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.