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?
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.