University of Pittsburgh

Beatriz Sarlo
Borges: a Writer on the Edge

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Tradition and Conflicts


Nostalgia can only be felt for something which has been lost, in fact or in the imagination. In a Buenos Aires transformed by the processes of urban modernization, where the criollo city took refuge in some streets in the neighbourhood and even there underwent changes that affected both its physical and its demographic profile, Borges invented a past. He worked with elements that he discovered in (or ascribed to) Argentine culture of the nineteenth century, that had for him a solidity not to be found in books, but rather in a family tradition. Yet even these fragments, found in the fading images and deeds of his criollo ancestors, were endangered by time, modernity and oblivion:

My ancestors struck up a friendship

With these distances

Conquering the prairies closeness [...]

As a town-dweller, I no longer know these things

I come from a city, a neighbourhood, a street. [1]

As an Argentine, Borges was part of an endangered tradition. No matter how tenuous the presence of this tradition might be, he felt that he belonged to it as much as it belonged to him. But like his ancestors, the Spaniards, who forged a friendship with the pampas, Borges had lost a 'natural' link with Europe. Although he was educated in Geneva and was a friend, in Madrid, of the ultraist writers he met when he was very young, although he repeatedly points out that the first novels he read as a child - even Don Quixote which he read in translation - were in English, Borges could not but feel the problem of a culture which was defined as European but which was not altogether so, because it was developed in a peripheral country and was blended with the criollo world. If he could enter and leave both cultures, this freedom had its cost: there was something artificial and distant in his relationship to both cultures. This is the freedom of Latin Americans, Borges would have answered, which is upheld by the awareness of something missing. To read all world literature in Buenos Aires, to re-write some of its texts, is an experience which cannot be compared to that of the writer who works on the secure terrain of a homeland that offers him or her an untroubled cultural tradition. Although it could be argued that this is very seldom the case with great European writers of the twentieth century, those outside the European tradition consider that native Europeans have a close affinity with their 'natural' cultures. Yet the fact that they are embedded in a culture that is, for them, inevitable, deprives them of the very freedom that Latin Americans can deploy. Freedom is our fate.

Borges dramatised the limits and conflicts of this freedom in several fictions that are very similar in their differences: "The South", "The End" and "Story of the Warrior and the Captive". Let us see how these fictions reveal some of the key topics of Borges's literature.


"The End" deals with the meaning and the place of Argentine culture and attempts to answer the following question: What are the elements that make up Argentine literature and how is Argentine literature related to world literature? It is also revealing about Borges's sense of possessing a literary and a cultural past: the ways in which he modifies a heritage.

The Argentine avant-garde of the twenties and thirties, to which Borges belonged, had to offset the influence of some very important writers like Leopoldo Lugones, who occupied the centre of the literary system. Lugones was not only the most important modernista, the national peer of Darío, but also a most visible and influential intellectual. As poet laureate, he represented what the literary avant-gardes, and Borges himself, loathed: rich rhymes, sumptuous images, highly wrought exoticism, decadent eroticism. As a public figure, he solemnly asserted his preeminence and made ample use of his supreme power to pass judgement on the value of contemporary literature. He published in the prestigious newspaper La Nación. His most disparate opinions on many different topics were taken as trustworthy and the social and intellectual elite, including the President of the Republic and his ministers, flocked to his lectures which were major events in Buenos Aires intellectual life.

In 1916, Lugones had given a very influential interpretation of the nineteenth century gauchesque poem by Jos é Hernández, Martín Fierro, which he read as a national epic. [2] The gaucho Martín Fierro, the central character in the poem, was considered by Lugones to be a symbol of Argentine qualities and values. This myth gained its strength from the very fact that gauchos - as members of a free, poor, rural population not wholly incorporated into the labor market but coerced into it according to the needs of a very primitive exploitation of the pampas, or drafted into the army to defend the frontier from Indian raids - were no longer found to be found in the plains. They had disappeared and were replaced by rural wage-earners who worked in the estancias, mastered the traditional skills with the knife, the lasso and the horse of their fathers and forefathers, but had lost their rebellious potential.

Martín Fierro (published in two parts in 1872 and 1880) was presented by Lugones as an allegory of the Argentine past and a symbol of an Argentine essence. It was a very timely invention at the moment when immigrants from Italy but also from Germany and Central Europe were arriving by the thousands to Buenos Aires, and the intellectuals became worried about the future of their culture and what some of them took to calling the 'Argentine race', that is to say the elite and the working class population whose origins could be traced back to the colonial period. The gauchesque poem Martín Fierro used to be learnt by heart, and was taught in schools along with the official version of local history according to which gauchos had willingly given their lives in the Independence wars against Spain only to be rewarded with by social instability as the nation-state extended its control over all the territory of Argentine through the liquidation of regional resistance and through the genocidal campaigns against the Indians. The poem provided the basis of a mythical reorganization of our nineteenth century history and a no less mythical model of nationality. The themes and many of the stanzas of Martín Fierro were quoted frequently not only by members of the criollo population but also by the immigrants that found in the gaucho a symbol of the nationality they were trying to understand and be assimilated into.

The criollo elite, to which Borges belonged, considered that Martín Fierro was a poem that should be placed at the mythical origins of Argentine culture and, at the same time, that it was a canonical text. The gauchos, as such, had disappeared but their virtues were blended into the Argentine character and could be presented as a paradigm and a guide for the ideological and cultural integration of immigrants. In fact, the gaucho Martín Fierro was not just a man full of virtues. In the poem by Jos é Hernández, he had been abused by the police, had lost his family and his few properties and become an outlaw. He had fought the Indians after his compulsory recruitment into the frontier army, where he had found more misery and injustice. He had deserted and fled into Indian territory in order to avoid the consequence of this crime and of other acts, not all of which were honorable. He had killed without evident reason, provoked duels without obvious motive and had insulted people out of bravado or drunkenness, as in the episode with the black gaucho whose brother he finally meets in the story by Borges. All in all, Martín Fierro was a complex character, a victim of an unjust system as well as a untamed rural knife-fighter. Curiously enough, the criollo elite managed to turn him into the epitome of the national character (overlooking his unruly nature) and the anarchists of immigrant origin turned him into a model and inspiration for social revolt. Thus, anyone writing in Argentina in the first four decades of this century had to examine and deal with the gaucho myth either to reject it, to re-work it or to adopt it. Both the avant-garde and the anarchists had used the name of Martín Fierro as a title for two very important journals: the cultural supplement of an anarchist paper, at the beginning of the century, and a literary magazine, published in the mid-twenties by young poets and writers, among them Borges. (See Chapter 8) Fierro was a cultural heritage about which almost everyone in the intellectual and political field had something to say. The meaning of the poem was the object of many debates and conflicts in the formation of cultural hegemony, and when the avant-garde reinterpreted the poem they entered into an aesthetic and ideological discussion with the canonical reading put forward by their literary enemy Lugones.

Borges was no exception. In fact he wrote dozens of essays on Martín Fierro and gauchesque literature during almost all his life, prologues and introductions to many editions of Martín Fierro, and a small book on the poem in the mid-fifties. Martín Fierro is one of his literary obsessions and as late as the nineteen sixties he declares in El hacedor that the battles of the civil wars and of the independence war could run the risk of being forgotten, that Perón himself would be, in a distant future, forgotten but that Hernández had dreamt of a duel between two gauchos that would indefinitely repeat itself: "the visible armies have gone away and only a poor duel remains; this dream of one man, is part of everybody's memories". [3]

In opposition to Lugones's hypotheses on Martín Fierro, that considered the poem in terms of a national epic, Borges points out that it has many novelistic elements. Epic heroes, states Borges, need to be perfect; Martín Fierro is morally imperfect and through that imperfection he belongs to the tradition of characters in novels. In writing his character, Hernández had brought the gauchesque tradition to a close because his poem is the most perfect of the cycle and after it only second rate gauchesque literature could be written. But he had also left to future writers a book that could be read and re-read, commented and re-written like (in Borges's comparison) the Bible and Homer.

On one hand, then, Martín Fierro had to be considered as an essential text of Argentinean literature. Borges considered Lugones's own interpretation as deeply futile and unfortunate: comparing the gaucho with Homeric characters was one of his most pretentious and foolish ideas. The poem had to be freed from the dead weight of Lugones' epic and hyperbolic criticism and be re-installed in a tradition that could prove productive to current literature. In fact, the poem had to be read against the grain and set free from the straightjacket of previous interpretations.

Borges achieved this in two ways: through his essays on Martin Fierro and other poems of the gaucho cycle and through some very important fictional texts. Here we are going to consider this second strategy, what Borges did with Martín Fierro in his own short stories. Although traces can be found in many stories, I have selected one, "The End" because it seems to me at the same time to close the gaucho cycle and also to recognise its importance in national literature (although Borges never openly acknowledged the importance of this concept since he was at the same time the most cosmopolitan of Argentinean writers).

In "The End", written in 1944, Borges depicts the death, in a duel, of Martín Fierro. In the last Canto of Hernández's poem, Martín Fierro parts from his children after hearing their life-stories (they had been separated for twenty years, during which time all the family had suffered). They split up once more because, as Fierro states, the tragic life of a gaucho prevents him from establishing a home and living with his family. He is an outlaw, because he has killed a man, a Moreno, without reason; he is an outlaw because he deserted from the army while he was serving on the frontier against the Indians. Although Fierro has repented of this crimes (for which he holds society partly responsible), he knows he has no chance of living within the boundaries of the rural criollo world in peace. Accepting this nomad destiny, he rides away, promising not to reappear and to be silent for ever after. But, before parting, he states that all faults committed should be paid for, in a famous line: 'No hay plazo que no se cumpla / ni deuda que no se pague' ('no debt should be left unpaid all accounts arrive sooner or later').

In Hernández's poem, Martín Fierro had slain a gaucho of black origin, the Moreno, at the entrance of a pulpería without any reason, out of sheer impulse and racial prejudice. Later on, a brother of this Moreno had challenged him to sing in order to discover which of the two was better at improvising topical subjects with a guitar. In this contest (which the gauchos called a payada), Fierro is again the winner. But he has a moral debt to pay and the brother of the Moreno has the right to expect Fierro to come back and submit himself to the customary code of revenge for an unlawful death. Fierro knows this and does not try to escape his destiny. Nevertheless, this second meeting between Fierro and the brother of his victim never takes place in the poem.

Borges imagines the story after this point, that is to say, he imagines what Hernández had never written, and wrote it himself. Seven years have elapsed since the day Fierro sang the payada with the Moreno's brother. Fierro is by now almost an old man, waiting for death with no hopes save one: that he should have a decent death. According to his honor code, a decent death, in the case of a man who has moral debts to pay, can be found in a duel. The Moreno shares this belief: although he did not fight Fierro the last time he had seen him, because he was reluctant to stage a duel in front of Fierro's children, he is patient enough to wait for a second opportunity. He knows he is going to meet Fierro again, he knows that Fierro will come to him in order to pay his debt, to compensate for the crime committed when Fierro killed the Moreno's brother.

Borges's story begins with the Moreno alone in a pulpería (rural store)waiting for Fierro: he knows that Fierro is going to honor that tacit appointment. Fierro, for his part, has no wish to escape, because the inevitable duel that will follow is as good a way as any other to put an end to his life. He knows that every debt should be paid one way or another, and a duel is an archaic ceremony that he respects: it is embedded in his culture and in his sense of honor. "Destiny has made me kill and now, once more, it has put a knife in my hand", says Fierro to the Moreno when, at last, he reaches the pulpería. Both men engage in a dialogue where honor and destiny are the main topics: "I was sure, señor, that I could count on you", says the Moreno. "And me on you", replies Fierro. "I made you wait many days, but here I am". The Moreno recalls their last meeting, seven years before, when Fierro did not accept the duel because his children were present. "I told them, among other things, that one man should not shed another man's blood". The Moreno replies: "You did well. That way they won't be like us." [4]

And this is almost everything that happens: both characters recall their past, the past that was told by Hernández in his poem of 1872 and 1880. Borges is writing an end to it and an end to the gauchesque cycle. Thus he incorporates this cycle into his literature and draws a final portrait of Fierro as an old man who is going to die. Very different from the portrait drawn by Lugones of the gaucho as national epic hero, Borges's Fierro is a sober man that respects his destiny and knows that nothing can be done to alter it. But far from being a national paradigm, he is a defeated man who can only wait for a decent death. From a moral point of view, this end corresponds to a rural culture, where fatalism is a sort of popular philosophy; and where retaliation is a right. In this sense Borges captures the ideological dimension of Hernández's poem and liberates it from the epic interpretation of Lugones and similar writers. Fierro is not a hero, but a man profoundly embedded in the primitive culture of the plains. In fact, by accepting his destiny, Fierro becomes a character of Borges's fictions.

From another point of view, let us call it allegorical, Borges is doing what neither Lugones nor Hernández did: he is putting an end to the cycle, as if arguing that Martín Fierro has to be re-written, adding Fierro's death to the open end of Hernandez's poem, before it can become, once again, a productive source of Argentine literature. But this re-writing also means, allegorically, the end of Fierro as a character and as a symbol: Fierro pays his debts with his own death and, above all, Fierro is defeated by someone (a Moreno, a man of another race, considered inferior to the criollo breed) that could not defeat him in Hernández's poem.

These intertextual relations between poem and story are a clue to Borges's literature and to his position with regard to Argentina's historical and cultural past. Once again in a meditation on Martin Fierro (in a short piece where he retells the life-story of one of the principal characters of the poem, the soldier and later outlaw Tadeo Isidoro Cruz) he clearly states that Martín Fierro is "a notable book; that is to say a book whose matter may be 'all things to all men', for it is capable of almost inexhaustible repetitions, versions and perversions". [5]

Versions and perversions: that is exactly Borges's re-reading of literary tradition. First, there was Evaristo Carriego, a minor popular poet who Borges turned into a kind of prefiguration of his own literature; then there were the minor stories he retold in A Universal History of Infamy; finally there is his re-writing of Martin Fierro, in which he adopts what he says is the only attitude a man can have towards tradition: he betrays it. The mode of his betrayal is to contradict other interpretations of the text, and to go back to Hernández himself, leaping over the pretentious reading of the poem as an epic. In the course of this, he develops in 'The End' one of his most enduring topics: that a man should comply with his fate, that reproduces en abîme the destiny that others have endured.

But by presenting Martín Fierro's death in a duel, Borges puts an end at the same time, to the life of the most famous literary character in Argentine culture. He closes the poem that Hernández had left open: the death of Martín Fierro is both the death of a character and the end of a literary cycle. In this way, Borges answers an ideological and aesthetic question: what should an avant-garde writer do with tradition? The inscription of his short story "The End" into the gauchesque cycle shows an original way of dealing with the question. Borges does not reject the literary past in totum, but, on the contrary, he faces up to the most important text (the sacred text) and weaves his own fiction with some of the threads Hernández had left loose in his poem. Thus, the story of Martin Fierro is re-enacted and, at the same time, modified for ever.


I will now consider together "The South" and "Story of the Warrior and the Captive" for, in a sense, they could be read as different versions of the same topic. Juan Dahlmann, the main character in "The South", is, like Borges himself, the product of cross-cultural mixing. It is well-known that Borges's grandmother was an Englishwoman married into a criollo family, to a man who commanded, around 1870, a military settlement on the border of Indian territory. It is also well-known that Borges, on many occasions, told his readers that he grew up in a very typical Buenos Aires neighborhood, Palermo (where Evaristo Carriego had also lived) and that he remembers hearing the music of guitars and seeing compadritos or knife-men that were mythically brave, outlaws, bodyguards of conservative politicians, maybe both at the same time. He tells us about the old house of his childhood, separated from the street by an iron gate of colonial architecture, and, in the middle of that quite conventional criollo setting, of an immense library of English books where he read for the first time The Arabian Nights (in Burton's translation), Stevenson, Mark Twain and Don Quixote in an English version, which he liked much more that the Spanish original. We know that his first literary work, aged nine or ten, was the translation of a story by Oscar Wilde, which was published in a newspaper in Buenos Aires, and which was so perfect that everybody thought it had been done by Borges's father.

Like his English grandmother who had lived in a humble village in the midst of the pampas, surrounded by Indian territory, Borges feels that he belongs in these two very different worlds: the criollo space of his military grandfather, and the English (and, all in all, European) tradition of his grandmother. He would later write this myth of divided origin in the short story entitled "Story of the Warrior and the Captive", where an Englishwoman, Borges's grandmother, discovers that another English woman who had been abducted and held captive by the Indians, preferred, when offered the choice, to return to the Indian village where her heart, and more than her heart, had been captivated by the brutality of a new life. The Englishwoman is fascinated and at the same time horrified by this adoption of a different, and in all respects alien, culture or, as Borges's parents and Borges himself would put it, by this process of becoming a barbarian:

"Perhaps the two women felt for an instant as sisters; they were far from their beloved island and in an incredible country. My grandmother uttered some kind of question; the other woman replied with difficulty, searching for words and repeating them, as if astonished by their ancient flavor. For some fifteen years she had not spoken her native language and it was not easy for her to recover it. She said she was from Yorkshire, that her parents had emigrated to Buenos Aires, that she had lost them in an Indian raid, that she had been carried off by the Indians and was now the wife of a chieftain, to whom she had already given two sons, and that he was very brave. All this she said in a rustic English, interwoven with Araucanian or Pampan, and behind her story one could glimpse a savage life: the horsehide shelters, the fires made of dry manure, the feasts of scorched meat or raw entrails, the stealthy departures at dawn, the attacks on corrals, the yelling and the pillaging, the wars, the sweeping charges on the haciendas by naked horsemen, the polygamy, the stench and the superstition. An Englishwoman had lowered herself to this barbarism. Moved by pity and shock, my grandmother urged her not to return. She swore to protect her, to retrieve her children. The woman answered that she was happy and returned that night to the desert." [6]

In fact, Borges thinks that crossing a cultural border and living on the edge of a frontier (what he calls in his poetry the orillas, the borderline) is a pattern not only of the captive's story but of his own, and metonimically of Argentine literature. The English captive could be described by an oxymoron: a fair, blue-eyed, Indian woman. At the beginning of the "Story of the Warrior and the Captive", Borges quotes Benedetto Croce who in turn had quoted a Latin historian on the subject of Droctulft, the Lombard warrior who "during the siege of Ravenna, left his companions and died defending the city he had previously attacked". [7] Borges confesses that for years he had been intrigued by Droctulft's decision to which, at the same time, he felt strangely sympathetic. Only when he comes to link this story to that of his English grandmother could he grasp the meaning that justifies the use of the singular 'story' (not 'stories') in the title of his own text. Droctulft was not a traitor, says Borges, but a convert:

"The wars bring him to Ravenna and there he sees something he has never seen before, or has not seen fully. He sees the day and the cypresses and the marble. He sees a whole whose multiplicity is not that of disorder; he sees a city, an organism composed of statues, temples, gardens, rooms, amphitheatres, vases, columns, regular and open spaces. None of these fabrications (I know) impresses him as beautiful; he is touched by them as we now would be by a complex mechanism whose purpose we could not fathom but in whose design an immortal intelligence might be divined". [8]  

The fair blue-eyed captive was also a convert, although the meaning of her adoption of Indian culture could seem to us (but not to an "immortal intelligence") to be the opposite of that of Droctulft. Both the warrior and the captive chose to abandon their world enthralled by an otherness that they did not understand.


Borges uses the same theme in his story "The South". Juan Dahlmann the protagonist of the story is, like Borges, the descendant of mixed ancestors. His grandfather Johannes Dahlmann was a Protestant priest of German origin and his mother's father, Francisco Flores, was a military man and a criollo of Spanish origin who had fought against the Indians. Dahlmann, like Borges in the forties when this story is written, is an obscure librarian with vague criollo sympathies who has kept up, albeit with some economic difficulties, the county house of an estancia he had inherited in the south of Buenos Aires province. Like Borges, Dahlmann cherishes old books and rare editions. One evening, on arriving home with a volume of the Arabian Nights, he is wounded in the head by an open window which he bumps into unawares when he is climbing the stairs to his house. The wound on his forehead is deep and dangerous. It becomes infected and Dahlmann goes down with a fever. After many days of unconsciousness and delirium, the doctors declare him to be out of danger. Weak and confused, he decides to spend some time in his estancia, which he has not visited for years.

At this point, the story is given a twist: 'Reality', writes Borges, 'favours symmetries and slight anachronisms'. [9] The story of Dahlmann's illness turns into the story of his impossible recovery, because his decision to go South, into the plains, will be shown to be much more dangerous than the physical wound that is already almost healed.

Dahlmann takes a train and carries with him the volume of the Arabian Nights he was reading on the evening of his accident. Lulled by the movement of the train, the monotony of the landscape and the childish delight produced by the trip, he keeps repeating to himself that the next day he will be in the estancia, in the middle of the pampas, in the deep South, where once gauchos, Indians and military men fought their last battles or their last duels. "Loneliness was perfect and perhaps hostile and Dahlmann could begin to suspect that he was not only going South but also towards the past". Some abnormal details, like "small displacements", begin to affect this almost perfect happiness: the train does not stop at the usual station and Dahlmann gets off in an unknown place, where he is told that it will be possible for him to get by car or carriage to his estancia. Dahlmann, says Borges, accepts this alteration 'as a small adventure". [10] He reaches a pulpería where he observes several gauchos that remind him of the doctors and nurses that had taken care of him during his illness. Reality is blurred by parallelisms and coincidences, but nothing uncanny arises at first sight from this blurring. Dahlmann interprets these small changes, strange recognitions or mis-recognitions, and light displacements as something that is happening independently of his will to change or accept it. He surrenders to the unknown and expansive course of his destiny. Sitting at a table in the pulpería, waiting to be served his dinner, observed by gauchos who do not belong to present time (the story takes place in 1939 and these gauchos wear nineteenth century dress), but who nevertheless do not seem out of place, Dahlmann dines on sardines, barbecued beef and strong red wine.

'All of a sudden Dahlman felt something brush lightly against his face next to the heavy glass of turbid wine, upon one of the stripes in the tablecloth, lay a spit ball of breadcrumb. That was all: someone had thrown it there'. Clearly, Dahlmann is being provoked although nobody should know who he is or, at least, that is what he thinks till he hears his name: 'Señor Dahlmann, don't pay any attention to those lads; they're half high'. [11] Dahlmann decides that, now that he has been recognized, he can no longer ignore the offence and avoid the conflict because people would say that he had behaved as a coward in front of a bunch of drunken gauchos.

The certain knowledge that he should fight is at once clear, unavoidable and absurd. Somebody in the pulperia, a very old gaucho, throws a knife to his feet; Dahlmann grasps it and goes out into the night to face, in a duel, his South American destiny. "It was as if the South had resolved that Dahlmann should accept the duel". [12] When he bends down to take the knife he feels that "that an almost instinctive act bound him to fight' and that 'the weapon in his torpid hand was no defence at all but would merely serve to justify his murder". Nevertheless, the story ends, "Firmly clutching his knife, which he perhaps would not know how to wield, Dahlmann went out into the plain. [13]

Like Martín Fierro in "The End", Dahlmann is accepting his fate. But, unlike Martin Fierro who cannot help but to act according to the only moral code he knows, Dahlmann has constructed this fate through making small choices among all the possibilities offered him by his double origin: he was not born in the rural criollo world, he simply chose it following a whim that turned out to be fate. As in the story of the captive English woman who decides to return to the Indian village and rejects the sympathy of Borges's grandmother, when Dahlmann goes south, he has begun to accept a part of his heritage, that of his grandfather Francisco Flores. In fact, when he thinks he is going South, to the estancia, to recover his health, he is really going South to recover an image of his past. That is the meaning, also, of the "light anachronisms": the gauchos dressed in nineteenth century garb, the very primitive surroundings, the old man, a symbol ("a cipher", writes Borges) who offers his knife to Dahlmann guiding him into his destiny, which means the acceptance of a tradition, but also of death.

These details can clearly be read as the hallmarks of fantastic literature: ambiguity of time and space, false and mis-recognitions, parallelisms and blurred references. All that is very obvious. What I am trying to do instead is to organise them in a 'theoretical' pattern which might reveal the meaning and the place of Argentine culture, and the ways in which one has access to its core and to its very menacing truth.

Like the English captive woman, Dahlmann is seized by the symbolic strength of primitivism, because what could be thought as primitive corresponds to a set of values and traditions (respect for fate, acceptance of destiny, physical courage) that are lacking in modern culture. In both stories, the criollo or Indian dimension takes revenge upon the urban and literate spaces. In both, the main characters are reconquered through the fascination which barbarism exerts over them. Dahlmann, the librarian who seeks in the South something more than just the recovery of his health, accepts the incomprehensible criollo duel with a stranger for no reason, at least for no reason he could name. The English captive chooses to return to the native settlement, swept away by, "a secret impulse, an impulse more profound than reason". [14]

Literature works with the material of this impulse which also guides Borges in his poetic invention of "las orillas", the frontier between city and country, or between two worlds: Europe and Latin America, books and caudillos or compadritos, his English ancestors and his criollo blood. Something in the Argentine past is deeply linked to this rural culture, which Borges contrasts to the urban, literate and European tradition. Neither of these two lineages can be completely repressed or abolished; neither should be emphazised to the point of obliterating the other. However their coexistence results not in any classical symmetry but in conflict.

 The tension created by this double origin is at the heart of Argentine literature. This tension runs through Dahlmann who is capable of quoting by heart stanzas of the Martin Fierro and, at the same time, of appreciating a rare or remarkable edition of the Arabian Nights. Both books, we know, fascinated Borges. Both offer him a matrix for infinite stories, that can be read and re-read in order to be re-written in new texts. The Arabian Nights, needless to say, is also a translation, the form adopted by a classic oriental text in an European language. In a way, translation is also the problem of Latin American literature, at least from Borges's point of view: his country is a marginal space vis à vis the Western literary tradition, and the position of its writers is, in itself, problematic. The fact that they do not recognize a cultural fatherland in Spain leads them to connect national literature with that of other European countries. But the fact that there is also a local cultural tradition does not simplify this connection. For years Borges worked on this problem in an allegorical and somewhat ironical way. Like Dahlmann, he knows his Martín Fierro by heart (and has re-written some of its episodes); like Dahlmann he values his criollo heritage; like Dahlmann he mixes this heritage into a European blend. He knows that the criollo past should not be looked for but found, should no be adopted but received and, through this conviction, he is also stating an opinion on the integration of recent immigrants into Argentine culture.

"The South" is, at the same time, both tragic and ironic. It carries a double warning: cultural mixture may be our fate, but nonetheless there is danger in it. One of the dangers is the bland romanticisation of the criollo past that leads to a rural literature, based on the picturesque, which Borges refutes and avoids in his fictional and critical practice. He writes: "Blind to all fault, destiny can be ruthless at one's slightest distraction". [15] The sentence may point to Dahlmann's distracted nature while he is climbing the stairs to his house, but it may also be read as an ironic anticipation of his fate. Dahlmann, distracted by the picturesqueness of the rural setting he has stumbled upon cannot resist the allure of a criollo ending for his life, which can be seen as fate but also as a punishment for his Bovarism. Both meanings are equally possible in the multilayered irony of the story.


In fact, Borges's pattern for Argentine literature could be described as the European ordering of an American heritage, rather than the predominance of local traits over European or imported culture. My reading of "The South", has attempted to present, in its allegorical terms, this cultural mixture which never offers a happy ending but rather leads to conflict. The death of Dahlmann is significant not only because it is staged under the sky of the pampas and in a criollo duel (a peripeteia prefigured in Martin Fierro), but also because a librarian and the grandson of a European Protestant pastor is the man through which destiny is fulfilled. Dahlmann, says Borges, cultivated a "voluntary, but never ostentatious, 'criollismo'", appropriate to a man of the city, a reader of the Arabian Nights, a stranger, after all, to the archaic dimension (perhaps produced by his delirium) of the poor pulpería where he receives the summons to a duel. The fulfillment of this heterogeneity (a true oxymoron, as is the fair blue-eyed Indian woman) refers not only to the double origin of Dahlmann and of Borges, but of Argentine culture itself.

Mixture is, at the same time, indispensable and problematic. Borges is very far from the peaceful synthetic solutions which would turn Argentina into an idyllic space of a cultural melting-pot. On the contrary, all his literature is riven with feelings of nostalgia, because it takes place on the limit between two worlds, on a line which separates and joins them, but which, through its very existence, marks the insecurity of the relationship. In this sense, Borges's literature belongs to a frontier between Europe and America; it reveals distances and transformations, in the same way in which the inscription of writing separates the spaces of the page from the spaces of life. [16]



[1] . "Dulcia linquimus arva", in J.L. Borges, Selected Poems, 1923-67. London 1972, pp. 49-51.

[2] . Leopoldo Lugones, El payador, Buenos Aires, falta año.

[3] . Jorge Luis Borges El hacedor, Buenos Aires, 1960, p.38.

[4] .All these quotations are from 'The End', in J.L. Borges A Personal Anthology, Picador, 1972, pp. 137-8.

[5] .'Biography of Tadeo Isidoro Cruz', om A Personal Anthology, op.cit, p.132.

[6] .Story of the Warrior and the Captive", in Labyrinths, London 1970, pp.161-2.

[7] ."Story of the Warrior and the Captive", p.160

[8] ."Story of the Warrior and the Captive", ibid p. 160.

[9] .'The South' in A Personal Anthology, op.cit, p.13.

[10] .both quotations, ibid, p.15.

[11] .For both quotations, ibid, p. 16-17.

[12] .ibid, p.17.

[13] .ibid, p. 17-8.

[14] . "Story of the Warrior and the Captive", in Labyrinths, London 1970, p. 162.

[15] .'The South', op.cit, p.12

[16] . The phrase belongs to Edward Said, Beginnings, New York 1986, p.237.


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. 3. Borges Studies Online. On line. J. L. Borges Center for Studies & Documentation. Internet: (