S H O R T S T O R Y
THE DEATH OF BORGES
(AND THE DEATH OF BORGES)
b y d e n n i s v a n n a t t a ~ l i t t l e r o c k , a r k a n s a s
OVER A decade now having elapsed since the death of Jorge Luis Borges, it is perhaps time to look at the circumstances surrounding his passing with an eye to historical accuracy -- which has not, alas, heretofore been forthcoming. Newspaper accounts -- all the world, except for the few of us who were there, has to go on -- were, in a word, a sham, a fraud, a lie. Died in Zurich, didn't they say? Confusing the enigmatic and duplicitous Argentinean with Joyce, perhaps. Borges would have loved it. "I who have been so many men in vain . . ."
The relatives and friends who continue to promulgate this absurd fabrication do so, no doubt, on the assumption that they are thereby protecting the great man's reputation. But the Borges I knew would have preferred that the truth -- in this case at least far less prosaic than the fiction -- be his legacy.
Let me clarify. I claim no personal relationship with or intimate knowledge of Borges. A dozen words at most passed between us, and I was in his presence perhaps three hours in all. But these were the definitive three hours in this context: the ultimate three of his life.
I had been in Buenos Aires for the annual book fair, where I was to read a paper in a special session, "After Post-post-Modernism." I owe my eventual meeting with Borges to the conjunction of a mirror and an encyclopedia. The mirror hung in the art nouveau lobby of the Hotel du Nord. It was in this mirror that I randomly but fortuitously glanced and saw a huge leather-bound volume clutched in the hands of an obviously angry gentleman who had raised it for the evident purpose of crashing it down on the head of an unfortunate soul seated before him.
I whirled -- for, although the mirror was to my right, what it reflected was to my left -- and struck the descending encyclopedia a glancing blow -- enough to divert it from its fatal course. It fell harmlessly to the floor, and the assailant was hustled off into a nearby lift by, I suppose, friends eager to forestall further violence.
The encyclopedia lay forgotten on the floor, and I never discovered what body of knowledge this particular vol. xlvi purported to reference. The assailant, however, I later learned was a non-tenured instructor in semiotics from Louisville who had lost a war of wits with an elegant Argentinean, whom he then tried to dispatch with the weighty tome.
The elegant Argentinean turned out to be Bioy Cesares, whom the world knows to be Borges' life-long friend and sometime co-author. Grateful for my intervention, he asked me to join him in a late supper at a quaint place not far distant. I of course was delighted to accept.
We took a taxi out of that affluent quarter of the city and soon found ourselves in a drab suburb near the river. The "quaint" cafe that Cesares promised me was in reality a smoky dive in which patrons sat drinking and playing cards at little round tables crowded together to allow room for a scant rectangle of floor, where two couples repeatedly stalked, stamped, and whirled past one another in a tango at once arch and salacious.
Cesares was guiding me through that Stygian den of, I would not have been surprised to learn, cutthroats and thieves, when he suddenly stopped, pointed to a table of card players drowning in smoke, and called out, "Tiger Jorge, the Wild Jew of the Pampas!"
One of the card players, his back to us, turned. He was shiny bald on top but the hair on the back of his head curled down over the collar of his black turtleneck. He held a tumbler of some sort of liquor in his right hand, in his left a fistful of cards. A cigarillo dangled from his full, slightly sneering lips.
"Who calls Tiger Jorge!" he demanded to know, with each word a puff of smoke exploding into the foul air. Before Cesares could answer, the man's scowl suddenly changed into a smile of delight.
"It's boysy-boy Bioy, sole supporter of seven cathouses and a condom factory!" the man bellowed.
Cesares tousled the man's hair, aimed a playful punch at his shoulder, pretended to try to wrench the glass of liquor from his grasp. The man feigned outrage, shouted "Assassin!" and laughed heartily.
"Tiger, let me introduce you to my new friend, who on this very night of nights saved my life," Cesares offered, then proceeded to narrate a flattering and hyperbolic account of our meeting at the Hotel du Nord.
"Let me shake your hand, oh Scourge of Encyclopediasts!" Tiger Jorge boomed.
I swear it was not until that moment, his hand wavering doubtfully in the air, that I realized two things at once: the man was blind, and he was Jorge Luis Borges.
At the great man's request I wedged myself down next to him, Cesares on his opposite side.
"Try some of what I'm drinking -- mescal, a man's drink," he said. "I developed a taste for it one fortnight in Guadalajara."
"Oh yes, that escapade with the druggist's wife," Cesares broke in.
Borges threw his head back and hooted: "Bastard! You'll never let me live that one down."
The mescal came. I was dazed enough just to be in the presence of the greatest writer of short fiction in our time, and the mescal completed the process of my stupefication.
In truth, after our auspicious beginning, Borges rarely acknowledged my presence. Not through rudeness or indifference, though: he was absorbed in the card game. Truco, as it turned out. My mind was not working well enough to allow me to understand the game. Cards were flung down. Borges slammed his down with knuckle-shattering violence. Liquor was drunk. Money exchanged hands. Borges seemed to be drinking a lot, winning a lot.
At a certain point it occurred to me that I couldn't with confidence have said if I'd been sitting at the table three minutes or three days. I looked at my watch. Almost two hours had elapsed.
By then, most of the money on the table lay in a careless jumble before Borges. He flicked one spent cigarillo on the floor, lit another. He took a long drink of mescal. He grinned. Then he said something my poor Spanish could not interpret. If I could guess from the tone, though, I would have said -- and who could have imagined this from Borges? -- that he had uttered a taunt.
A loutish-looking fellow sitting across from him reddened. He stood up, knocking his chair over backward, and threw his cards in Borges' face. He spat out a phrase in Spanish -- lost to me.
Borges rose slowly to his feet.
"Let's get on our way, then," he said evenly, almost courteously.
Aided by some mysterious and miraculous sense of direction, Borges pushed his way through the crowd, his antagonist behind him, Cesares and I and -- I discovered once we were outside -- a throng in tow.
I wanted to shout, Stop! All this is happening too quickly! Really, gentlemen -- a blind man, a poet. Think about what you're doing!
But I said nothing, helpless, afloat on a humid night that seemed to have imposed upon all of us a future as irrevocable as the past.
We were in an alley behind the bar. The turgid air stank of stale beer, rotten fruit, dead fish, and urine. I could hardly breathe, but on Borges' face was a smile of liberation and joy. For him it might have been a festival.
The crowd formed a circle. The drunken lout pulled an absurdly long knife from the folds of his grimy coat. Borges, weaponless a moment before, suddenly brandished a naked dagger. He lunged first, with a strength and swiftness remarkable for one his age. But the lout was prepared. He parried, lunged, and drove his knife into Borges' side.
Borges fell heavily to the damp pavement. His death, I swear, was instantaneous.
The murderer took three step backward, turned and fled. We, we little men, were left to consider in stunned silence our place in this reduced world, this new world without Borges.
Six of us knelt, then lifted our fallen hero. Led by Cesares -- head held high despite his tears -- we stumbled off down Boeda Street.
I didn't know where we were going. I didn't know where we were. We reached a dark corner, turned left. Turned left once more at the next corner. We labored on, turned left yet again. I was dizzy from the mescal, the stench, the suffocating night, the endlessly turning path. I couldn't help noticing, though, that our numbers increased with every step. Mustachioed gauchos appeared -- stepped straight from the Pampas, it seemed, with daggers in their leggings and bandoleers draped over their shoulders -- to grab a bit of Borges' sleeve or trouser, help bear him to his final home. A dark-eyed woman in a low-cut blouse threw herself at us, trying to reach him, wailing, "Tiger, Tiger, oh my man!" Others, weak from shock and grief, stumbled beside us for a few steps, then collapsed in tears, moaning as we moved off into the night.
Windows were thrown open from houses as we passed.
"What is it?" the suddenly awakened would call down from their darkened bedrooms.
"Borges!" we'd shout back. "The great Borges is dead!"
Shrieks of disbelief would answer us.
At a certain point I realized that we had escaped the dark and dangerous slum and were now in a more respectable area of middle-class homes and townhouses. We turned onto Florida Street. The houses were finer still. What had been dingy cafes were now respectable restaurants, and the fetid bars were now clubs where stylishly dressed patrons glided in at the behest of white-gloved doormen.
We stopped before a tall, narrow, but elegant house whose filigreed trim bespoke an earlier era.
I found myself tapping on the door. In a moment it swung slowly open to reveal a tiny woman of incredible age.
I blushed, realizing I didn't know who she was or why I'd knocked.
"Borges -- " I stammered, gesturing vaguely behind me.
"Oh yes," she said in impeccable English. "You have come to see my son. Please step this way. Georgie is upstairs."
I followed her across a darkened foyer, our footsteps swallowed by the plush carpet, then on up a gently curving staircase, balustraded in dark oak polished by generations of trailing hands. At the second floor we turned left down a hallway upon which opened a shocking number of doors. My ancient guide opened one on the left, revealing a narrow, vertiginous stairway, which she immediately began to climb.
I started up after her. "Careful!" she called back without turning, and I ducked just in time to avoid crashing my forehead into the dangerously low lintel.
At the top of the stairs, the old woman paused before a closed door, tapped once, then opened it and stepped inside without waiting for a reply.
I followed and found myself in a small, oddly shaped room -- hexagonal, if memory serves -- made even more cramped by bookshelves extending from floor to ceiling. Piles of books cluttered the corners of the room and nearly obscured a tiny writing desk jammed up against one of the book-adorned walls. In the midst of it all, on a small cot lay a wasted figure staring unblinkingly up at the ceiling. I could not tell if the man was alive or dead, but I knew who he was: Jorge Luis Borges.
"Ah, I see you are admiring Georgie's books," Mrs. Borges said with a pleased smile.
For the first time the cadaverous figure stirred. "Those pages cannot save me," he murmured.
"None of that, Georgie," Mrs. Borges said brightly. "We have a visitor, after all. An admirer of yours come to pay his respects."
She stepped close to me, said behind her hand, "You are the first. No one, no one has come -- and my son dying. Oh to be sure, there has been the occasional telephone call from reporters hoping to fill up their dead pages with some drivel or other. And even those Georgie, so very shy, refuses to acknowledge. So you're the first, the first true admirer . . . a lover of books yourself . . . a teacher, perhaps."
I admitted as much.
"Well then, sit with Georgie a while as I read. It is the only pleasure remaining to my poor son."
"In adventures such as these . . . In adventures such as these . . ." Borges mumbled to himself.
Ignoring him, his mother reached behind her and lifted a book, apparently at random, from a shelf. I sat down at the writing desk. She opened the book and began to read aloud in Spanish, which I could not follow. I feigned interest, sifted through the clutter on the desk: books, papers, a few coins, a strange cone of bright metal. Idly, I started to pick up the cone between thumb and forefinger. I could not budge it. With an effort, I managed to lever it over into my palm. Its weight was intolerable, repugnant. It thudded to the table when I released it.
At that moment I realized Mrs. Borges had stopped reading. I looked up guiltily, expecting to find her censorious gaze on this nosy visitor. But she was flipping back and forth in the book in her lap with perplexity and consternation.
"Georgie," she protested, "this middle page has no reverse."
The figure on the bed stirred once more. His death-mask of a face twitched subtly in . . . an ironic smile? . . . a grimace of terror? He mumbled something: "This too, perhaps, was foreseen," it sounded like, but I can't be sure.
I was overwhelmed with sadness and a yearning to be gone from that oppressive room. As Mrs. Borges continued to fumble with the book, I stole over to the door, took one look back. I could detect no breath, no sign of life in Borges.
I fled down the narrow stairway, down the hall and grand staircase to the foyer. At the front door I paused, troubled by a sudden vision of a game of Truco, an exchange of insults, a knife fight and a procession down dark streets. What awaited me beyond the door? I was not brave enough to venture a look.
I escaped through a back door into an alley, thence onto a broad thoroughfare at the end of which I could clearly see the noble façade of the Hotel du Nord.
This single straight line to the hotel might as well have been a labyrinth, though, for I confess in my terror, confusion, and the lingering effects of the mescal I lost my way again and again before finally achieving my goal.
The art nouveau lobby was crowded with "academic types" in cheap sports coats with names on their lapels. In one wing chair sat an elegant Argentinean who was conversing, rather heatedly it seemed, with a young man who stood above him, in the crook of his arm a huge book that appeared to be an encyclopedia of some sort.
Dizzy to the point of nausea, I turned away, catching in the corner of my eye a long mirror hanging on the opposite wall. I did not dare look into it.
O time thy pyramids! Was I standing in the lobby today or the day before yesterday? I did not know and do not now. I must confess, in fact, that of my account of the death of Borges (and the death of Borges) I can attest to nothing with certainty -- not even that it is false.
This short story was nominated for a Pushcart Prize
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