was extremely hostile to modernismo and to Lugones and his own poetry would be completely different to their practices. And, if modernismo was the centre of the literary system, Borges considered that Carriego was precisely on the margin: a writer who had tried to be modernista, only to find subsequently, in a dozen poems on the suburbs, a mild form of sentimentalism which prefigured the nostalgic tangos of Homero Manzi.

Carriego could be placed in opposition to Lugones, inverting, through this single operation, all the aesthetic‑ideological hierarchies which had previously organised Argentine literature. The elimination of Lugones was one of the tasks to which Borges applied, with great conviction, his critical irony, beginning with his first texts of the 1920s. Evaristo Carriego is a fundamental chapter in this literary activism. Borges also recognised in Carriego a pre‑text, in the most literal sense of the term. Carriego is the text prior to his own texts; he wrote what Borges was never to write but which he needed as a position from which to elaborate a theory of Argentine literature. La canción del barrio (The Song of the Neighborhood) by Carriego is a secret Ur‑Text, a necessary hypothesis for Borges's early poetry.

The biography of Carriego written by Borges is, of course, also a pre‑text in other ways. [8] In a prologue added some twenty five years later, Borges reveals one of the motives underlying this book. He wanted to know, in a biographical and literary sense, what stood outside the family house of his childhood in the neighborhood of Palermo:

'What lay, meanwhile, on the other side of the iron railings? What vernacular and violent fates were being acted out a few paces from me, in the smoky bar or in the dangerous wasteland? What was that Palermo like or how beautiful would it have been if it had been like that?' [9]

The history of Palermo, which makes up the first chapter of the book, is a pretext for history, in which some of the images of the orillas and the compadritos, which Borges had already worked on, are interwoven with details whose only function is poetic. The second chapter, 'Una vida de Evaristo Carriego' (A Life of Evaristo Carriego), begins by offering the paradox, "that an individual wishes to awake in another individual memories which had only ever belonged to a third": that is, it begins by critically questioning the very idea of biography. Thus, an exclusively subjective logic binds together the 'facts' of Carriego's life with those which Borges attributed to him and which turn into Borges's memories. The two following chapters (supposedly on Misas herejes [Heretical Masses] and La canción del barrio (The Song of the Barrio), two sets of poems by Carriego) abound in open and hidden references to the cultural myths of the suburbs and give weight to Borges' assertion that Carriego should be read as a poet of the orillas. Evaristo Carriego, therefore, mimics a biography but in reality it is written as a chapter of a mythical history of Buenos Aires and, at the same time, as a literary manifesto, albeit ironic and understated. Borges never abandoned this book and over the course of three decades, he continued leisurely to add supplementary pages, prefaces, quotations in English, mini‑narratives, letters, which are related to their subject matter in a very oblique manner.

This biography is also the work of a timid man, as Borges described himself some years later, when he published A Universal History of Infamy. The character 'Borges' who writes this book is as much an invention as Carriego, and the imaginary topology of the suburb, the limit between the city of the upper and the middle classes and the city of the compadrito, is drawn as one of the spaces of Borges's own literature. Rather than a biography, which clearly it is not, Evaristo Carriego is a pre-text and a treatise: the first volume of an encyclopedia of that suburban Tlön which Borges invents under the rubric of Buenos Aires. And in this volume, as in the encyclopedia of Tlön, a conception of art would of course find a place. Borges would later comment rather severely on the mythical and literary construction of the orillas and the compadritos. In the Afterword to Doctor Brodie's Report he condemns the elaborate fantasy of his very typical porteño* [1] short story 'Streetcorner Man' (an "all too famous extravaganza", writes Borges).Yet, the poems written in the twenties, this story and Evaristo Carriego were necessary moments in the development of his writing, and although he rejects the baroque profusion of cuchilleros in his early work, Borges never altogether distanced himself from the ideologeme that he constructed in the twenties, which had the originality of being deeply Argentine without falling into the deadly trap of either conventional literary nationalism or of literary realism.

If one seeks to deny the autonomous existence of visible and palpable things, one might easily reach this conclusion by thinking: Reality is like that image of ourselves that comes out of every mirror, a simulacrum that exists because of us, comes with us, waves and then leaves, but which can always be found if we go looking for it [10]

This idealist profession of faith, written by Borges when he was little over twenty years old, rests on a metaphor which stresses the notion of the simulacrum. Literature, in particular, invents those spaces whose power of persuasion lie in the illusion produced by and in the text (forcing what Borges likes to call, quoting Coleridge, "the willful suspension of disbelief"). 'Carriego' and the orillas are not in this sense simulacra of a lesser poet or of Buenos Aires, but rather simulacra of what Borges writes and, above all, of the place whence he writes. The reality of that character and that space is founded, precisely, on invention.

In this way, Borges lays the foundations of his literature by opposing two dominant concepts. It has often been said, and I have aimed to show here, that Borges's first books, his articles in the avant-garde journals Proa and Martin Fierro (see Chapters 7 and 8), signify a break with Lugones and with modernismo. They answer the question of how to write after and in opposition to Lugones. It seems to me that this point is sufficiently clear and, therefore, I would prefer to move on to another one: I believe that Borges is also proposing a literature that is different to Don Segundo Sombra, the rural novel by Ricardo G üiraldes.

It is true that he never subjected G üiraldes to the games of literary terrorism that he played on Lugones. G üiraldes was on his side in the avant‑garde movements of the 20s, he directed Proa with Borges, and G üiraldes often acknowledged, in one of his fulsome articles, that Borges was one of the young writers with a mission to reform and renew Argentine literature. Nonetheless, it is possible to argue that Borges saw himself as certainly very distant from the aesthetic principles underlying Don Segundo Sombra. G üiraldes's gauchismo would have been, for Borges, excessively compact. Weighed down by rural minutiae, full of descriptions of gaucho tasks, respectful in his attitude to costumbrismo, G üiraldes must have been a problematic novelist for Borges.

In 'The Argentine Writer and Tradition', Borges offers a form of defence of Don Segundo which, after a careful reading, awakens our suspicions:

"The nationalists tell us that Don Segundo Sombra is the model of a national book; but if we compare it with the works of the gauchesque tradition, the first thing we note are differences. Don Segundo Sombra abounds in metaphors of a kind having nothing to do with country speech but a great deal to do with the metaphors of the then current literary circles of Montmartre. As for the fable, the story, it is easy to find in it the influence of Kipling's Kim, whose action is set in India and which was, in turn, written under the influence of Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn, the epic of the Mississippi. When I make this observation, I do not wish to lessen the value of Don Segundo Sombra; on the contrary, I want to emphasize the fact that, in order that we might have this book, it was necessary for G üiraldes to recall the poetic technique of the French circles of his time and the work of Kipling which he had read many years before; in other words, Kipling and Mark Twain and the metaphors of French poets were necessary for this Argentine book, for this book which, I repeat, is no less Argentine for having accepted such influences." [11]

This somewhat overstated defence of Don Segundo is impeccable, but, precisely for that reason, I would like to examine this statement in the context of the whole article. A few paragraphs earlier Borges had put forward his celebrated and well‑known assertion, 'd'apr ès Gibbon', concerning the absence of camels in the Koran, an absence which was justified since Mohammed was sure of his own Arab identity. The absence of camels, reasoned Borges, exaggerating his argument into a paradox, should be sufficient to prove the Arabness of the Koran. The example allows him to express his desire for an Argentine literature discreet in its use of local colour. Without pausing, he goes on to criticise his first books ("forgettable and forgotten") which overflowed with compadritos, mud walls and seedy suburbs. Immediately afterwards comes the defence of Don Segundo quoted above.

It is not difficult to conceive of it as a contradiction. But I would prefer to consider it as a further argument, containing a great deal of sophistry, in his polemic with literary nationalism. Borges takes a text which nationalists considered to represent the 'essence' of Argentina, and shows them that this text is, in fact, made up of many cross cultural references. The irony of the phrase "contemporary cliques of Montmartre", to which Borges was not attached, is just one of the many clues which lead us to believe that, rather than offering a defence of Don Segundo, Borges takes the novel, as well, as a pre‑text, using it in a polemical argument about nationalism. He praises it, but the arguments which precede and follow that praise tend considerably to weaken this praise.

For Borges,Don Segundo Sombra is too obviously a criollo novel. The abundance of local references detracted from, rather than proved, its 'Argentine nature', since they were used to excess. The frequency and self‑sufficiency with which G üiraldes presents gaucho lore, experiences and learning, goes against what Borges considers to be basic Argentine qualities: reticence and constraint are absent in the stylistic and narrative display of G üiraldes. There are too many horses in Don Segundo Sombra to take seriously its pretensions to be a national text.

Borges prepares the path for the rest of his argument and skillfully leads it to its ideological‑aesthetic conclusion, by abandoning the novel by G üiraldes and stating the issue in a direct and general way:

"What is our Argentine tradition? I believe we can answer this question easily and that there is no problem here. I believe our tradition is all of Western culture, and I also believe we have a right to this tradition, greater than that which the inhabitants of one or another Western nation might have. I recall here an essay of Thorstein Veblen, the North American sociologist, on the pre-eminence of Jews in Western culture. He asks if this pre-eminence allows us to conjecture about the innate superiority of the Jews, and answers in the negative; he says that they are outstanding in Western culture because they act within that culture and, at the same time, do not feel tied to it by any special devotion." [12]

The same, Borges adds, applies to the Irish and to Argentines and South Americans in general: "We can handle all European themes, handle them without superstition". The fabric of Argentine literature is woven with the threads of all cultures; our marginal situation can be the source of our true originality. It is not based on local colour (which binds the imagination to empiricist control) but on the open acceptance of influences.

This is precisely what Borges achieves in his first book of stories, A Universal History of Infamy, working with second‑hand materials, European versions of Oriental fictions, lives of North American bandits and gun-men, almost insignificant episodes concerning Chinese pirates, false Persian prophets or Japanese warlords. Published in 1935, A Universal History of Infamy follows the book on Carriego; it included a dozen short stories that, years later, Borges described as the "exercises of a man who was timid". (Too timid to write his own stories and thus he used plots from various sources to compose them, but, in fact, bold enough to publish a most atypical and original collection). Within Western culture and its versions of the Orient, Borges goes in search of marginal stories, alien to the great literary tradition and which, in some cases, reveal his taste for the detective genre or his devotion to adventure novels. His sources are minor or little‑known books (except Life on the Mississippi by Mark Twain) which he reworks with the freedom of a marginal who knows he is writing in the margins.

He chooses themes so evidently exotic that it would be very difficult to take seriously the question as to whether or not they are exotic vis a vis River Plate culture. And furthermore, these themes undergo a process of verbal creolisation which anticipates in a deliberate way, the last story in the book and Borges's first tale of compadres, 'Street-corner Man' (which is in turn a rewriting of 'Hombres pelearon' ['Men Fought'] an extremely brief text he had published years before in Martín Fierro.)

Distance, Borges would argue, if it is conceived of as a geographical, cultural and poetic displacement, and assumed as a Latin American right, not only makes fiction possible, but also creates the conditions for the reader's pleasure. Don Segundo Sombra is once again the butt of Borges's irony in the short story 'The Gospel according to Mark', written several decades later in 1970. In the story, Borges puts into fictional form the same theoretical proposition. On a ranch in the township of Junín, in the pampas, towards the end of the nineteen twenties, a man from Buenos Aires is cut off by a flood with the Gutres, a family of rural workers:

"In the whole house, there was apparently no other reading matter than a set of the Farm Journal, a hand-book of veterinary medicine, a deluxe edition of the Uruguayan epic Tabar é, a History of Shorthorn Cattle in Argentina, a number of erotic or detective stories, and a recent novel called Don Segundo Sombra. Espinosa, trying in some way to bridge the inevitable after-dinner gap, read a couple of chapters of this novel to the Gutres, none of whom could read or write. Unfortunately, the foreman had been a cattle drover, and the doings of the hero, another cattle drover, failed to whet his interest. He said that the work was light, that drovers always travelled with a packhorse that carried everything they needed, and that, had he not been a drover, he would never have seen such far-flung places as the Laguna de Gómez, the town of Bragado, and the spread of the N úñez family in Chacabuco." [13]

What Borges achieves with this reading of Don Segundo to the peons is, ultimately, to reaffirm the freedom or, rather, the necessity of cultural mixture. The Gutres gain no pleasure from G üiraldes's novel, because they can perceive that there is no difference between it and their own rural world. The Gospel which Espinosa reads to them afterwards, on the contrary, fascinates them with a story which is at once full of miracles and the exotic. And as a consequence, behaving as tragically active readers, they renact that text on the estancia, by crucifying the man who told it to them. The Gutres's emotions are therefore stirred, not by similarity but by difference. This sinister parable of the power of reading demonstrates that, for Borges, cross-cultural blending is one of the imaginative strategies needed to liberate literary invention from the claims of realism and the repetitive routine of everyday experience.


'Funes the Memorious' can be understood as a fictional mise‑en‑sc ène of what happens when a discourse is enslaved in direct experience. Funes has an infinite memory but is incapable, Borges asserts, of thinking:

"To think is to forget differences, generalize, make abstractions. In the teeming world of Funes, there were only details, almost immediate in their presence". [14]

Literature is, precisely (and specifically), one of the symbolic practices which breaks with that immediacy which is linked to memory, to perception and to repetition. Literature works with the heterogeneous, it cuts, pastes, skips over things, mixes: operations which Funes cannot carry out with his perceptions nor, as a result, with his memories. For Borges, real memory is related in the main to oblivion.

The destiny of Ireneo Funes, an inhabitant, like Borges, of "a poor South American suburb", is to remain prey to the material of his experience. Enclosed within a world where there are no categories but only perceptions, Funes can only attempt impossible tasks: such as the art of classification, so often the object of Borges's irony, as in 'The Analytic Language of John Wilkins'. Funes, in fact, invents a system of words to be used instead of the infinite series of numbers, revealing, at the same time, the mysterious force of his memory and the futility of the task:

"He told me that in 1886 he had invented an original system of numbering and that in a very few days he had gone beyond the twenty-four-thousand mark. He had not written it down, since anything he thought of once would never be lost to him. His first stimulus was, I think, his discomfort at the fact that the famous thirty-three gauchos of Uruguayan history should require two signs and two words, in place of a single word and a single sign. He then applied this absurd principle to the other numbers. In place of seven thousand thirteen, he would say (for example) Máximo P érez; in place of seven thousand fourteen, The Railroad; other numbers were Luis Melián Lafinur, Olimar, sulphur, the reins, the whale, the gas, the cauldron, Napoleon, Agustín de Vedia. In place of five hundred, he would say nine. Each word had a particular sign, a kind of mark; the last in the series were very complicated. I tried to explain to him that this rhapsody of incoherent terms was precisely the opposite of a system of numbers [...] Funes did not understand me or refused to understand me". [15]

Borges deploys his irony on two levels. On one hand, there is a very obvious reference to the system of words instead of numbers used by gamblers and bookies in clandestine lotteries and other betting games, which places Funes's invention in the most trivial cultural context. On the other hand he reveals the difficulties of translating from one code into another. Funes is attempting to translate and expresses the conviction that systems are perfect analogous of what they stand for. Borges claims exactly the opposite: translating implies always to lose, to misplace, to divert and, if this is not understood, we fall into the trap of a candid belief in the ultimate identity of languages: in the face of semiotic systems and reality, a false hope can arise that representation and straight-forward communication are possible.

A Conte philosophique on literary theory, 'Funes the Memorious' can be understood as a parable dealing with the possibilities and impossibilities of representation, because Funes experiences to the limit the problems of translating perception, experience and memories of experience into discourse. Funes is enthralled by what Borges would have called the disordered chance of realistic representation and his situation is desperate: the duration of what is narrated (the told) and the duration of the narration (the telling) coincide in his discourse in a perfect fashion: "Two or three times, he had reconstructed a whole day; he had never hesitated, but each reconstruction had required a whole day". Funes ignores ellipsis and cannot sever the continuum of remembered time in order to organize it into the artfully crafted development of the narrative; he is not free to forget and, hence, he is not able to choose. Thus he is condemned to repetition and his discourse, although fascinating as a philosophical monstrosity, can never aspire to the originality achieved by the freedom to choose and to reject. Funes is not a paradox but a hyperbolic image of the devastating effects of absolute and candid realism which trusts the 'natural' force of perceptions and events. He ignores the process of construction of reality and, thus, is incapable of constructing a discourse that could free him from his enslavement to absolute mimesis. If for Funes time were infinite (as it is for God), his memory would no longer frustrate his endeavours. But literature, and any narrative, rest upon the unavoidable principle that time offers a limit to the representation of what takes place in time.


Without doubt, Borges is dealing with the problem of how to write in general, and not only of how to write in Argentina. Yet both questions seem to come together in the theoretical fiction 'Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote'. In this story, irony and paradox generate ambivalence which, in any case, is Borges's preferred mode of address. The text criticises the very "knowledge" it produces. After completing a long list of written exercises which relate, albeit in an overtly ridiculous way, to translation, paraphrase, and pastiche, Menard had undertaken the task of re-writing, word by word, Cervantes's novel:

"He did not want to compose another Quixote ‑which is easy- but the Quixote itself. Needless to say, he never contemplated a mechanical transcription of the original; he did not propose to copy it. His admirable intention was to produce a few pages which would coincide ‑word for word and line for line‑ with those of Miguel de Cervantes." [16]

Borges states that the chapters of Don Quixote which Menard was able to write before his death "are more subtle" than those of Cervantes, although, at the same time, they are identical. What is the meaning of this paradox? It becomes clear that the attribution to Menard of these chapters of Don Quixote enriches the text of Cervantes through displacement and anachronism. The idea of the fixed identity of a text is destroyed as are those ideas of authorship and of original writing. With Menard's method, original writings do not exist and intellectual property is called into question. Meaning is constructed in a frontier space where reading and interpretation confront the text and its (always ambiguous) relationship to any claim to literal meaning and objectivity. In fact, Borges states through the paradox of Menard, that all texts are the rewriting of other texts (which confirms the endless play of textuality and meaning), but, at the same time, all texts are read against a cultural background that forms the fleeting course of meaning into a historical pattern:

"Let us examine Chapter XXXVIII of the first part, 'which deals with the curious discourse of Don Quixote on 'arms and letters'. It is well known that Don Quixote (like Quevedo in an analogous and later passage in La hora de todos) decided the debate against letters and in favour of arms. Cervantes was a former soldier: his verdict is understandable. But that Pierre Menard's Don Quixote -a contemporary of La trahison des clercs and Bertrand Russell- should fall prey to such nebulous sophistries!

It is a revelation to compare Menard's Don Quixote with Cervantes'. The latter, for example, wrote (part one, chapter nine): '...truth, whose mother is history, rival of time, depository of deeds, witness of the past, exemplar and adviser to the present, and the future's counsellor'.

Written in the seventeen century, written by the 'lay genius' Cervantes, this enumeration is mere rhetorical praise of history. Menard, on the other hand, writes: '...truth, whose mother is history, rival of time, depository of deeds, witness of the past, exemplar and adviser to the present, and the future's counsellor.'

History, the mother of truth: the idea is astounding. Menard, a contemporary of William James, does not define history as an inquiry into reality but as its origin. Historical truth, for him, is not what has happened; it is what we judge to have happened. The final phrases -exemplar and adviser to the present, and the future's counsellor- are brazenly pragmatic". [17]

The process of enunciation modifies any statement. As a study of linguistics in the twentieth century has emphasised, this principle destroys and at the same time guarantees originality as a paradoxical value which is related to the 'enunciation': it comes from the activity of writing and reading, not tied to words but to words in a context. As an ultimate consequence of this hypothesis, Borges lays claim to the productivity of reading and demonstrates the impossibility of repetition; although every text presents the variation of a few topics, it also reveals the radical difference between them. There is no way, Menard says or Borges says, that a text can be the same as its double or as its exact transcription. All texts are, from this point of view, absolutely original, which amounts to saying that none can aspire to this special quality. Borges is fascinated by translations (which are another mode of transcription, more arduous, perhaps, and ultimately impossible). In his comments on the Homeric versions, he had already discovered that "to presuppose that every recombination of elements is necessarily inferior to its original, is to presuppose that working-copy 9 is necessarily inferior to working-copy H‑ as there can only be working‑copies. The concept of the definitive text corresponds only to religion or to fatigue." [18]

Literature is composed of versions. The paradox of Pierre Menard illustrates the process of writing, by taking it to the limits of the absurd and of impossibility, yet making it, at the same time, visible. This proposition, formed in the geographical‑cultural margin of the River Plate, offers a new situation for the writer and for Argentine literature, whose operations of mixture, of free choice without "devotions" (to quote Borges's term), do not have to respect the hierarchical order attributed to originals. If no originality is attached to the text, but only to the writing or reading of a text, the inferiority of the margins vanishes and the peripheral writer is entitled to the same claims as his or her European predecessors or contemporaries.



  [1] *porteño is an adjective which refers to those born or brought up in Buenos Aires, the port city and, by extension, the positive and negative qualities of its inhabitants

[1] . Cuaderno San Martín, Luna de enfrente y Fervor de Buenos Aires.

[2] . Jorge Luis Borges, El tamaño de mi esperanza, Buenos Aires 1926, p. 8-9.

[3] . 'A la calle Serrano', in Indice de la nueva poesia americana.

[4] . 'Un patio', in Fervor de Buenos Aires, Buenos Aires 1923.

[5] . 'Barrio Norte', from Cuaderno San Martín, in J.L.Borges, Poemas (1922‑1943), Buenos Aires 1943.

[6] . J. L. Borges, Prólogos con un prólogo de prólogos, Buenos Aires 1975, p.94. The text quoted was written in 1962.

[7] . Inquisiciones, Buenos Aires 1925, p.58.

[8] . "The innocent biography proves to be a turbulent, insidious text", writes Sylvia Molloy, Las letras de Borges, Buenos Aires 1979, p.27.

[9] .Evaristo Carriego, Buenos Aires 1965, p.11.

[10] . "Berkeley's Dilemma", Inquisiciones, p.119.

[11] . 'The Argentine Writer and Tradition', Labyrinths, London, 1970, p.216.

[12] . Labyrinths, p.218. On the basis of this same quotation, Sylvia Molloy develops the concept of Borges's "lateralness" in Western culture.

[13] . 'The Gospel According to Mark', in Doctor Brodie's Report, London 1976, p.18.

[14] . 'Funes the Memorious', in Labyrinths, p. 94.

[15] . 'Funes the Memorious',Labyrinths, pp.92-93.

[16] . 'Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote', Labyrinths, pp.65-66.

[17] . Labyrinths, pp.68-9.

[18] . 'Las versiones hom éricas', in Discusión, Obras completas, Buenos Aires 1975, p.239.

Former published as: Beatriz Sarlo. Borges, a Writer on the Edge. London: Verso, 1993.


© Borges Studies Online 14/04/01

How to cite this chapter:

Beatriz Sarlo. Borges, a Writer on the Edge. Ch. 2. Borges Studies Online. On line. J. L. Borges Center for Studies & Documentation. Internet: (