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‘I am lost somewhere’: Borges in London

Looking at him from a distance, it was impossible to think that he wasn’t looking at us—wasn’t looking at anyone—that he was walking alone in his darkness.

Ficciones (1944) by Jorge Luis Borges (Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons)

‘I am lost somewhere’: Borges in London

Nirmal Verma
Translated by Vineet Gill

Translator’s note: This essay was part of Nirmal Verma’s 1976 book Shabd Aur Smriti (Word and Memory). When I first read it, sometime in 2014, as someone more or less ignorant of Hindi literary history, I was astounded by the idea that a little-known Hindi writer from the 1970s could write so perceptively, so confidently about Borges and his literary cosmopolitanism. Was a Hindi writer, an Indian writer, allowed to do so? Weren’t writers supposed to work within the bounds of their traditions? And even when writing about some other tradition, weren’t they supposed to make it clear that they were indeed writing about some other tradition? In this essay, as in all the rest of his work, Verma leaves absolutely no markers to establish that he is a Hindi or an Indian writer. There’s no distance between the author and the subject. Just as Borges could, in Verma’s words, ‘freely relate to the European tradition’, Verma himself could freely relate to Borges’s Argentine past and Anglophile taste—enough to claim Borges as part of his own, self-created tradition. It’s rare to come across writing like this in our globalised world, where neither Verma nor Borges would have felt at home.

Looking at him from a distance, it was impossible to think that he wasn’t looking at us—wasn’t looking at anyone—that he was walking alone in his darkness. Amid the deafening, echoing applause he came searching his way on to the stage. Although over 70 years old now, he seemed unusually delicate and pure—like a man who brings all the excitements of youth to his old age. No wonder, then, that on that evening, amid London’s most sophisticated, well-turned-out intellectuals, Borges to a large extent looked like an ‘outsider’—a child out of his depth in a room full of grownups.

Although the whole auditorium was packed with his devotees and admirers, it was nevertheless strange to find that so many people had bought tickets, paying one pound each, to be here and to listen to a writer who, until a few years ago, was almost unknown in the West—or whose name was uttered only by a handful of intellectuals. Is Borges, too, something like that final straw in Europe that a drowning civilisation clutches onto for a while, before letting go? I doubted if Borges, who himself walks in the dark, was going to offer anyone the illumination of cheap formulae or magic mantras. My doubt was further reinforced when the English audience here started asking him questions. Not a single question had anything to do with his creative universe—people were more interested in figuring out which technical key could help them unlock the world, the mysteries of his stories. In fact, not for one moment did it seem that his English intellectual admirers had been able to take hold of that thread with which they might establish some sort of harmonious link with that blind Argentinian sufi writer.

In a way this was deplorable. Borges is among those handful of Latin-American writers who have taken a lot from English literature and culture—who can be called ‘Anglophile’ writers in the true sense of the word. In itself it is interesting—and somewhat ironic too—that modern writers like Borges don’t forget expressing their gratitude from time to time towards those English writers—Stevenson and Chesterton—who have become outdated and unreadable in their own country. Or maybe it is just the London fog—filled with invisible signs and mysterious dangers—that pulls Borges towards itself? During the talk Borges mentioned those things that have always fascinated and terrorised him—fog, night, the metropolis. These ‘things’ are connected to Latin-American iconography in a strange sort of way—mirrors, labyrinths and knives. ‘The knife has its own personal, secret life,’ Borges said, ‘a “private” script of blood and violence is connected to it, of a kind that spontaneously evokes in us a feeling of respect for it.” One can say that the knife inaugurates a public deed of the kind that determines personal destinies. He writes in one of his poems:

I have achieved my destiny.
My final Latin American destiny.
A stab of hard iron,
Cutting through my chest
And on my neck,
My own familiar knife.

But ‘the knife’ is very personal, very flesh-and-blood. ‘I am not scared of it,’ Borges said. ‘I am scared actually of mirrors—I have been scared of them since childhood. Looking at them, I get a dreadful feeling, like I am trapped somewhere and can’t get out. Looking at a mirror I get a hallucinatory sense that my image somewhere has its own separate essence, as though, because every being has its own image, everything has become suspect, unreal and questionable.’

The thing that worries Borges is not the now-fashionable crisis of ‘identity’; the ‘crises’ of modern intellectuals don’t alarm Borges. His difficulty lies in figuring out how to recover that forgotten ‘memory’ that man consigns forever to the dark corners of his past. But if on the one hand recovering a memory sometimes becomes difficult, on the other it also happens that we can’t ‘forget’ that which ought to have been forgotten, when man ‘forgets’ forgetting and memories begin to stack up as though time itself was stuck somewhere in midstream. This is the state of the terrible nightmare. ‘Once it so happened that I wasn’t able to sleep,’ Borges said. ‘For me, sleep became an impossibility, because I was always thinking about my body. During those moments of agony, when I was sleep-deprived, I wrote a story—about a man who could never get rid of his memories. Whatever he experienced seemed already to be a part of his memory—as though every experience was merely a process for the duplication of memory… that man didn’t live long.’

***

The problem of memory is linked to time—and in almost every story of Borges’s time spreads out like a desert landscape—with all its mirages and illusions—neither separate from reality nor a part of reality. It is like that ‘joker’ in a deck of cards which can be made to stand for anything in the game, because in itself it stands for nothing. That which is nothing, can be everything. Borges’s time isn’t like Proust’s ‘circular’ time, whose high points come to light through moments of ‘spontaneous reminiscence’. As if the entire past could be segmented with light poles placed at short distances. In Borges’s view, remembrance is a form of self-deceit—because there’s no such thing that we can call the ‘past’—or in other words, the past is only a component of the eternal present, where it becomes meaningless to see it as a separate entity. Proust’s world is a world of ‘similarities’, where one thing reminds us of the other, where one memory comes out of another memory, like layers of onion peel… Such ‘similarities’ had once haunted Baudelaire so much. Since Borges doesn’t divide time into segments, he doesn’t accept these ‘similarities’. ‘One moment is not ‘similar’ to the next—it is exactly the same as that first moment was.’ When two moments are exactly the same, the question of similarity doesn’t even arise—when the coming moment is exactly the same as the moment past, then time has no meaning.

Maybe this is one of the reasons why Borges has never written a novel—let alone writing one, he finds it difficult to read novels. ‘I feel quite embarrassed to admit it,’ Borges said hesitantly, ‘that I can never read a long novel—not even great novels like Madame Bovary and War and Peace! To be sure, I quite like reading Don Quixote—I read it again and again, perhaps because it isn’t a “true” novel, it’s just a story that keeps going on and on.’

***

This isn’t surprising. The ‘time-sense’ that gave rise to the novel in the West differs completely from Borges’s time-sense. A novel comprises a time-bound sequence of events, which Henry James, with much exasperation, had once termed ‘the darkness behind and the abyss ahead’—in other words, it is that thing we call history. In Borges’s world, there’s no attachment to it because this is the kind of world where ‘historical time’ remains eternal—and is therefore eternally non-existent. That’s why the events that take place in his stories don’t take us from illusion towards truth or from self-delusion towards self-knowledge. They don’t take us anywhere. They’re a glittering landscape where truth and delusion coexist, where one person’s light is another’s shadow… That’s why to say this is also impossible—if not impossible then meaningless—that the truth we are holding on to, what if it is another form of delusion? ‘Around fourteen centuries ago,’ Borges said, ‘a man named Chuang-Su lived in China. One afternoon he dreamt that he’s become a butterfly and is flying around. When his sleep was interrupted, he found himself utterly baffled… He couldn’t decide if he was Chuang-Su who had become a butterfly in his dream, or if he was that butterfly in whose dream he has now become Chuang-Su.’ Most of Borges’s stories—which he calls ‘fictions’—revolve around such illusory, ambiguous episodes.

One can surmise from all this that Borges’s approach is not unrelated to the appeals of those French storytellers who have attempted to cross the limits set by the ‘time-bound’ novels of Balzac or Tolstoy, although Borges is not interested in the artistic experiments that are used in the Nouveau Roman to get rid of time. Robbe-Grillet’s spectacular experiments would perhaps seem to him as tedious as the longwinded family novels of the nineteenth century. ‘I want to write straightforward stories,’ Borges said at one point in his speech. ‘In my old age, I want to write stories quite like the ones Kipling had written when was 21-22.’

But it isn’t just in terms of technique and experiment, but on another, deeper level, too, that Borges differs from the French ‘New Novelists’. He sincerely believes in that invisible power which the Greek playwrights used to call ‘human destiny’. All our deeds inevitably take us to that final, decisive moment, when man shatters the mirror and witnesses his own self—standing face to face with it in a nakedly honest manner . ‘Each destiny, no matter how long or complex, is actually engendered by a special moment—a moment when, in a lightning flash, man gets to know who he really is.’ What makes our destiny dreadful isn’t the fact that it is unreal. It is dreadful because of its iron inevitability, because of the fact that it can’t be reversed.

‘Time is the element I am composed of. Time is the river, which takes me in its stream—but I am the river. It’s that cheetah who mauls and tears me apart—but I am the cheetah. It’s that fire, which swallows me—but I am the fire. The world, unfortunately, is real—I, unfortunately, am Borges.’

This isn’t vacuous mysticism. This is a way to free reality from the trappings of history and to accept it on one’s own terms. This is also a way of accepting one’s destiny, not as a contingency, but as an unveiled secret, or, in Martin Buber’s words, as ‘a calling and a summons’.

Yet a scent of secrecy can be found in his writings. Talking about this scent, Borges said in his speech that he has always tried in his own writings—and while reading others—to search for the literary possibilities of religion and philosophy. But this ‘search’ has no relation whatsoever with the gravely solemn reflections of professional religious writers. Borges is not a ‘religious or spiritual’ writer even in the sense that Graham Greene is a Catholic writer. He reminds me more of ancient Chinese poets, or medieval sufi saints, who knew what it was like to be ‘astonished’, just as they knew how to astonish others. Perhaps that is why Borges’s stories (like Kafka’s sketches) are only to be found in the forms of fables, illusory tales, dreams and anecdotes. If there’s a ‘secret’ to be found in his writings, then it is, in Goethe’s words, an ‘open secret’. If it seems somewhat puzzling, it isn’t because something is kept hidden from us, but rather because it is there, completely clear and transparent, among things hidden. No surprise, then, that Borges’s beloved ‘image’ is the ‘labyrinth’, which is at once very accessible and complex.

***

Listening to Borges that evening, a somewhat strange thought occurred to me, that the metaphors in his stories play the same magical role as quotations did in the Marxist critic Walter Benjamin’s writings. Both writers have had different world-views, but their ‘passions’ and difficulties are similar. Like Benjamin’s ‘quotations’, Borges’s stories, too, are like those ‘wayside robbers who leap out, armed, and relieve the idle stroller of his conviction’. What Benjamin has considered to be the ‘truth’ becomes a teasing ‘secret’ in Borges’s stories, because what we believe to be true ‘is not a matter of exposure which destroys the secret, but a revelation that does justice to it.’ (Walter Benjamin)

The revelation never happens, but it can at any time, and this hope remains until the end, it should remain until the end . ‘Happiness’ doesn’t exist in this world but is ‘built’ upon this hope. Borges has said somewhere, ‘Music, states of contentment, mythological tales, time-laden faces, twilight fog, some places—they all want to say something to us, or they once said something to us that we shouldn’t have allowed to vanish, or they will say something to us. The imminent possibility of revelation, which is never realised—that is what beauty is created out of.’

Among the Latin-American writers perhaps Borges alone comes closest to the agonised curiosity of the European tradition, of the Jewish tradition. This was perhaps his nature. Being an Argentine writer, he did not have to, like other Latin-American writers (Octavio Paz among the most notable of them), look back and search for his Indian tradition—for such a tradition did not exist in his country. He could freely relate to the European tradition—because he did not have his past weighing on him—but being an ‘outsider’, he also never felt compelled to be loyal to that tradition; if he was free from his past, he was outside Europe as well. It is this very sense of freedom that makes him say with such pride: ‘The gods may have been deprived of the ability to work miracles, but not so the writers, writers can always alter the past… Like Kafka, they themselves imagine into being their precursors.’

‘What’s that one thing that you feel most frequently in your life,’ an audience member asked him after the speech.

Borges looked at us with his tired eyes, ‘I always feel that I am lost somewhere, I always feel this.’

When I stepped outside, it was raining—London’s fog and rain drenching the darkness—Borges’s personal effects, I thought. Then suddenly this thought occurred to me that two kinds of writers exist: those who belong to this world—Homer, Tolstoy, Thomas Mann; and those who bring to us reports from that other world beyond the grave—like Lazarus—they deliver to us rumours from the underground…and we start looking at our world from that side—Dostoevsky, Kafka and Borges are such writers.

Maybe it is nothing but a coincidence that this thought had occurred to me that night just as I was descending the stairs of the underground station.

Nirmal Verma (1929–2005) was one of the pioneers of modern Hindi writing and published some of the most important and formally complex novels, short stories and essays of his age.

Vineet Gill works as a senior copy editor at Penguin Random House India. His first book, Here and Hereafter: Nirmal Verma’s Life in Literature, will be published by Penguin in September 2022.