Arguably the most accomplished of all Jewish Latin American writers — of all Latin American writers, period! — wasn’t Jewish: it was Jorge Luis Borges.
Reading Borges, teaching him, exploring the roots of his worldview, is one of my life’s joys. I have memorized entire passages. Introducing it to new readers brings me enormous joy. In essays, stories, and poems, he dissected the conundrum of Jewishness throughout the twentieth century. A handful of those pieces — “Emma Zunz,” “The Secret Miracle,” “Baruch Spinoza,” “The Golem,” “Death and the Compass,” and “Deutches Requiem,” among them — are superb. True, his view tends toward the allegorical. Jews, for Borges, are vessels of memory. They are at once insiders and outsiders in culture, at once witnesses and participants. Their devotion to languages and the intellectual is the result of a transient journey through a labyrinthine diaspora.
He spoke against Nazism during the Second World War, when few in Argentina dared to; he visited Israel and eulogized the small dessert nation; he was a friend of Alberto Gerchunoff and other figures in his country’s Jewish community; he was among the first in the Spanish-speaking world to promote Franz Kafka; he pursued the study of Kabbalah and was fascinated with Hassidic stories; he befriended Gershom Scholem and wrote about S. Y. Agnon; and he stood up to antisemitism.
In 1933, Borges was accused of loving Jewishness too much, and of being Jewish himself. He responded swiftly: “Borges Acevedo is my name. Ramos Mejía, in a note to the fifth chapter of Rosas and His time, lists the family names in Buenos Aires at that time in order to demonstrate that all, or almost all, ‘come from Judeo-Portuguese stock.’ ‘Acevedo’ is included in the list.” He added: “Scythians, Babylonians, Persians, Egyptians, Huns, Vandals, Ostrogoths, Ethiopians, Illyrians, Paphlagonians, Sarmatians, Medes, Ottomans, Berbers, Britons, Libyians, Cyclopes, or Lapiths. The nights of Alexandria, of Babylon, of Carthage, of Memphis, never succeeded in engendering a single grandfather; it was only to the tribes of the bituminous Dead Sea that this gift was granted.”
The Talmud (Tractate Sotah, 44a) states that a man should built a house, plant a vineyard, and marry a wife. The order seems skewed. At any rate, at fifty-five I have done two of the three, and am happy. Planting a vineyard isn’t in my prevue. For years I dreamed of another option, or else two: write a book about Don Quixote and another on Borges.
My book Quixote: The Novel and the Worldappeared last year. Borges, the Jew (SUNY) is just out. I’m at peace. Well, with one exception: I would love to edit a volume of all, or almost all, his Philo-Semitic writing. That’s a bonus, though.
At the end of Borges, the Jew, I include a section called “Borges y yo,” in which I compare various translations of his mini-essay “Borges and I,” including one of my own. Then I quote a passage of my autobiography, On Borrowed Words: A Memoir of Language:
When I began to write, Borges had a decisive influence. His pure, precise, almost mathematical style; his intelligent plots; his abhorrence of verborrea—the overflow of words without end or reason, still a common malady in Spanish literature today. He, more than anyone before (including the modernista poet from Nicaragua, Rubén Darío), had taught a lesson: literature ought to be a conduit for ideas. But his lesson was hard to absorb, if only because Hispanic civilization is so unconcerned with ideas, so irritable about debate, so disinterested in systematic inquiry. Life is too rough, too unfinished to be wasted on philosophical disquisition. It is not by chance, of course, that Borges was an Argentine. It couldn’t have been otherwise, for Argentina perceives itself — or rather, it used to perceive itself — as a European enclave in the Southern Hemisphere. Buenos Aires, its citizens would tell you in the 1940s, is the capital of the world, with Paris as a provincial second best.
As soon as I discovered Borges, I realized, much as others have, that I had to own him. I acquired every edition I could put my hands on, not only in Spanish but in their French, English, Italian, German, and Hebrew translations, as well as copies of the Argentine monthly Sur, were his best work was originally featured, and interviews in journals. My collection began to grow as I embarked on my own first experiences in literature: tight descriptions, brief stories, passionless literary essays. Rather quickly the influence he exerted on me became obvious. In consolation, I would paraphrase for myself the famous line from “Decalogue of the Perfect Storyteller” — in Spanish its title is infinitely better: “Decálogo del perfecto cuentista” — by Horacio Quiroga, a celebrated if tragic turn-of-the-century Uruguayan author: to be born, a young writer should imitate his beloved masters as much as possible. The maxim, I realize today, is not without dangerous implications; it has encouraged derivativeness and perhaps even plagiarism in Latin American letters. But I was blind to such views. My only hope as a litteratuer was not to be like Borges, but to be Borges. How absurd that sounds now!
Influence turned into anxiety, and anxiety into discomfort. Would I ever have my own voice? One desperate afternoon, incapable of drafting a single line I could call my own, I brought down all the Borges titles I owned, piled them in the garage, poured gasoline over them, and set them on fire. It was a form of revenge, a sacramental act of desperation: the struggle to be born, to own a place of one’s own, to be like no one else — or, at least, unlike Borges. The flames shot up at first, and eventually, slowly, died down. I saw the volumes, between fifty and seventy in total, turn bright, then brown, then become ash. I smiled, thinking, in embarrassment, of Hitler’s Germany, Pinochet’s Chile, and Mao’s China. I thought of Elias Canetti’s Auto-da-Fé and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. I thought of scores of prayer books, Talmuds, and other rabbinical works burnt by the Holy Inquisition in Spain and the New World, in places not far from my home. And I also invoked Borges’ own essay, “The Wall and the Books,” about Shih Huang Ti, the first emperor of China, a contemporary of Hannibal, whose reign was marked by the construction of the Wall of China, and also by the campaign to urn all history books. Shih Huang Ti saw himself as a new beginning. History needed to start over.
In Borges, the Jew, I conclude by saying that it might be ironic that a non-Jew would teach a Jew to recognize his own heritage. But isn’t that what we Jews have always done, shaping our sense of self according to the needs of the environment? (Jean-Paul Sartre’s slim book Anti-Semite and Jew comes to mind, in which the French philosopher argues, polemically, that Jews need antisemites to be themselves and vice versa.)
Borges was my rabbinical master in a yeshiva the size of the globe, and I his tentative pupil.
Ilan Stavans is a Lewis-Sebring Professor in Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College and the author of many books of both Jewish and nonsectarian interests.
Ilan Stavans is Lewis-Sebring Professor of Humanities, Latin American, and Latino Culture at Amherst College, publisher of Restless Books, and host of NPR’s podcast In Contrast. His books The Seventh Heaven: Travels through Jewish Latin America (Pittsburgh) and The Return of Carvajal: A Mystery (PSUP) will be out in October and November, respectively.