Noga Tarnopolzky

Borges in the Afterlife

New York Times Book Review (August 22, 1999)



Which of my cities
am I doomed to die in?
where revelation reached me . . . ?

These lines open ''The Web,'' a poem by Jorge Luis Borges published in The New Yorker on June 2, 1986. I was 20 when it came out, beginning to mull over my own history of growing up in four languages, on four continents, and the poem seemed to capture perfectly the specific blend of longing and belonging that characterizes people who come from many countries, and not from any one country in particular. I clipped it out and tacked it to the wall above my bed.

Two weeks later, Borges was dead, in Geneva.

It is difficult to unravel all the threads that tie me to this poem. My mother was once a student of Borges at Buenos Aires University. She had grown up, as he did, in the rarefied circle of Argentine children educated in British schools, reading the Protestant Scriptures on the outskirts of the pampas, and as long as I can remember has been one of his most faithful admirers. (What language / am I doomed to die in? / The Spanish my ancestors used / to call for the charge, or to play truco? / The English of the Bible / my grandmother read from / at the edges of the desert?) An autumn ritual during my childhood involved breakfast outbursts excoriating the ''intellectual hypocrites'' who once again had denied Borges ''his'' Nobel. She was certain that this occurred year after year only because of the great man's un-self-consciously aristocratic fascism, a bad fit with the self-consciously lefty politics of European academic circles in the 1970's.

But most important is the fact that I grew up in Geneva, as Borges did, both of us the English-speaking children of wandering Argentines, both of us attending the city's international schools. I left Geneva at the age of 14; he arrived at the age of 15, living there for four years until his parents took him forcibly away, eventually back to Argentina. Borges spoke of this departure for the rest of his life, and loved the city with a desperate, adolescent devotion. Jerusalem, where I was born and now live, goes unmentioned in ''The Web,'' although it was central to Borges's writings, especially after he was awarded the Jerusalem Prize in 1971, and as he began identifying himself -- eccentrically, insistently -- as the descendant of converted Spanish Jews. Such was his fixation that Argentine officials these days are contemplating different fonts of the Hebrew letter aleph for a medal in his honor, a homage to his masterly collection of short stories, ''El Aleph,'' published in 1949. One might have thought they'd go for the less obscure but no less Borgesian labyrinth, but in the race to celebrate Borges's 100th birthday this week, that has already been snapped up by the designers of a commemorative stamp.

This spring I found myself once again in Buenos Aires, the most enchanting of Borges's cities (Buenos Aires / where I verge on being a foreigner?). Over the years I have occasionally attempted to track down the original Spanish version of ''The Web,'' scrutinizing the posthumous edition of Borges's ''Obras Poeticas Completas'' and scouring bookshops for new or obscure collections. On this visit I decided to contact Borges's longtime friend and collaborator, María Esther Vásquez, a delightful, vivacious woman with a photographic memory of his writings, who before our meeting at her home searched through a database of Borges 's poetic works recently compiled by the critic Nicolás Helft. After much discussion, Vasquez suggested that the poem might be apocryphal. Why? She and her husband, who had joined us, smiled enigmatically.

Oddly, this wasn't the first time I had heard this. Innumerable whispers are whispered in Buenos Aires. Along with the stamp and the medal, I found that Borges is commemorated in the cafes of the city, 13 years after his death, by all kinds of lively speculation, especially in the electric and electrifying literary circles in which everyone, it seems, harbors suspicions or convoluted theories of some variety. You could say this is progress, of a kind; according to my mother, 40 years ago in a much more repressed Argentina, so much as mentioning Borges's blindness was considered taboo. Today the gossip often concerns Borges's widow, María Kodama, whom he married only weeks before his death (they were constant companions for years before that, but never mind). Idle chatter about alleged offenses as diverse as hogging his literary estate, practicing tax evasion, distancing Borges from faithful old friends near the end of his life and cutting him off from family is commonplace. Several people cheerfully hinted to me that Kodama herself may have had a hand in writing ''The Web'' in order to justify having ''spirited'' Borges away to die in distant Geneva.

The truth of the matter, I began to suspect, was that the possessive, patriotic Argentines couldn't accept that Borges, knowing he was terminally ill with cancer, chose to die in Geneva and to be buried there. The very thought seemed to indicate a betrayal too awful to contemplate, as though his love for that city could be no more than a literary conceit next to the carnal passion he surely felt for Buenos Aires. In the current wave of Borgesmania, he is being transformed into much more of a pure-blooded, unambivalent Argentine than he ever was in life. Consider his 1984 travelogue, ''Atlas,'' in which he wrote, ''Of all the cities in the world, of all the intimate motherlands a man hopes to encounter in the course of his voyages, Geneva seems to me the most propitious for happiness.''

Buenos Aires, as he must have known all too well, is no place for dying -- too rambunctious, too inquisitive. Too desirous, in fact, of boxing him in -- witness all the public testimonials, the new memoirs by his few still living friends, the relentless gossip mill, retrospective articles, lectures, films, exhibits, the recently renamed Avenida Borges . Fascinated in life by the idea of his own immortality, Borges in death has become an iconic figure. One can only imagine the glee with which he would have received reports of his spirited afterlife.

Late this spring, having written to The New Yorker with no conclusive reply, I finally tracked down the translator of ''The Web,'' Alastair Reid. Thirteen years had passed since its publication, and I was afraid he would no longer remember the poem, but such was not to be the case. Relaxed, charming and blessed with a quick memory, Reid promptly recited a dozen lines in a Scottish baritone, then elegantly solved the mystery. ''Borges and María came to New York. We were having breakfast and he showed me this poem. I said, 'Well, this is a gift, and we would like to have it for The New Yorker,' and he said, 'It doesn't have a title.' I said, 'Borges, you and I are always talking about the web, the great web of human connection. Could we call it ''The Web''?' ''

The poem's only appearance in Spanish was sometime in the 1980's, in a Mexican fashion magazine called Vanidades. As it happens, the lines I fell in love with barely exist in print: in Viking's new, definitive bilingual edition of Borges's ''Selected Poems,'' a revised version of ''The Web'' is printed -- a longer, more diffuse rendering provided by María Kodama after her husband's death.

Borges loved mazelike tales in which the tension builds up to a final resolution -- which in turn reveals itself to be nothing more than a new beginning. In one story, ''The Library of Babel,'' librarians search desperately for a readable text in an endless tangle of thousands of undecipherable books, eventually locating a single legible word, but no one is there to hear it. So it is with ''The Web'': in its ephemeral existence, we discover its origins and its oblivion.