Puzzlement doesn't begin to describe what befell the face of the nurse as she listened to Borges. 'The problem,' he said, 'was that it unfolded to the exact size of the country. A perfect mirror of reality. It was useless.' 'You are not well,' said the nurse.
Improbable though it sounds, Argentinian author Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986) was lying in bed in a hospital in Kingussie. He had fallen on a wet hillside after leaving the car on a journey throughout Scotland with the American writer Jay Parini.
Jay Parini (1948-) was at the University of St Andrews in the early 1970s when, through a friend he met Borges who had visited the UK among other things to receive an honorary doctorate at Oxford. Borges took to the young Parini (whom he called Giuseppe) and said he wanted to 'see' Scotland. He particularly wanted to go to Loch Ness and Culloden. In an old battered Morris Minor, they saw a lot more than that. Much of the journey was an inner journey for Parini and a restorative trip down memory lane for Borges.
Parini tells us that he sat on the memories for many years until putting them together in the form of a narrative, 'a novelistic memoir' he calls it, part-memory part-imagination, shaping experience and character into composites, and refracting conversations just as Borges himself does in his famous stories. Many of these were translated into English in Labyrinths
published back in 1962, the book that confirmed his original position to most readers of literature. What we have here, then, is a Borgesian account of an encounter with Borges.
But not just that. At the time Parini was starting a research degree on George Mackay Brown. It had been dragging along, dogged by his own inexperience (the book reads partly like an autobiographical Bildungsroman), a truly eccentric academic supervisor, and his affection for an elusive young woman. In the course of time, Parini returned to the States, got his research finished (based this time on the work of Theodore Roethke) and ended up a professor in Vermont. As well as biographies of Gore Vidal and John Steinbeck, and novels about Leo Tolstoy and Walter Benjamin, Parini has published a range of poetry and literary criticism.
Categorising books is always a fine art, especially when you encounter hybrid works. Borges and Me
is on such. Borges and Parini go on a journey throughout Scotland, and to that extent it is a travel book. They stay at one of those archetypal B&Bs (run by an elderly widow called Morag) where sharing a bed reminds Parini that old men, however famous, do really smell and have to use the loo a lot at night. An anecdote in the style of the early travel notes of Bill Bryson. Scone Palace, too, isn't open when they get there, though three old ladies (likened by Borges to the Three Witches in Macbeth) do invite him to see the garden.
Yet Borges and Me
is much more than a travelogue. After all, it is about Borges who is rather famous. The journey must have been something like sharing a taxi with Bertrand Russell or José Saramago. At every stage in the book, in all the conversations they have with each other and with the folk they meet, Borges turns them in some striking literary direction. The visit to Loch Ness 'to see Nessie' evokes memories of Grendel in Beowulf
. In a Carnegie library in Dunfermline, librarian Mr Dunne is perplexed to be compared to John Donne. Let loose on the beach at St Andrews, Borges runs up to the sea declaiming The Seafarer
Parini describes his earlier self in an appealingly disingenuous way. He is a young innocent from the States over in a Scotland he hardly knows; he believes that all the reading he's done up to that point merely announces his ignorance. Perhaps Borges is the mentor and guide he has always wanted. With Borges, of course, we are dealing with a kaleidoscopic and elusive writer. Parini calls him 'a magician, a sorcerer, a fraud, and a genius… and a priest'.
Although blind and frail, Borges seems to have an uncanny knack of relating to people, getting them to open up to him – like the elderly priest in Inverness on whom Borges seems to bestow a kind of blessing. The Kingussie nurse loved him even though she thought he was mad. Being Borges, and perhaps being old, much of Borges' talk was of memory – the books he had read (many memorised) and the authors he had met (he disliked Lorca and Neruda), the women he had loved (he was married twice) and the many thoughts he wanted to suppress (such as events under Peron).
Borges himself wrote a short story called Borges and I
(Borges y Yo
), a type of philosophical autobiography, looking at the way in which his understanding of self (the personal 'I') differs from the 'persona' he has as a public figure. This contrast, and the fluidity between the private and the public self, is mirrored in the way he distorts conventional storylines and almost plays with memory and imagination, with truth and fiction in short stories like Pierre Menard
. In this, the central character is re-writing Cervantes' Don Quixote
as if his work is the true original.
In The Garden of Forking Paths
, we struggle to pin down who is telling us what. Another theme is that of the way the so-called real world is both like a huge library and then entirely not so. The journey through Scotland is like Don Quixote's own, through both a real and an imagined landscape. And then, after falling into Loch Ness from a row-boat, Borges has to stay in Fort Augustus, while Parini goes on to Stromness to meet George Mackay Brown, the ostensible topic of his research.
Brown's laconic 'natural lyricism' and straight-forward faith in God contrast starkly with the playful and sardonic mysticism of Borges. Parini's stay is brief – he hopes to come again. Brown no less gives him his annotated edition of Labyrinths
, enough to reveal how closely he had read Borges and how different he was. And then, what about Parini himself? He grows up in Borges' company.
Borges can see through him – his shame about being a boy from Scranton with a bossy mother, afraid of the letters that follow him from the draft board (it was the time of Vietnam), fearful of committing his ideas to poetry, convinced his research is going nowhere, and virgin in his approach to women. Calling the book Borges and Me
is perfect because, for all their differences, Parini and Borges have lives (actual and intellectual) that seem to run in parallel, crossing over in the most random – perhaps providential – ways. And all this has stayed in Parini's own memory.
Or seems to have done. Perhaps it's all part of the magic and mystery of anything connected with Borges. It is after all a theme we recognise from other Latin American writers such as Llosa. There are times when the younger Parini seems to pinch himself and ask if it's really happening – like when Borges lies on the ground at Culloden as if he's a wounded Jacobite, or when Borges compares himself to the character in Funes the Memorious
(where the central character remembers everything), or when Borges licks an encyclopedia. No surprise, then, that the Kingussie nurse wondered what on earth had arrived in her hospital ward. There are moments when the reader feels very much the same.
Dr Stuart Hannabuss is a writer and reviewer based in Scotland