Sunday, November 14, 2010

Passages of Borges. The lesson and the secret.

My intention was to produce a yeoman essay on the late Argentine fabulist Jorge Luis Borges, addressed especially to Mona, who often writes-in here. She is a bona fide PhD-- and myself, I think I once got a doctorate in dancing and Voodoo in what was left of a forest in Haiti; an MD of the rain forest.

But in the course of writing my er, discourse, I had some sort of mental blackout, a power failure if you will, but very probably, a Senior moment.
Blank screen syndrome.
Seems I had stopped getting mental blocks once I switched onto the keyboard for writing--can you imagine what it had been like to compose 2,000- word drafts on a typewriter, again and again?--compulsion neurosis--hell that took not only some gung-ho ability--but on a mechanical typewriter, it seemed to take considerable brawn. Let your weary fingers do the walking, and, ogawd! they did, up to the point of cramps.
Well, today keyboarding is infinitely easier, but that doesn't mean ones ideas are any more communicable...Fifteen thousand drunken monkeys in your head don't necessarily produce War and Peace, or even an essay on Borges.

Nevertheless, current mental block or no, we flinch not, neither do we falter. We will press on.

As Borges said in his foreword to a collection of his stories, "It is a laborious madness and an impoverishing one, the madness of composing vast books, setting out in five hundred pages an idea that can be perfectly related orally in five minutes. The better way to go about it is to pretend that those books already exist, and offer a summary, a commentary on them".

Lord, I'd better not do my esay long...Better to pretend the essay already exists an offer a summary of it?

But let's have a look-see at the actual text, at least its beginning. This would be important.

The Approach to al-Mu'tasim

Philip Guedalla informs us that the novel The Approach to al-Mu'tasim by the Bombay barrister Mir Bahadur Ali 'is a rather uneasy combination of those Islamic allegories which never fail to impress their own translators, and of that brand of detective story which inevitably outdoes even Dr Watson and heightens the horror of human life as it is found in the most respectable boarding-houses of Brighton.' Before him, Mr Cecil Roberts had blasted Bahadur's book for 'its unaccountable double influence of Wilkie Collins and of the famed twelfth-century Persian, Ferid Eddin Attar' - a simple enough observation which Guedalla merely parrots, though in an angrier jargon. Essentially, both reviewers are in agreement, pointing out the book's detective-story mechanism and its undercurrent of mysticism. This hybridization may lead us to suspect a certain kinship with Chesterton; we shall presently find out, however, that no such affinity exists.

Well, I know old Chesterton as a pretty good antique horror writer...But I can't even imagine all the other references.

But it is Borges, in his own chaming way, assuming, tongue-in-cheek that we know all his references and we are thoroughly hipped on Muslim lore. He presumes that the Bombay barrister Mir Bahadur Ali is a household name and we are familiar with all his works and the various shades of Islam...Such is the strange, amazing power of fiction. We are somehow convinced that we know all the references and nuances of Borges' tales.

Borges somehow magically charms us on:

The first edition of The Approach to al-Mu'tasim appeared in Bombay towards the end of 1932. The paper on which the volume was issued, I am told, was almost newsprint; the jacket announced to the purchaser that the book was the first detective novel to be written by a native of Bombay City. Within a few months, four printings of a thousand copies each were sold out. The Bombay Quarterly Review, the Bombay Gazette, the Calcutta Review, the Hindustani Review (of Allahabad), and the Calcutta Englishman all sang its praises. Bahadur then brought out an illustrated edition, which he retitled The Conversation with the Man Called al-Mu'tasim and rather beautifully subtitled A Game with Shifting Mirrors. This is the edition which Victor Gollancz has just reissued in London, with a foreword by Dorothy L. Sayers and the omission - perhaps merciful - of the illustrations. It is this edition that I have at hand; I have not been able to obtain a copy of the earlier one, which I surmise may be a better book. I am drawn to this suspicion by an appendix summarizing the differences between the 1932 and the 1934 editions. Before attempting a discussion of the novel, it might be well to give some idea of the general plot.

Its central figure - whose name we are never told - is a law student in Bombay. Blasphemously, he disbelieves in the Islamic faith of his fathers, but, on the tenth night of the moon of Muharram, he finds himself in the midst of a civil disorder between Muslims and Hindus. It is a night of drums and prayers. The great paper canopies of the Muslim procession force their way through the heathen mob. A hail of Hindu bricks hurtles down from a roof terrace. A knife sinks into a belly. Someone - Muslim? Hindu? - dies and is trampled on. Three thousand men are fighting - stick against revolver, obscenity against curse, God the Indivisible against the many gods. Instinctively, the student freethinker joins in the battle. With his bare hands, he kills (or thinks he has killed) a Hindu. The Government police - mounted, thunderous, and barely awake - intervene, dealing out impartial lashes. The student flees, almost under the legs of the horses, heading for the farthest ends of town. He crosses two sets of railway lines, or the same lines twice. He scales the wall of an unkempt garden at one corner of which rises a circular tower. 'A lean and evil mob of mooncoloured hounds' lunges at him from the black rose-bushes. Pursued, he seeks refuge in the tower. He climbs an iron ladder - two or three rungs are missing - and on the flat roof, which has a dark pit in the middle, comes upon a squalid man in a squatting position, urinating vigorously by the light of the moon. The man confides to him that his profession is stealing gold teeth from the white-shrouded corpses that the Parsees leave on the roof of the tower. He says a number of other vile things and mentions, in passing, that fourteen nights have lapsed since he last cleansed himself with buffalo dung. He speaks with obvious anger of a band of horse thieves from Gujarat, 'eaters of dogs and lizards - men, in short, as abominable as the two of us'. Day is dawning. In the sky is a low flight of well-fed vultures. The student, in utter exhaustion, lies down to sleep. When he wakes up, the sun is high overhead and the thief is gone. Gone also are a couple of Trichinopoly cigars and a few silver rupees. Shaken by the events of the night before, the student decides to lose himself somewhere within the bounds of India. He knows he has shown himself capable of killing an infidel, but not of knowing with certainty whether the Muslim is more justified in his beliefs than the infidel. The mention of Gujarat haunts him, as does the name of a malka-sansi (a woman belonging to a caste of thieves) from Palanpur, many times favoured by the curses and hatred of the despoiler of corpses. He reasons that the anger of a man so thoroughly vile is in itself a kind of praise. He resolves - though rather hopelessly - to find her. He prays and sets out slowly and deliberately on his long journey. So ends the novel's second chapter.

It is hardly possible to outline here the involved adventures that befall him...

Yes, yes, of course. Dontcha know?

The trick in Borges seems to lie in one master narrator, for all stories, and all stories being somehow one. Even your story?

But no.

It is a given among Borges scholars that the characters in Borges are not like the characters in your own life or experience, but I would like to differ. I sometimes think the omnicient narrator is talking straight to me, but its probably solipsism

There was a time during The Second World War, where my family, though not Jewish, was about to be shot.

Cut to Borges:

The rifles converged upon Hladlik, but the men assigned to be the triggers were immobile. The sergeant’s arms eternalised an inconclusive gesture. Upon a courtyard flagstone a bee cast a stationary shadow. The wind had halted, as in a painted picture. Hladlik began a shriek, a syllable, a twist of the hand. He realised he was paralysed. Not a sound reached him...

Well, as fate would have it, no sound of gunfire reached us.

A tired, beat-up Colonel appeared upon the scene and told the soldiers there would be no more execution of civilians on this day.



SY said...

I'm not familiar with Borges work but this certainly makes me wish I did... the story of a storyteller is always filled with insights and lessons..

I think I'm in love with your writing style, very readable yet unique to the intellectual you must be..

I look forwad to reading more. keep writing.

Peace said...

Thanks, SY.

I have visited your blog, and very much enjoy the turn of your mind.

Charles Gramlich said...

I need to read more Borges. said...


Yep. Pretty fantastical...right up your alley...But his turn of mind!
It's like an Escher drawing, leads all over the place, and yet the centre is somehow, in Borgesian terms--everywhere.

Erik Donald France said...

Whoah, man, this is cool. I need to revisit, reread and re-spond. said...


Borges not quite the rage right now, but he is damn durable. said...


I especially like thre reference to the old "Guru".

He says a number of other vile things and mentions, in passing, that fourteen nights have lapsed since he last cleansed himself with buffalo dung..

...But likely, it's just me.

Mona said...

He is just reviewing a book. You know well, book reviews can be done by anyone, residing anywhere, even by Spanish South Americans...

The interesting part is to see how a particular culture is viewed and understood by a 'foreign' mind ; and sometimes that can be funny.

I am still wondering about the cleaning with the cow dung thing. It is actually done by Hindus with cow urine, which they consider as holy water.


ivan said...


I am flattered that your brother is reviewing my "The Fire in Bradford."
He is obviously intelligent and successful.

I don't think I write like any other Canadian writer...No, not sensitive young girls growing up in a small town (unless they're strippers), not the poor Aboriginals and their issues, not the cross-dressing kid trying on his mother's shoes or girdle and therefore making this a heroic statement, not the prophet of global warming apocalypse.
...Just the substructure of booze and cooze that the town of Bradford was known for for during the Depression...and to this day, somehow carries on....Today it's more like old hippies and drugs...and a vacation spot for the Buffalo mob.

So, neo-hippie professor comes across Mustang Sally, possibly a "mule" and a habit she has picked up....And he isn't as hip as he thought.

What I mean to say, I am more like Harold Robbins than Margaret Atwood.
Oh how the professor wished he had stayed in his ivied tower!
As you said in your own review, "No exit."

BTW, I found the ascetic's reference to "purifying himself", from the standpoint of this culture, hilarious. said...


A slip of my reading comprehension here.

You were talking about Borges reviewing a book.

In my solipsism, I was thinking of something else.

Damn, I've got to stop drinking! :)

Lemmiwinks said...

Cool story, bro!
Following your blog

Mona said...

Ivan, Borges is not my brother.

I guess, it would be difficult for a person unacquainted with a culture and its background to understand anything, Solipsism or not!

That passage portrays two very important rituals of two different religions. The first is the Muslim Muharram procession, and the second is about the Zoroastrian Tower of Silence ritual, which is actually a death ritual, where they throw the corpse of a dead person on a tower , the bones of skeleton of which after it is fed on by the (holy) vultures, falls into the well below.

The Muharram procession is The Islamic Shite Muslim's ritual, that commemorates the Martyrdom of the Prophets descendants at the hand of the Ruler.

Actually, a riot between Hindus and Muslims is rare at such a time, because the Hindus, who are basically ritualistic, themselves participate in the procession. At such a time, the riots occur mostly between the Sunni Muslims and the Shites.These are the two warring factions amongst the Muslim community themselves, owing to discordant beliefs about the Prophet Muhammad and his family.

Stupid People... said...


Thank you for elucidating some of this.

The thing about Borges is not the content, it seems, but the style and the dazzling, maddening --detail -- about, for all we know, there might not be any actual historical basis...He's such a compelling spinner from many-stranded skeins...It might all be in his mind, but through a kind of Keatsian "negative capability", we suspend our belief and then we, uh, belive-- in his many-faceted tale anyway...and then he moves onto the plot of a detective story!

Such depth and complexity from an apparently simple tale.
--Of course, he was writing back in l943 or thereabouts, or even earlier, so things are obviousy different in India now.

....But we certainly have Muslims and Shites all over the news today, and the news is somewhat troubling.
Oddly, today, I think, is the Feast of Eid, and I don't know what trouble I can get into for even mentioning this.
I am sure that intelligent Muslims must shake their heads over some schism maybe six hundred years ago. I know some Muslims I have met in Toronto, have even given up the four-times-a-day prayers. "I just don't believe in it any more, though I do go through the motions."

The same, I think for our Judeo-Christian religion. My Jewish friend tells me, "One testament is enough!", and maybe he is right.

Myself steeped lately on John Updike,( a closet Karl Barth scholar)-- it seems to me Mr. Updike seems to have thought it was actually some of the heretics who had gotten it right,certainly the Gnostics, who held that the nature of God was unknowable-- but the Emperor Constantine had them all offed.

Ah, again, Jonathan Swift, his satire on humanity and that famous quarrel he describes, the battle between the Big Enders and the Little Enders...Does it matter which end you eat the egg from?

I sometime wonder in a futue North America, if the Chinese will find any of our beliefs and artifacts interesting.

ivan said...


Glad you liked the long riff, man.

Come At Me Bro said...

This is great! said...

!Come At Me Bro,

Who'd expect that a knock-out gorgeous number like you would be selling keyboard phonesl!

SC2 Strats said...

This is a good read. Great blog, you got a new follower! said...

SC2 Strats,

That's quite a fascinating site you've got yourself.

...Beyond my Luddite intellect...I am still trying to figure out Dungeons and Dragons--and that was the rage fifteen years ago!
However, Charles Gramlich, above is into SciFi--he has about a zillion followers.

the walking man said...

Some one fill me in I lost track of time in a third dimensional warp turned to protoplasmic gel and got slicked into some politicians hair. said...


Borges do turn your head around, donhe?