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ON ELEGANCE WHILE SLEEPING BY VISCOUNT LASCANO TEGUI

April 1, 20-

I could describe it as a baby Maldoror, which is to say that there is a distinct likeness, but it lacks the teeth and claws of its bigger, nastier brother.

April 2, 20-

I realised some time ago that I must be an intense person to talk to, not because I am unfriendly, but because I am incapable of small talk. It doesn’t help that I find it so boring, and therefore lack motivation, but even when I do give it a go, when I want to be able to make small talk in order to relieve some level of social embarrassment or tension, I find that I very quickly, within seconds, run out of gas. I have no grasp of the art. And it is an art. My brother, for example, is a master. He has an astonishing ability to speak for hours without actually saying anything. I’m not even joking. It is a kind of sorcery.

Books such as this leave me similarly tongue-tied, which is to say that reviewing them requires a talent for what I would call literary small talk, for working numerous paragraphs out of limited materials. There is, for example, no plot, and there are almost no recurring characters. There is what I would call a cohesive outlook, and I can get one or two things out of that, sure, but not enough to satisfy me.

April 3, 20-

I might argue that On Elegance While Sleeping is like the Comte de Lautréamont writing The Book of Disquiet. And there is something in that, certainly. There is a sense of ennui, a kind of spiritual malaise, a downheartedness, about the book, such as when Lascano Tegui writes that the foetus has had to avoid ‘the machinations of abortion’, that the womb is ‘a series of threats’, and as such its triumph ‘can never be more than melancholy.’ Ah, but such comparisons are meaningless; they are the recourse of the most contemptible reviewers.

April 4, 20-

It is presented as the diary entries of an unnamed man. While one would not go so far as to say that the book is autobiographical, there are certainly some similarities between Viscount Lascano Tegui and his narrator. Tegui, I believe, was born in Argentina, but lived for some time in France. The book is set in France, but a number of the characters have Spanish or Latin American names.

I must not include the above paragraph, for it is painfully dull.

April 5, 20-

As a rule, I avoid reviews and introductions of books I want to read, as I don’t want to be influenced by other people’s ideas, but in this case I am tempted, simply because I want to know what on earth they found to write about it.

I want to make it clear that this isn’t a comment on the quality of the book, which I enjoyed, but on the way that my mind works, on my own limitations as a writer and as a man.   

April 6, 20-

Apparently Lascano Tegui was not a real Viscount. He gave himself the title. More writers ought to do this, for they are dreadfully boring as themselves.

April 7, 20-

There is much in the book about change, about changing identity or adopting roles. The earliest instance of this is when the young narrator’s mother dies and his father colours the boy’s hair and eyebrows black. There are, moreover, a number of references to gender confusion [although confusion isn’t the appropriate word]. Indeed, the narrator calls his own soul a boyish and a girlish one, and at one point he buys a corset and tries it on. There is even a girl, Germain Marie, who changes sex, becomes a boy, grows a beard. What is the point of all this? The narrator writes about ‘instability of character’, but this suggests something negative, while the author appears to advocate a fluidity of self [a fluidity of self? That philosophy degree of mine wasn’t wasted]. Perhaps what he is really advocating is freedom, to not be weighted down with concrete labels. Be whomever you want to be. It is an invitation.

One sees that in the author himself, of course, what with appropriating that aristocratic title of his.

April 8, 20-

He asks, ‘Why do I like women whose faces have the bony structure of sheep?’ – yes, why is that? Probably because they remind you of that ‘voluptuous’ goat you were writing about earlier in your book.

He feels closest of all to goats.

April 9, 20-

On Elegance While Sleeping is often called surreal. It is there in the blurb on the back of the book, no less. This strikes me as inexcusable laziness. There is very little in it that one would describe as bizarre, or unreal, or dream-like. It is very much grounded in reality, at times verging on the banal.

April 10, 20-

Novelists, he writes, don’t trust in the asphyxiating monotony of the everyday. Doesn’t that remind you of Pessoa?

Must not write about Pessoa.

April 11, 20-

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April 12, 20-

In Maldoror there is a theatricality, an admirable, or certainly amusing, commitment to exaggerated villainy. For example, Lautréamont writes about raping and torturing children, of wanting to slice off their cheeks with a razor. Of course, those acts, in reality, would not be admirable nor amusing, but one understands that this is a performance, that the author is not in earnest, because what he describes is so ridiculous and vaudeville. However, in Tegui’s novel, he frequently admits to being attracted to and having sex with young girls, aged thirteen or so, which is, in fact, more alarming than what we find in Maldoror.  It is not dressed up, it is matter of fact.

April 13, 20-

There are elements of the macabre in the book. As a child, he states, he dragged drowned bodies out of the seine. Disembodies arms would sail by, ‘reaching into the air, as if for help.’

Gabriela’s father lopped off his penis.

And so on.

April 14, 20

There is a focus on childhood, not only the narrator’s memories concerning his own, which dominate the book, but also in terms of what it means to be a child, what is, in other words, special about childhood as a state of being. Men, Tegui writes, don’t know how to hold on to the elegance they possessed as children. So perhaps one can understand, if not justify, the erotic interest in young girls in light of this.

April 15, 20-

Whereas in Maldoror the principle character appears to enjoy the violence and misery for its own sake, Tegui provides an interesting argument for his, or his character’s, interest in the macabre. At one point in the book the narrator states that he enjoys the news of disasters. He uses the example of the precariously balanced Tower of Pisa, and how he would check the paper each morning to see if it had fallen. He would, moreover, wonder how many fatalities there would be if it came down. Initially this seems gruesome, yet he explains that he enjoys this kind of thing because it provides a ‘moral serenity’, because he cannot bear the suspense. That is something different, of course. I have myself often hoped, wished for, something bad to happen, the worst to happen, because it would be a relief. Consider how you might feel if you suspect your partner is cheating on you. Isn’t finding concrete proof of their infidelity better than the suspense, the not knowing? Once again, one sees in Tegui’s work a strain of melancholy missing in most of the [mostly French, avant garde] books to which it is frequently compared.

April 16, 20-

I do not want to write about the anti-establishment, anti-conventional morality, anti-religious elements of the book. My brain stamps its feet, and refuses.

April 17, 20-

The best way to understand Tegui and his book is in relation to the word that he uses frequently in the text, and in his introduction. Voluptuous.

‘I write out of pure voluptuousness, I confess.’

Which, for me, means that he wrote for pleasure, to titillate himself. And this does come across in the text, especially in the rich and elegant sentences and fine imagery. Moreover, there is a devil-may-care attitude on display, an attitude of anything goes; there is a languid, laid-back approach to literature and its conventions. Plot? He shrugs. Character development? He shrugs. Something about sexy goats? Yeah, why not. Be a laugh, won’t it? 

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AN EPISODE IN THE LIFE OF A LANDSCAPE PAINTER BY CESAR AIRA

With each decision you make, with each action you engage in, you create a ripple effect consisting of counter-choices and counter-actions, and you create, for yourself and others, new realities, while simultaneously discarding an infinite number of potential realities. I hope that is clear, but if it isn’t an example would probably help. Imagine that you are walking down the street, and you could turn either left or right. In making your decision, whether left or right, you have created a reality that will have [perhaps good and perhaps bad, more likely both] consequences in terms of your life and the life of others, and you will have discarded a reality, or existence, which would have sprung up had you made a different choice. The conclusion one draws from this is rather banal, which is that life is unstable. This is not, however, the same as saying that it is chaos, because there is a sophisticated order involved in our relationships with each other and with the world, such that it is as though we are tied together with invisible string, not only to everything that exists in the present, but in the past also.

Cesar Aira’s An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter is, as the title suggests, concerned with a brief period in the life of an artist. That artist is the German ‘documentary painter’ Johann Moritz Rugendas, a real man who was born 29th March 1802 and died on 29th May 1858. Despite being under one hundred pages in length, Aira’s novel is decidedly complex. The Argentine author provides the reader with a sizeable amount of background information in relation to Rugendas, and he discusses at length his artistic process and aims, the most significant of which is the desire to capture the physiognomy of nature or, in other words, the characteristic traits of a certain place.

What this suggests to me, and in fact what all art suggests to me, is actually a desire to stabilise the world, to fix it, to explain it, to make it understandable, to impose order upon it. Indeed, more than once Rugendas asks himself whether he would be able to capture in a painting an event, a moment, such as, for example, a landscape being stripped bare by locusts. Therefore, even though he doesn’t say so, the artist is himself obviously aware of this stabilising urge, because he fears, he laments, that some things are so unstable that they may not successfully be reduced to an image on a canvas.

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While all this is fascinating stuff, what really excited me was how Aira uses the details of Rugendas’ life to further explore the notions of instability and order. At the beginning of the novel we are told about how one of his ancestors lost his right hand and so was forced to give up the family business of clockmaking. This man started to use his left hand, and took up painting instead, a profession subsequently taken up by following generations. Consider another example, due to Napoleon’s victories there was no call for painters of battle scenes, and so Johann was forced to paint other things, resulting in him becoming a landscape artist.

What we see here are those ties, those strings, and that sophisticated order that I was discussing in my introduction. Life is unstable, yes, but it is not chaotic. Towards the centre of the book Rugendas, while staying in a village in Mendoza, is asked whether he will ever return, and he says no, or that he might one day in the distant future. However, in no time at all, he is back in Mendoza, now a completely different man, as consequence of an apparently freak accident, which occurred due to a choice he made. In that moment, when he made his choice, he discarded a reality, and created a new one, a new life, a new Rugendas.

So, what Aira has done is give us a man whose profession involves an attempt to stabilise the world, an artist whose work is, moreover, easily comprehensible and possessed of a ‘simplicity of style,’ but whose life is absolutely unstable, while being simultaneously perfectly ordered. Ha! Outrageous. Does any of this make sense? Oh, I fear not. The upshot of all this is that An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter is itself like a work of art, like a painting. For the subject, Rugendas, living each moment, one to the next, everything is random, but the novel actually allows you – the reader – to step back and appreciate the totality, the whole, the patterns, etc.

“It was not really rain so much as a benign drizzle, enveloping the landscape in gentle tides of humidity all afternoon. The clouds came down so low they almost landed, but the slightest breeze would whisk them away… and produce others from bewildering corridors which seemed to give the sky access to the center of the earth. In the midst of these magical alterations, the artists were briefly granted dreamlike visions, each more sweeping than the last. Although their journey traced a zigzag on the map, they were heading straight as an arrow towards openness.”

I have devoted more of this review than I intended to discussing these ideas. Certainly, it is not all that the book has to offer. One could, of course, read it as a straightforward adventure story, and it works wonderfully as just that. It also, in ways that, as an Englishman, I don’t think I am qualified to fully understand, has something to say about Argentina, and the Argentinian landscape. We are told that Rugendas had a particular interest in the country, especially the mystical, vast emptiness to be found on the open plains. Only there, he thought, could he discover the other side of his art. Therefore, Argentina, and what is particular to that country, in terms of its physiognomy, is special, is a challenge. Indeed, there is much in the book – as noted in relation to the locusts – about failure of imagination or the limits of art. Rugendas, Aira suggests, wanted to break through those limits, and create a new kind of art, when in fact what he creates, as previously mentioned, is a new Rugendas.

One final thing, before concluding. In Balzac’s Lost Illusions, the rotund, coffee-loving Frenchman was at pains to stress how the world was involved in a process of cheapening, whereby everything that was once well-put together, well-made, expertly crafted, was becoming shoddy. He used examples of paper, of furniture, and so on. I have always been of the opinion that it also applied to literature. I associate modern fiction with badly constructed sentences, dull story-lines, awful, cliched imagery. Based on so many unfulfilling experiences, I now actively avoid newly published writers. So, it was something of a shock, or a pleasant surprise, to find that this book – published in the year 2000 – completely floored [flawed?] me, even though it has drawn from me one of my worst reviews. Sorry Cesar. I know what I wanted to say, but I ended up not saying it in far too many words.

THE SEVEN MADMEN BY ROBERTO ARLT

I have made mention of my poor upbringing, the trying circumstances in which I was raised, in numerous reviews. It’s something that never seems to go away, is always there, creeping around at the back of my mind like some sinister, hungry woodland creature. As I was so miserable, I would regularly fantasise about escape, about far off places, or extravagant reversals of fortune. Each night I would imagine myself on a raft, in the middle of an ocean as bright as neon bar signs, with sleek sharks swimming underneath and around me; I would long to be sent to the bus or train station on some undefined errand, where I would jump on a random train or bus and restart my life in a new place; I would spend hours thinking about being approached by some rich man or woman, who would have inexplicably taken a shine to me and would want to make me their heir. Moreover, I would often do strange and dangerous things, in an effort to breach the surface of my unhappiness, and force my life to move in another direction.

While I would prefer it not to be the case I see some similarities between myself and Remo Augusto Erdosain, the protagonist, and anti-hero, in Roberto Alrt’s cult classic Los Siete Locos. The impoverished Erdosain is a failed inventor and thief, having stolen a significant sum of money [600 pesos, and seven cents!] from the sugar company he works for. At one stage he justifies his actions as being motivated by need, a need created by the small wage he is paid. And this of course makes sense; yet he admits that he didn’t use the money to pay for necessities, such as shoes, that he actually blew it on extravagances.

Erdosain is a self-styled ‘hollow man,’ who, like I once was, is prey to relentless fantasies, such as being accosted by a millionairess who will want to marry him. However, as no milliionairess is forthcoming he has been forced to act himself. In this regard, he claims to have actually stolen from his employer in order to enliven his existence. One gets the impression that Erdosain is someone to whom things happen; his wife leaves him, Barsut beats him, the world consistently canes the back of his knees. His anti-social behaviour is, therefore, one of a man who wants to impose his will on the world, to make it sit up and take notice, rather than passively submit to the vicissitudes of existence. If he steals, if he kills, the world, he believes, will be forced to acknowledge him, and he will, for once, feel alive, feel like someone.

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Arlt’s protagonist is one of literature’s most wretched, self-pitying characters. He is in a near constant state of despair; he is mentally and emotionally unstable. Indeed, he talks about an ‘Anguish Zone,’ in which he spends the vast majority of his time, raking over his feelings and his bizarre thoughts. He is, in all honesty, sometimes exhausting and unpleasant company. He isn’t, however, by any means the most unpleasant character to inhabit the novel, or even the most memorable. The Seven Madmen also includes Ergueta, who believes that Jesus has blessed him with the a formula for winning at roulette; the aforementioned Barsut, a relative of Remo’s wife, who gleefully announces that it would be ‘amazing’ to shoot both of them and then kill himself; The Melancholy Thug, a pimp, who says that if he was told that unless he took one of his girls out of the game she would perish in seven days, would work her for six and let her die on the last. Ah, and then there is The Astrologer.

Much like Vladimir in Conrad’s The Secret Agent, The Astrologer is a shady figure hellbent on social/political chaos. Inspired by the KKK and Mussolini, he wants to create a number of revolutionary cells, with training camps in the mountains; these cells will be funded by brothels. Furthermore, he intends to recruit from the vulnerable, the downtrodden, the disillusioned. Anyone who knows a thing or two about terrorist or fascist organisations will find this stuff familiar. It has always been the case that the dregs of society, the displaced, have found themselves targeted by these groups, because they are easier to radicalise, are more likely to unquestioning swallow the propaganda. The truth is that if you feel worthless, or lost, you can be seduced by something that appears to value you. It is also worth noting what The Astrologer [prophetically] says about dictators, which is that the new breed will come from the industrialists, those in charge of oil etc. We all, unfortunately, are now coming to understand something about the power of those at the forefront of the oil industry, and the abuses they are involved in.

However, for a novel that is often held up as politically prescient, I don’t think revolution etc was Arlt’s real focus, or certainly one could say that this stuff feeds in to his more general concerns about domination and sadism. Early in the narrative Erdosain imagines people being put in cages, being essentially treated like animals. And, yes, one could see a kind of political metaphor about masters and slaves in this, but that could not be said of all of the content. For example, Erdosain is repeatedly humiliated and abused; remember that his wife leaves him for another man, he is beaten by Barsut, etc. Moreover, The Melancholy Thug talks about wanting to take a blind teenager into prostitution; this girl, we’re told, habitually sticks needles in her hands.

“Who is more heartless, a brothel owner or the shareholders of a large company?”

It is important not to overlook the role of religion in all this, and in Latin American society. Throughout the book, Arlt makes reference to Christianity [Ergueta marrying a prostitute, for example, because he thinks that this is what the bible encourages], and specifically a lack of belief in God, which is blamed for the awful state of humanity; indeed, Ergueta at one point says that “if you believed in God you would have been spared your wretched life.” Whether the rejection of God means that anything is permissible is an age-old existential question. Certainly, Arlt, or his characters, appear to think that anything goes in a world without Him. And, for me, in this way we get to the crux of the novel, which is that Argentina in the 1920’s is a Godless hell, populated by prostitutes, swindlers, down and outs, and weirdos. These people have no spiritual guidance, and therefore no reason to morally toe the line, to passively accept their miserable circumstances.

Published in 1929, it is often said of The Seven Madmen that it was the first Latin American novel to deal with poverty and the working class, with low-lifes and the grim reality of their existence; and that it was also the first to be written in colloquial language, in contrast to the prevailing Borgesian formal style. I don’t know if that is true and, to be honest, I don’t much care, because being the first to do something does not, on its own, make a book a worthwhile or enjoyable reading experience. Arlt himself said that he had no style, that he didn’t have time to develop his own voice, but I think that is false. There is certainly an identifiable style here, for better or worse.

“Erdosain himself was trying to puzzle out why there was such a huge void inside him, a void that engulfed his consciousness, leaving him incapable of finding the words to howl out the eternal suffering he felt.”

I must admit that parts of the novel really tested my patience, especially those given over to Erdosain’s anguish. These passages or chapters are not necessarily badly written, although they are incredibly overwrought, and there are one or two memorable lines [for example,”each worry was an owl that flitted from one branch of his suffering to the next”]. The problem is that they are all more or the less the same, so that once you’ve read one you need not, or will perhaps not want to, read the others, and yet they keep coming! One might also object to the sloppiness, whereby the novel begins in the third person, with no hint that the authorial voice is anything other than impersonal, only to switch to being narrated by an acquaintance of Erdosain’s, someone who has heard his confession. This narrator, after quite some pages have passed, also starts to insert pointless footnotes. In these ways, one might be tempted to call The Seven Madmen an anti-novel, which is certainly an attractive phrase, but unfortunately there is, in reality, no such thing. In any case, although the book is messy, repetitive, and emotionally and psychologically overcooked, there is still something pleasingly grimy and unhinged about it.

FICCIONES BY JORGE LUIS BORGES

I owe the discovery of El Matrero to Harper Lee. Five years ago I was spending the evening with my friend Renaldo Compostella, and, as was often the way, literature was our main topic of conversation. Renaldo, who always, or certainly more than I, kept an eye on forthcoming releases and bookish news, happened to mention the scheduled publication of a new novel by Harper Lee, the American authoress famous for To Kill a Mockingbird. The ensuing discussion was notable not for what we had to say about Lee and her work, but because it led Compostella to bemoaning the lack of specific details concerning the publication of the recently unearthed novel by Jorge Luis Borges. My friend, in so casually dropping this information into the conversation, must have thought that I was aware of such a discovery, but of course I was not. Borges wrote a large number of intelligent, speculative, metaphysical short stories, but he did not, to my knowledge, ever write a novel.

Compostella expressed surprise at my ignorance and asked me if I had ever read Ficciones, a small [roughly 140 pp] volume of the Argentine’s stories, comprising two collections, The Garden of the Forking Paths and Artifices, in which, he said, the novel was first referenced. I replied that naturally I had read it, but that I did not recall any mention of a novel, either within the text itself or within John Sturrock’s introduction. My friend laughed and said that I must have skipped the footnotes. I assured him that I had not skipped anything, and, as I had a hardcover Everyman’s Library edition [Alfred A. Knoff, 1993] in my apartment, I took it down from the bookshelf and handed it to him, with the instruction that he find me the relevant page.

Compostella opened the slim volume and, as is often the case when you pass someone a book, flicked through it, seemingly distracted from the matter at hand. Indeed, he was keen to talk about the story Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius, which he called a particular favourite. Compostella’s opinion was that it was about ‘Godlessness and playing God,’ which, despite my desire that he find the footnote in relation to Borges’ novel, piqued my interest. Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius involves Borges’ search for, or investigation into, a number of books that outline every aspect of an imaginary planet or civilisation, including their language, customs, psychology, and so on. It seems to me that the story is about many things, about language and how it directs thought, about the possibilities of human imagination, about mirrors and how different cultures are a distorted reflection of your own.

My friend conceded all of these ideas, but pointed out that prior to the invention of Tlön the only person responsible for the creation of a planet or civilisation was God; that if human beings start to create planets etc then God is unnecessary, because he becomes just another man. I was of course very interested in all of this, but, being aware that it was getting late, I had to draw his attention back to Borges’ novel. Compostella again flicked through Ficciones and came to a stop somewhere in the centre, in the middle of the story The Library of Babel. He turned one particular page, page 63, over and back numerous times. It is not here, he told me, by which he meant the footnote, which, he assured me, was present in his own first edition copy of Ficciones, but was evidently absent from mine. At this point I considered it a fine joke at my expense, and bundled my friend out of the door.

However, about an hour later my telephone started to ring. It was Renaldo Compostella. He told me that he had just arrived home, that he had dug out his copy of Ficciones, and had indeed found the footnote. Your copy, he said, must be subject to a printing error, or perhaps, as a later edition, the footnote had been expunged for reasons we can only guess at. I asked him to read to me the footnote, which, it turned out, was very short: ‘Very soon I hope to complete and publish my own novel.’ Although this information, this promise or tease, was certainly interesting, my excitement was tempered by the lack of concrete information. I reminded Compostella that Borges was a writer who consistently imagined unwritten books, often even outlining their plot, like in the story The Approach of Al-Mu’tasim. I also pointed out that part of his appeal is that he did not draw clear lines between fact and fiction, that one was never sure in his stories what was true and what was not, because nearly everything he wrote appeared plausible.

Moreover, Borges, so often described as an impersonal author, was actually the most personal, in that he almost always used himself and details about his own life as part of his fiction. So, it did not seem too much of a stretch to suppose that the novel he refers to is itself a fiction, an imaginary novel, and that the suggestion of its existence was part of a [not out-of-character] labyrinthian game he was playing. However, my friend replied that for years he had thought this too, but reminded me that it had recently been announced that the novel had been unearthed, and it was currently being readied for publication through Penguin in the UK and US. Well, this changed everything, of course. I asked him how I could find out more, and he said that if I googled Borges and El Matrero I was bound to turn up numerous articles, as the discovery was a big deal in literary circles. At this, I thanked Compostella and hung up the phone and switched on my computer.

After googling the recommended terms I was introduced to various articles, including pieces in the Guardian, The Independent, Le Monde and El País. However, according to the articles that were returned by my search El Matrero was not written by Jorge Luis Borges, but by Pierre Menard, a previously unpublished protégé of the Argentine’s. At first glance, this suggested that my friend had jumped the gun, and was not perhaps in full possession of the facts, yet, being a fan of Borges’ work, and having read all of his collections numerous times, I was aware that the name Pierre Menard features in Ficciones as the author of Don Quixote. The story, called, in Spanish, Pierre Menard, autor del Quijote, appears to be about a fictional French writer who re-writes Don Quixote word-for-word. The central idea being that this newer version, Menard’s, is richer than the original because it can be viewed in terms of more recent world events, by which we mean more recent than 1602, of course.

In light of these articles, I was forced to ask myself, did Pierre Menard actually exist? Certainly, while one would assume that he did not, as Borges claimed, re-write Don Quixote, this naturally does not mean that, if he did exist, for surely he is dead now, he did not write the recently unearthed El Matrero. And yet if he did write the novel, why exactly is this a cause for excitement? It is worth noting that the story in Ficciones featuring Pierre Menard is, at least partly, concerned with authorship and plagiarism, is about who, if anyone, owns a work. So one might wonder, as indeed does Caroline Hurst in the Guardian, whether Pierre Menard is simply a pseudonym for Borges himself, that Borges wrote the novel – El Matrero – as Menard, as one of his own fictional authors. Yet other commentators reject this idea, claiming, perhaps rightly, that as the footnote does not specify a title, or suggest a plot or theme, the novel referred to in Ficciones is not El Matrero.

Even after a more extensive internet search I could not turn up any information relating to a writer called Pierre Menard, except in reference to the Borges’ story that has already been discussed. Therefore, I decided to reread The Library of Babel, which, as already noted, Renaldo Compostella claimed contained the footnote that first makes mention of a novel by Jorge Luis Borges. The Library of Babel, or La biblioteca de Babel, imagines the universe as a vast library, which houses every possible book, featuring every possible permutation of letters, and which, as a result, will contain many volumes of pure gibberish but also every possible piece of information, including that relating to the future and to your own life.

If Compostella was to be believed, it would indeed make sense that it is here that Borges would mention the novel that he had apparently been working on, as it would, naturally, also exist within the library of Babel. However, the veracity of the information contained within the footnote now seemed even more doubtful. In the footnote, as passed on to me by Compostella, Borges mentions a novel that he hopes to complete and publish, but ‘hopes to complete’ only suggests that he has started it, when in fact he may not have put even one word down on paper. I may hope to complete a marathon, without ever taking part in the race. Furthermore, the library would of course still contain a copy of his novel, regardless of whether he had started it or not, because it contains copies of all books, past present and future.

Weary of mentally going round in circles without any real progress I put the matter out of mind, and vowed to wait for the publication of Pierre Menard’s work, El Matrero, hoping that this would make everything clear.

*

Postscript. Some months after the night described above, the novel El Matrero by Pierre Menard was published to rapturous acclaim, being voted the book of the year in many publications, newspapers, magazines. The critical praise was so intense that the public caught on, and Menard’s book was the year’s biggest seller. Indeed, Menard’s reputation became such that it was almost universally agreed that it was he, and not Borges, who had written Ficciones, The Aleph and so on, because only someone as talented as Menard could possibly have composed those stories. Jorge Luis Borges, ran popular opinion, was merely a pseudonym for, a creation of, Pierre Menard, whose life has become the subject of endless speculation.

THE INVENTION OF MOREL BY ADOLFO BIOY CASARES

I misread ‘the intimate forms of address’ as ‘the intimate forms of sadness,’ and liked it much better.

At one time I could recite word-for-word, without the book in my hand, but now, as I read it, I make mistakes. Before I found the book I spent a long time looking at photographs, studying them. I would stare at the faces and try to gauge their mood. Who amongst them were happy? Those who are smiling? That seems obvious, of course; but who can say with any certainty? You cannot know anyone but yourself. Finding the book was a relief, a welcome distraction from the photographs that were becoming an obsession for me.

Start at the beginning? There are no beginnings. The book is called La invención de Morel and was written by Adolfo Bioy Casares and first published in 1940. Whilst the loneliness is sometimes hard to bear, at least now that everyone has left no one will point out that he was a close friend of Jorge Luis Borges. Moreover, with no one here to read what I write I do not have to worry about spoilers. It is possible to read the book as an adventure story, a detective or mystery story, a ghost story, a love story, or as a philosophical investigation. I have had time enough to enjoy it in every way possible.

I sometimes misread the title of the book as The Island of Morel. This is because it is written as though it is the diary of a fugitive who lands on what he thinks is an uninhabited island. Ah, from the start you are led to believe that this is no ordinary island, that it is ‘unhealthy, sinister.’ There are three buildings; the largest, the museum, is a kind of labyrinth, with hidden rooms, and strange aquarium flooring. I must admit that in my solitude these early adventurous chapters, that are so reminiscent of Conrad and Melville and Carpentier, none of whom I have access to, and which speak of a new land and new discoveries, are a source of excitement. There is nothing for me to discover here; everything is familiar.

I am not on an island. I hope I have not given that impression. No, I am at home. They left, I did not arrive. So one could say that my situation is the reverse of what happens to the fugitive, who suddenly finds his island has been invaded by a group of people. Here is the mystery. How did they get there? The fugitive did not see or hear them arrive. Who are they and why are they there? They appear to be tourists, or holidaymakers. Eventually the narrator focuses on one of them, a woman called Faustine. It has been a long time since I have seen a woman, except in photographs. Sometimes I find a photograph that features a beautiful woman, and I dream. These dreams are really nightmares, of course.

The fugitive and Faustine is, for me, one of the world’s greatest love stories, despite the fact that Faustine does not at any stage speak to, or even acknowledge, the fugitive. I have been alone too long; my heart has turned peculiar. One of the novel’s themes is recognition. How can life have meaning if you go unrecognised, or if no one will acknowledge your existence? What purpose does life have without human contact? Of course I have given much thought to these questions. Before everyone left I often ranted and raved about our need to be acknowledged, about how we [by which I mean humanity-at-large] spent all day posting our vacuous thoughts onto the internet for just that reason: for someone to see it and validate our existence. I no longer scoff at this idea. I write this now in the same spirit, even though I know that no one will ever read it.

Have you ever been in love? Was that love always reciprocated? Unrequited love could be said to define the fugitive’s relations with Faustine. He tries to catch her attention; she ignores him. This is painful, of course; it causes him to despair. He becomes bolder, takes greater risks – for one must remember that he is a fugitive, and the police are perhaps looking for him. Could Faustine be a trap? A sting? Is she, and the rest of the gang, working for the authorities? Love makes one crazy, they say. Or they once said; they have left, as I have to keep reminding you. But the fugitive must reach out. Ah, there we are: loneliness and the yearning for human companionship. No man is an island, although he may find himself living on one. ‘Hope is the one thing I must fear,’ says the fugitive. The hope that Faustine will love him in return, is what he means, of course.

Eventually the fugitive starts to doubt his own sanity. Is Faustine really there? If so why does she not respond? He reminds the reader that he eats plants and so forth that have been known to make him hallucinate. Is he hallucinating? Adolfo – I allow myself to address him familiarly, I know his work so well – wants the reader to think about the nature of reality. Ask yourself, is what a madman sees real? Is an hallucination real? Perception is a strange beast. If something feels real to you, then it is real, it is your reality. Consider: what if I am not the last man on earth, what if it is not the case that everyone left one day without so much as a solemn wave of the hand, and that actually I am in an insane asylum or I took some super-strength narcotic and I only think I am alone in the world? Does that make me any less alone? More importantly, does it make my loneliness less acute, less painful? If Faustine does not exist, does the fugitive love her any less? The book, to my mind, is at least partly about how, no matter how many people you have around you, you are truly alone; because the only person, the only thing, you can be certain of is you.

Of course, it could be that Faustine is a ghost. Or that the fugitive is a ghost. How tragic, to be in love with a dead person, with someone who you can never, therefore, touch or reach. The narrator mentions ghosts frequently; perhaps the island is enchanted? Perhaps, perhaps. As I read the book for the first time, many ideas, many interpretations occurred to me, as you can imagine. What qualifies the work as a work of genius – if I can use so lofty a term – is that it actually becomes more moving, more beautiful, more fascinating once you know what the twist is, i.e. once you finish and return to the beginning of the book and start again. Faustine and the rest of her troupe are not ghosts, nor hallucinations, nor the result of madness [or maybe they are – but we’ll gloss over that for fear of going round in circles]; they are…

No, no, I can’t do it….I can’t spoil it for…who? How strange that certain niceties and politenesses cannot be shaken off, how one maintains certain behaviours even though there is no one around to appreciate them. Morel, more is important. Love. Faustine. I still put down the toilet seat after using it. For who? For Faustine? My own Faustine has gone, is dead, most likely.

The invention of a man called Morel.

What is Morel’s invention? Ah, well, the invention is actually twofold: first of all, it is the story that the island houses a kind of disease that will kill you within two weeks. This story was invented by Morel in order to keep people away. Second of all, there is the physical, or, if you like, mechanical invention. How very clever you are, Adolfo. How I wish they hadn’t left so that I could praise your lovely novellita to them all. The fugitive is in love with…! Isn’t it beautiful? If you were to go back and read the book, with a certain knowledge in mind, wouldn’t the scenes with the fugitive and Faustine, scenes such as when he creates a little garden for her, wouldn’t they break your heart? But, wait, there’s more…

The Invention of Morel is about death, about immortality. Yes, it is. There’s something rather amusing about that: to be immortal, you must die! Maybe my sense of humour has soured somewhat due to my isolation; one finds it hard to tell jokes to oneself; one does not often find humour in empty streets and buildings.

I have consciousness but did my mother, my brother? My Faustine? I’m losing my thread…weariness overtakes me suddenly. Thinking is all I do these days, and so I regularly overtax my brain. Being alone like this I find that I do not think better, but much, much worse, less clearly. ‘When one is alone it is impossible to be dead,’ wrote the fugitive. My favourite line in the book.

Proceed to a conclusion: the conclusion? How very happy-sad the ending of the book is.

How sad…so sad…

I cry to myself; for myself; for everyone who left.

And yet how uplifting…

To reach Faustine…faustine….faustine….

It wasn’t impossible after all.