IT WAS IN 1931, at the suburban Buenos Aires villa of author-publisher Victoria Ocampo, that the "established" Jorge Luis Borges, then 31, met the precocious Adolfo Bioy-Casares, an aspiring writer some 14 years his junior. An immediate bond was established: their mutual passion for literature and for language. In the years that followed, their relationship developed one other fundamental characteristic as Bioy gradually to Borges' profoundly skeptical and ironic view of things. Finding in themselves a boundless capacity of parody and satire, they came to the discovery that humor and engaging absurdities are inherent in the most solemn of subjects.
So, predictably, when they decided in 1941 to try writing a detective story together, the premise from the outset was a sort of joke. They wanted to come up with a new angle on the traditional gimmick of the "limited" detective. Crime fiction had had blind detectives, deaf detectives, crippled detectives, detectives who never left their armchair or their favorite tea shop. Their consulting detective would be different: clients brought their problems for his consideration to cell 273 of the Las Heras Street Penitentiary.
In less than a year Borges and Bioy had composed six tales about Parodi, the taciturn barber from the south side of Buenos Aires who, owing to set of unfortunate circumstances, had been convicted of a murder he did not commit. Parodi's clients were a colorful lot. The authors characterized them with loving care, producing a gallery of pompous, posturing, vain, or pathetic Argentine social sterotypes, as absurd in their language as in their pretentions.
Since their irreverent and free-wheeling collaboration had suprisingly given birth to a "third" author, whose broadly satirical style resembled neither that of Borges nor Bioy, they lifted two names from their respective family trees and christened him H. Bustos Domecq. The first of the stories, "The Twelve Figures of the World," appeared in 1942 in Victoria Ocampo's literary magazine Sur. Borges and Bioy were prepared to publish the entire series there, but when word got out that Bustos Domecq was a pseudonym of two writers, their publication was suspended. Borges has pointed out that, since there was no "author" behind the stories, people refused to take them seriously. Sur was a dignified cultural organ; Victoria was not amused. Bioy ended up publishing the Six Problems in 1942 at his own expense. No one took much notice.
Now, some 40 years later, we have the book in English translation. Its publication has surely been a calculated risk, for the satire -- inspired by a distant society at a moment now distant in time -- takes precedence over the straightforwared presentation of a mystery and its solution. Crime buffs may well be put off. There is also another drawback involved, with which translator Norman Thomas di Giovanni has grappled valiantly. It is the extravagant language of the tales, specifically, the speech put into the mouths of the visitors to Parodi's cell. In the first few stories, there is sufficient broad, surface humor to sustain the reader's interest. But as the series progresses, the conceptual parody thins out and the verbal games take over.
In a 1964 interview, Borges offered this insight into the nature of the collaboration. "We wrote somewhat for each other and since everything happened in a joking mood, the stories turned out so involved, so baroque, that it was difficult to understand them. At first we made jokes, and in the end jokes on jokes. It was a kind of algebraic contest: jokes squared, jokes cubed. . . . Later we gave up writing since we realized that it would be hard if not impossible to write in any other way, and that this way was painful, at least for the reader."
As one might expect, the earlier stories are the most entertaining. The first, "The Twelve Figures of the World," is a gem. It is an ingenious formal puzzle; and the foppish journalist, Achilles Molinari, is perhaps the most amusing of the Bustos creations. In the second, "The Nights of Goliadkin," the pedantic Gervasio Montenegro, pointedly invested with membership in the Argentine Academy of Letters, narrates his problem to Parodi with a certain ingenuous charm. The detective's solution is typically curt, sarcastic and arbitrary, because he is a no-nonsense fellow himself, Parodi finds it hard to suffer a fool gracefully.
The following two stories, "The God of the Bulls" and "Free Will and the Commendatore," deal with dark doings among members of Argentine monied society. At the heart of the second of these pieces is a brilliant plot idea: the vengeful parent who lavishes success and happiness on his son and then after adolescence, releases him to a deadly outside world. Justice isn't done to the idea here, but years later each author would return to it independently and with great effectiveness in his own stories.
The final tales, "Tadeo Limardo's Victim" and "Tai An's Long Search," seem the most farfetched in plotting and execution. The authors in all likelihood saw this, for at this point they ended the series. But Bustos Domecq would be heard from later on.
The best of the Bustos Domecq style has survived in The Chronicles of Bustos Domecq, a delightful series of tongue-in-cheek critical pieces published in Argentian in 1967 and in English translation in 1976. The humor of concept and exaggeration is fully under control in these pages. What the most impenetrable in the Six Problems, its ciphered linguistic burden, survived only to perish in a novelette entitled "A Model for Death," published in 1946. Bioy must have seen that the intensely private nature of the jokes would limit its audience. He brought it out in an edition of only a few hundred copies, for circulation among friends.
The publishers of Six Problems for Dan Isidro Parodi suggest it is "an essential key to understanding Borges' development as a writer." I think there is a deeper truth. The stories were written in 1941 and 1942. Bioy, who had published in the 1930s a series of awkward, tasteless novels and stories, had finally brough out in 1940 a superb novel, The Invention of Morel. By 1940, after two decades of agonizing search for an appropirate medium and style, Borges had overcome some keenly embarrassing failures and had just begun to write the first of his celebrated "Ficciones." At last, the two writers must have felt, they were on their way. Thus, in the Bustos Domecq narratives they not only skewered a number of inviting targets from among Argentine social types and modes of speech: With the disconcerting language of the Parodi stories they were possibly also joyfully exorcising some private ghosts.