Monday, July 19, 2010

Bad Guys

Jorge Luis Borges had already made a name for himself, at least in Argentine literary circles, as a poet and essayist years before he turned to the short fiction on which his broader international renown would largely come to be based. When he did so, like many an artist he began by borrowing from the masters, in his case with a volume of retellings and translations of tales gleaned from Mark Twain and the Thousand and One Nights as well as Herbert Asbury's Gangs of New York, the Encyclopedia Britannica (Eleventh Edition), and other, less familiar sources. Most of the stories and anecdotes in Historia universal de la infamia deal with some kind of treachery or violence, usually both, and together they make up a little guided tour of a few of the lower precincts of Hell, the ones reserved for those whose crimes can't be easily ascribed to mere misplaced love or folly.

The only declaredly original story, describing the fatal dénouement of a confrontation at knifepoint at a Buenos Aires dance hall, is "Hombre de la esquina rosada," the title of which is here translated, felicitously if not entirely accurately, as "Streetcorner Man." Most of the pieces were originally published, in many cases pseudonymously, in Argentine literary magazines and supplements in the 1930s; one of the headings used for their appearance was "Museo" ("Museum"), which seems particularly appropriate. The arts of collecting and of presentation are here given equal footing with the art of creation. Borges scrupulously provides the source for each piece, and if a few of those attributions turned out, on closer examination, to be fictions, who was to know?

In the preface to the 1954 edition, written with nearly two decades of hindsight, Borges was fairly dismissive about the volume's merits, but, in contrast to his attitude towards several early works that he actively sought to suppress, he evidently managed to come to terms with its shortcomings (which may well strike the reader as no shortcomings at all).
The very title of these pages flaunts their baroque character. To curb them would amount to destroying them; that is why I now prefer to invoke the pronouncement “What I have written I have written (John 19:22) and to reprint them, twenty years later, as they stand. They are the irresponsible game of a shy young man who dared not write stories and so amused himself by falsifying and distorting (without any esthetic justification whatsoever) the tales of others. From these ambiguous exercises, he went on to the laboured composition of a straightforward story – “Streetcorner Man” – which he signed with the name of one of his great grandfathers, Francisco Bustos, and which has enjoyed an unusual and somewhat mystifying success...

The theologians of the Great Vehicle point out that the essence of the universe is emptiness. Insofar as they refer to that particle of the universe which is this book, they are entirely right. Scaffolds and pirates populate it, and the word “infamy” in the title is thunderous, but behind the sound and fury there is nothing. The book is no more than appearance, than a surface of images; for that reason, it may prove enjoyable. Its author was a somewhat unhappy man, but he amused himself writing it; may some echo of that pleasure reach the reader.
As Borges had remarked in the preface to the first edition, the stories are not, and do not try to be, psychological.

The di Chiricoesque cover painting of this edition, in which nefarious characters from various eras -- probably intended to represent specific antiheroes from the tales themselves -- lurk among the cracking pillars of a looming colonnade, is by Peter Goodfellow, who created several other Borges covers for Penguin UK in the 1970s. The translations above are by Norman Thomas di Giovanni, who had the advantage of working closely with Borges himself. Sadly, his translation is out of print, having been replaced by one commissioned -- largely, it appears, for pecuniary reasons -- by the author's widow.

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