BORGES AND THE ETERNAL ORANGUTANS
By Luis Fernando Verissimo
Translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa
New Directions. 135 pp. Paperback, $13.95
Back, oh, about a thousand years ago, I heard Jorge Luis Borges speak at Columbia University; it was the first time that I'd ever felt I was in the presence of human greatness. The frail, blind Argentine author mused about enduring imagery while blinking and twitching between two large men who flanked him lest he collapse at the podium. Our bland lecture hall was transported into an ethereal realm far beyond academia.
Most writers feel passionate about Borges, but few would have the temerity to put the enigmatic sage into their fiction. That's because evoking Borges's presence would likely overwhelm any meager thoughts of their own. Yet Brazilian novelist Luis Fernando Verissimo has such temerity, as well as the talent to pull it off. Borges and The Eternal Orangutans does the master proud.
The novel begins when its narrator, Vogelstein, learns of a conference in Buenos Aires devoted to the work of another sui generis literary genius, Edgar Allan Poe. The conference is bound to set off fireworks inside the constricted circle of Poe scholars, with their ancient and ferocious rivalries. Vogelstein anticipates such entertainment, but he is really going in hopes of encountering Borges, several of whose stories he had translated decades earlier.
Sure enough, they meet at the opening reception as the warring Poe factions are gearing up for intellectual combat. There's the crude German critic Joachim Rotkopf, suave local Professor Xavier Urquiza and an American, Oliver Johnson, whose theories about "coded meanings in everything Poe had written" Rotkopf is set to demolish in the next day's session.
That session never arrives, however, because Rotkopf is murdered in his hotel room later that night. Throat cut, the dying man manages to drag himself across the floor and arrange his body in a perfect V shape against a mirror. With the mirror's reflection of the V, we have an X that may signify that Xavier Urquiza did him in. Or maybe not. Perhaps Vogelstein, the only witness to the scene before it was disturbed by gawkers, misremembered the arrangement of the body; he did have a bit to drink. Maybe the open end of the V was against the mirror, signifying an O, for Oliver Johnson. To add to the confusion, both Urquiza and Johnson were heard pounding on Rotkopf's door earlier in the evening, and not one, not two, but three knives are discovered at the bottom of a shaftway. Clues upon clues: Three playing cards are lying on a table in Rotkopf's room: a 10, a king and a jack with its eyes cut out. Oh, and the room is locked from the inside.
Borges and the Eternal Orangutans (a reference to the monkeys at typewriters who could, given eternity, produce the works of Shakespeare -- or Borges, for that matter) plays out possible solutions to the mystery via a series of conversations between Vogelstein and his idol. Sitting in a dark library, they parse significant alphabets, consider the Tetragrammaton (a mystical four-letter Hebrew word for the name of God) and go so far as to wonder whether writers reveal, intuit or invent the truth. As Vogelstein notes, "Everything is a message." Other messages are riddled throughout Verissimo's book. Many refer back to Borges: Vogelstein's cat "Aleph" is named after a famous story, and his offhanded use of the metaphor "like a tiger" echoes a favorite Borgesian image. Also, the narrator's delusional identification with Borges reaches a pitch when he says, "We were a double act -- writers and decipherers of universes, simple and complex. Borges and I, I and Borges." Viz. the story, "Borges Y Yo."
Nor are the manifold references limited to the literary. Everything from the details of the characters' biographies to elusive one-liners like "Geography is destiny" connect when the fictional Borges solves the mystery in a letter that weaves together threads unspooled at the beginning of the book. Of course, solutions engender their own questions, and Borges's final statement -- "Even the most fantastical of stories . . . requires a minimum of verisimilitude" -- makes one wonder whether the similarity of the book's last word and the author's last name is a further hint to further mysteries. In any case, Borges and the Eternal Orangutans is an authentic whodunit as well as a loving homage to its eponymous detective and a serious meditation on the truths that Borges himself lived to reveal, intuit and invent. *
Melvin Jules Bukiet's most recent book is the collection "A Faker's Dozen." He teaches at Sarah Lawrence College.