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In the labyrinth with Borges

Borges A Life Edwin Williamson Viking: 574 pp., $34.95

August 08, 2004|Alfred Mac Adam | Alfred Mac Adam is professor of Latin American literature at Barnard College, Columbia University, and editor of "Review: Literature and Arts of the Americas." He has translated writers including Fernando Pessoa, Carlos Fuentes and Juan Carlos Onetti.

There are at least 11 biographies of Jorge Luis Borges, three in English; do we need another? Yes, because since Emir Rodriguez Monegal's of 1978, an astonishing quantity of material -- letters, memoirs by contemporaries, new editions of early texts suppressed by Borges himself and new compilations of dispersed essays, stories and poems -- has materialized.

Edwin Williamson, after a nine-year exploration of Borgesean territory, has produced in "Borges: A Life" the best guide to the intertwined life and writings of the most important Spanish-language author of the 20th century. Williamson is a Hispanist, a respected Cervantes critic, but he also wrote "The Penguin History of Latin America." This immersion in history made him a perfect match for Borges (1899-1986), himself obsessed with Cervantes and saturated in history: Borges' maternal great-grandfather, Isidoro Suarez, led the cavalry charge at the battle of Junin on Aug. 6, 1824, that brought victory to Simon Bolivar in Peru and helped end Spanish domination in South America.

Borges' family history weighed on him. His mother, Leonor Rita Acevedo (1876-1975), was of pure criollo stock, meaning that both sides of her family originated in Spain but were part of the Argentine nation since its independence in 1810. Borges' father, Jorge Guillermo Borges (1874-1938), was different: The name Borges is Portuguese, perhaps Jewish, and was brought to Argentina by Borges' great-grandfather, the shadowy Francisco de Borges, a Portuguese navy officer who married a daughter of the important criollo Lafinur family in 1829.

Their son, Francisco, became a colonel during the civil wars that plagued Argentina through much of the 19th century. In 1871 he married an English woman, Frances "Fanny" Haslam, whose enterprising father had come to Argentina in the 1860s. After the colonel was killed in 1874, she moved to Buenos Aires, where she eked out a living taking in English-speaking lodgers. Her second son, Jorge Guillermo, was an unsuccessful lawyer and supplemented his scanty income teaching psychology.

Jorge Guillermo met Leonor Acevedo in early 1898; they fell madly in love and married that same year. She was ultra-Catholic, ultraconservative and snobbishly proud of her criollo lineage. Jorge Guillermo was a free-thinker, a skeptic, a skirt-chaser and half-English.

All of this warped the young Georgie (as he was called, since he spoke only English with his grandmother Fanny). The soldiers in his family fascinated him, but he was physically inept and myopic. His father's failure (especially in his mother's eyes) to restore the family to its rightful rank in Argentine society meant that Georgie always had before him his father's inadequacy, which soon became his own. Jorge Guillermo inadvertently created another problem for his son in August of 1918 while the family was in Geneva: He arranged for Georgie to have sex with a prostitute. The experience was catastrophic; Borges would not have a normal relationship with a woman until 1986, when he married Maria Kodama, a delightful, young, half-Japanese, half-Argentine woman. Just in time to die on June 14 of that year.

Borges' inability to rationalize his military ancestors, his criollo identity, his sense of foreignness (his English blood) and his sexual incompetence forced him to channel his energies into art. Williamson skillfully links these subjects to specific texts to show how Borges' complex, fantastic and intellectually challenging fictions reflect the problems imposed on him by family and fate.

Vastly erudite and a copious reader, Borges never graduated from a university or even secondary school. While a writer of some celebrity in the 1920s and '30s, he had no profession and hence little income. When he finally had to get a job in 1938 (his father, who'd supported him until then, was dying), all he could be was an assistant librarian in a working-class Buenos Aires neighborhood. This experience led to "The Library of Babel," which we may rightly call "Kafkaesque" because Borges at the time was also introducing Kafka to the Spanish-speaking world. The story reflects Borges' notion of the inhuman universe, the infinite library, created by that infinite father, God, who provides no catalog to reveal its secret order, a metaphor for the miserable library where he worked until 1946, when the Peronistas insulted him into resigning by "promoting" him to poultry inspector.

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