Were Libraries Borges’s Universe or the Other Way Around?
Rodrigo Fresan and Rodrigo Rey Rosa on Reading Jorge Luis Borges
The following conversation took place on May 7th, 2019 as part of the PEN World Voices Festival in New York City. Inmaculada Lara Bonilla and Claudia Salazar Jiménez co-moderated the discussion. This transcript has been edited for clarity.
Moderator: When did you each start reading Borges, and what drew you to Borges first?
Rodrigo Fresan: My perception of Borges was not strictly literary at the beginning. In fact, he was like some sort of plaything, because my father was a celebrated graphic designer, and he made a book with Borges. I clearly remember myself cutting out small Borges’s for him—there wasn’t any Photoshop, or computers, so it was like collage, and I was helping him with it.
Borges was everywhere when I was a kid. It was very common to see him walking down the street—you saw Borges all the time. You could even take him by the arm and walk with him three or four blocks and talk with him; he was completely accessible. He didn’t like football, which made him, at the same time, sort of unpopular in Argentina. There was a very funny situation that was almost like a national tradition: every year, when they were giving the Nobel Prize, all the reporters would camp around the apartment where Borges was living, waiting for him to win it that year, and it never happened. Every year, it created a big collective depression in Argentina.
He was perfectly happy with not winning; he said that it was like some sort of extra tradition, not giving the Nobel Prize to Borges every year. And it was very funny because the reporters would say, “Oh, we’re so sad, the Argentinians, because we thought we were going to get the Nobel Prize,” and he said things like, “Oh no, but the prize was for me! It was not for Argentina! You’re confused.” That was my first impression of Borges.
I was very lucky because I read him for the first time when I was 12 or 13, and I read him exactly the same way that he read [G.K.] Chesterton or [Robert Louis] Stevenson, as an author of fantastic fiction. I never went to university, I don’t have a literary major or any higher education, so I read him like a science fiction or fantastic writer. Of course, you can’t write like Borges. If you try to write like Borges you’ll sound completely stupid.
The big teaching of Borges for Argentinian writers, first of all, is that you don’t have to go looking for the great Argentinian novel, because he despised novel as a genre. So we don’t have that problem. And at the same time, there’s this famous essay by him that is like Moses’s Commandments for me, titled “The Argentinian Writer and Tradition.” In that essay, he says something like, “Since we have to deal with the horror of being born in Argentina, our consolation is that the whole Universe is our theme. We can do anything we like in order to escape from here.” For me, that’s Borges’s great teaching.
Rodrigo Rey Rosa: I don’t remember what text of Borges I read first. I think it was Ficciones, but I was a very disorganized reader—I went back and forth, I didn’t read the whole thing. I was maybe 17 when I first read Borges, and then I forgot about it. I thought I was going to be a medical doctor and started studying medicine until I started reading Borges again and decided, No, I’m going to drop out of medical school and try to write.
Borges, for me, was literature, and the way he talked about books was my literary education. Except for six months in medical school, I didn’t go back to college or any kind of study center, and Borges became my map to learn about literature; I started reading the authors he talked about. Sometimes he made them up, so that was a problem in Guatemala. I would go on really wild goose chases. And Guatemala was the opposite of what any civilized city should be, which is still true today—there were no libraries, and it was very hard to get books that were not bestsellers or the classics of Spanish literature. So Borges was an oasis for someone who wanted to read, and I read him almost religiously. I would not go to sleep without reading at least a sonnet. So, for me, Borges is a very meaningful author. I saw him once here in New York, but I was so afraid to approach him that after the reading that I sort of ran away.
M: We all know that for Borges, the library was the entire universe, or perhaps the reverse was right—the universe was an entire library. So when we talk about the library in Borges, we’re actually talking about what literature is. Would you feel close to or distant from this notion of literature in your own works?
RF: I think for me it’s pretty close. In many, many short stories by Borges, the reader is the character. All the time, there are people reading, or people writing. When I remember wanting to grow up and be a writer, I remember feeling that meanwhile, I was not doing bad as a reader because Borges was also a reader before he was a great writer. Borges makes you want to read more than want to write, in a way. As I said, there’s no sense in writing like Borges. You’ll be like a parrot; you’ll sound stupid. You can’t do it.
M: Borges’s stories speak of a love of reading, but they also speak of traditions that he loves and searches, and genealogies of writers. So tell us about your readings, and the literary authors and traditions that appear in your fiction. Are you aware of drawing some genealogies in your work?I think that the idea of the library of Borges also works like that—the idea of books communicating with other books . . . with other readers, like a human chain of paper and flesh.
RR: Well, I must say, I don’t think of genealogy. I don’t think of what I write when I write. I really don’t. In that sense, I would be very different from Borges. He, obviously, is a very literary writer, which I’m not. I’m the most unliterary writer I know. And I take writing as an exercise in freedom. I enjoy doing this very much, and I don’t really think about what I’m doing. That’s how it started for me, and it’s something I don’t think will change now. Rereading my work, editing and correcting—that’s hard work. But writing is sheer pleasure, an exercise in freedom and irresponsibility.
M: Very often, it looks like Borges is laughing at us as readers: at our assurances, our writing, our reading, our history, even our genealogies. Specifically, with this idea of authorship, he’s always laughing about it and making jokes about it. But for Borges, the idea of fiction doesn’t have an origin—there’s no idea of the origin of text. Everything could be in kind of a perpetual machine producing more and more text. This idea of not claiming an origin—how do you work with this, and how would you consider your own representation as authors considering this idea of Borges?
RF: I’m not very conscious about it. Maybe it’s something that, as Rodrigo said, it looks clearer from the outside when they look at you and see what you’re doing. I don’t have a system or a trick or a manual to follow.
I have a personal story with Borges—it’s completely stupid, and it sort of embarrasses me. I told it in my first book when I wasn’t a published author yet, but I wanted to be a writer. I was once on the street in Buenos Aires, and I was having a very… sort of almost violent argument with my then-girlfriend. We were screaming at each other. We were great fighters. Our relationship was through “discussions,” to use a Borgesian word. And then one moment she slapped me, and she went out running, and I was running after her in the street, and then I turned a corner, and I felt like I went through something. Some sort of membrane. And I saw something moving in the air, and then I saw three meters from me, Borges on the ground, holding his cane, saying, “What happened? What happened?”
RR: You hit him?
RF: Yeah, pretty roughly. In fact, he died like six months after that. People were watching, and they were telling me, “You killed Borges, you killed Borges!” The first thing I thought—and this is the typical thought of a very miserable person who wants to be a writer—was, “Even if I write something like In Search of Lost Time, I’ll always be remembered as the guy who killed Borges.” It was awful. And one thing that really intrigues me and makes me feel worse is that I don’t remember if I helped him stand up. It’s true. And this is the second pretty despicable, miserable thing I thought—in the middle of all that, with people screaming, Borges moaning on the floor, I thought, “This is going to be a great story someday. It’s going to work in a short story very good.”
M: That’s very Borgesian.
RF: That’s my real, personal story with Borges. And the thing is, after that, I broke up with my girlfriend, and a few months after that he died. I remember reading about his death in the newspaper and thinking maybe there was some sort of internal bleeding . . . I was pretty worried about what killed him.
M: What is it that you feel Borges has given to you in terms of narrative craft?
RF: Well, he made me very happy, really. It’s pleasurable to read Borges. I remember distinctly being a 12-year-old, reading him like the logical follow-up to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Chesterton’s Father Brown Stories, and all the fantastic tradition of European literature, and at the same time, feeling important myself because I was 12 and I was already reading Borges—he was a living classic then. This was before I killed him, of course.
I really like him being such an evangelist of reading and writing. He was some sort of prophet, some sort of priest. Reading Borges, it was very easy to understand the idea that reading was not only important to you, but that you could have a great time doing it. And then writing comes naturally. Once you enjoy reading something so much, you want to emulate it, you want to say, “Okay, I’d like to try this, and maybe if I’m lucky, if the stars align, maybe I can make someone else feel something like what I’ve felt in a very small way, maybe I can be a part of a chain.” I think that the idea of the library of Borges also works like that—the idea of books communicating with other books, with other books, with other books, with other readers, like a human chain of paper and flesh.
RR: I think that what you learn with Borges is to read, but not to write, because if you imitate him, you’re lost.
RF: No, he’s a closed system, but he opens all the doors for you to read everything.
RR: We agree. You cannot try to emulate his style—maybe in the later stories that are very simple, which is probably more like what we write—but these very dense, unlikely combinations of adjectives going with nouns, you cannot do that, because that’s Borges. So he also closes that door. But it’s dangerous to go too far from Borges, because then you start writing jargon, because he’s a classic in the sense that he’s transparent. Borges is a dangerous influence, and I think after you receive it, the next problem is to get away from it, and find your own way to write.