Jorge Luis Borges, the Argentine spinner of tales, has fallen head over heels in love, not with a woman, but with the French Quarter of New Orleans.
He is so enchanted by what he calls "one of the most beautiful cities in the world" that at 82 he says he is seriously considering abandoning Buenos Aires, his beloved lifetime home which has inspired so much of his work, to live here where he can hear jazz, wander through streets redolent of French, Spanish and African culture and listen to the foghorns from the Mississippi. He is also appalled by inflation in Argentina. "The peso is worthless. It buys nothing. Food in Buenos Aires is at astronomical prices, and so are apartments," he said. "It is a disaster."
In the past 10 days, the frail, elegant figure of the blind writer with his black cane, always dressed in a suit cut in the English style favored by Argentine dandies, silver and gold hair flying in the breeze, has become a familiar one in the French Quarter as he walks, leaning on the arm of his secretary Maria Kodama, who tells him what she sees and where he is.
Painters and caricaturists around Jackson Square and St. Louis Cathedral, minstrels who sing to guitars on Royal Street, cornet and saxophone players, street clowns and mimes, male and female hookers and pimps, strippers, bookstore clerks and waiters have come to know him as "Mr. Borges."
A few have stopped the man, whose short, mysterious, magical fictions have made him a living literary giants, to tell him they are fans.
His range is dazzling. He has written about the tango and its origin in Buenos Aires' brothels, about imaginary animals, magic libraries, labyrinths, scoundrels, thieves, warriors, and lyrics for milongas, Argentine tunes sung to a guitar. He has reviewed movies, translated William Faulkner and Virginia Woolf. Some of his work has appeared in literary journals, some in a scandalous Buenos Aires newspaper, and still more in a women's magazine.
But he has never written a long work, a novel, a play, an epic poem. He said he is "always dreaming, scheming, writing and rewriting" in his head. "But I never think of the reader."
When he has not been writing in his hotel room here, Borges has been listening to jazz at every opportunity. When Kid Thomas and his band took a break at Preservation Hall the other night, Borges was asked how he feels about the undeclared war between his native Argentina and England, his intellectual home. He became tense and his voice rose: "It's atrocious! It could involve the whole world. It's atrocious." He trembled with emotion and searched for more words.
"Don't go on, Borges," Kodama said gently, patting his arm. "We are back in New Orleans to enjoy the music."
A few days later, Borges said a war between Argentina and Britain over the Falkland Islands could expand into World War III and lead to a nuclear confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union.
"Such a war would be an unthinkable tragedy. We would all be destroyed by nuclear bombs. Just imagine, all my books would be disintegrated, whole libraries, and there would be nobody left to read. I don't want that to happen . . ." Then he laughed mischievously:
"Perhaps only one, my 'Book of Sand,' would survive. As you know, sand is not destroyed by nuclear explosion, it is melted, turned to crystal. But who would remain to read my 'Book of Sand?' "
Borges became enamored of New Orleans and the French Quarter when he first came here last winter to receive an honorary degree from Tulane University and to lecture at the University of New Orleans. He returned to New Orleans earlier this month, after a U.S. lecture tour and a symposium in Chicago by 30 Borges scholars, to become better acquainted with the city that has fascinated him since his youth.
On the weekend, Borges spent hours under a hot springtime sun listening to the annual Jazz and Heritage Festival at the Fairgrounds Racetrack.
"It was wonderful," he remarked. "There were thousands of people, and thousands of players making different kinds of wonderful music. Many of the people and the players wore practically no clothes at all."
Kodama interrupted: "Borges refused to go in a sports shirt . . ."
"No no," he said. "My father told me a gentleman never goes in public in his shirt-sleeves, but I think these people are right to dress comfortably when it is hot. I enjoyed myself immensely, but I got so tired that when we got home I fell asleep on the easy chair in my hotel room."
Homage to England
By the time Borges was born--on Aug. 24, 1899, in the old Buenos Aires house of his maternal grandfather--Argentina, because of the fertility of the pampas, which had been captured from the Indians, was beginning to boom. It was becoming the granary and the ranch of Imperial England, attracting waves of immigrants.
His family, he said, was not rich. ("We only had six slaves, others had 30 to 60.") He led a sheltered childhood; he had an English nanny and a life of privilege and books, of stories and games, a life of the imagination. His father, a lawyer, writer, teacher of psychology, had a large library containing Keats, Shelley, Byron, Swinburne, Browning. Borges learned English before Spanish and first read "Don Quixote" in English.
The family called him "Georgie."
"I've never left my father's library," Borges said over coffee. Books, language, have always been his world. He holds his cane between his legs, appearing to wrap himself around the stick. He is a private man, shy, given to unexpected stutters, his lips trembling and one hand clutching the air as if to shape the word that sticks in his throat.
In Borges' youth, upper middle-class Argentines then, as now, looked to Europe--particularly to England and France--for ideas.
"Most Argentines," Borges said, "are either francophiles or anglophiles. I owe more to England than to France."
When the Borges family traveled by train in Europe, the father would recite Keats, and Georgie would intone Swinburne and Verlaine. They were typical of Argentines who had come to Europe for its culture because there was little in their native land. ("Happily, there is no native culture of any kind in Argentina," Borges remarked. He believes that Argentina is an extension of Europe, while other Latin American nations, like Mexico, are burdened by their indigenous roots.)
The Mist and the Prism
Borges had weak eyes as a boy and lost his sight in 1955. He talks about his blindness easily--after pausing to quote Milton: "Eyeless in Gaza,/ With slaves at the mill . . ."
"But I'm not in darkness. In my case I have lost the darkness, the blackness. I live in a luminous mist. At the moment I don't know whether it's bluish or graying, but it's always luminous. The first two colors I lost were red and black . . . then blue and green were left. Then afterward the yellow survived. But now I'm denied yellow also."
He is conspicuously detached, committed to nothing but his writing--and his native country. "When I was young, we were hopeful," he said with despair. "Not today. We have lost hope. There is no immigration of any kind. People are trying to get out."
Borges considers the world, and historical and political events, literature, movies, music, governments and political leaders through his own prism, very much like the Borges in his short story "The Aleph," about a magic sphere that reveals past and present and was named after the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet.
Although Borges opposed the late dictator Juan Domingo Peron, he will not condemn Argentina's present military regime. "I suppose they are a necessary evil--for the next 50 years, or so," he said. Borges does not believe in democracy, which he calls "an abuse of statistics." It is the United States' misguided obsession with democracy, he said critically, that led it to fail to build an empire.
Still, he has spoken out about those who have disappeared in Argentina's newest round of political terror. "I've had my say about the disappeared. But what can I do? I'm an old man. What can they do to me? Torture me, eh?"
He has been nominated for the Nobel Prize many times but has never won. When New Orleans' Mayor Ernest Morial mistakenly called Borges "a Nobel laureate" the author whispered: "That's news to me."
A professor remarks that there is great respect for Borges' work. "Sir, no, I don't want respect. I want my work to be read and enjoyed. Yes, enjoyed. I'm not interested in respect." The professor speaks of immortality, and Borges gives a short laugh. "I don't care what people think after I'm dead. I won't be here."
A Difficult Marriage
He writes in Spanish, even though he said, "Nothing can be done with Spanish." He has written in English, but he has never published original English work. "I have too much repect for English," he explains.
Borges has worked closely with his best-known translator, Norman Thomas di Giovanni, an American novelist he met in Boston when he was lecturing at Harvard in the 1960s. Some critics have charged that di Giovanni has taken too many liberties with Borges' originals. But Borges considers di Giovanni's translations masterpieces.
Still, the translator and Borges had a falling out. In a telephone conversation, di Giovanni blamed their trouble on Borges' "disastrous late marriage" to an early childhood sweetheart and the widow of a friend. Borges is now divorced.
"It was difficult," said di Giovanni. "But I think Borges' marital problem helped his work. He stayed at the library in Buenos Aires where he had a sinecure, and we worked there, because he didn't want to go home. There was also a terrible conflict between his wife and his mother, Leonor, who had such a tremendous influence on his life and on his writing. She had been his secretary for years, written for him, helped him. His mother didn't think any woman was good enough for him."
Although the relationship is flourishing once again, an editor who knows both men remarked: "I think one of the problems was that di Giovanni got to believe that he had invented Borges."
Di Giovanni gave another reason:
"Borges is a blind man, as you know, and he has to talk, talk all the time. But he's incapable of small talk. I traveled with him all over the world, and I couldn't sleep on the plane because of his need to talk. He would ask, 'What do you think Shakespeare meant by this word?' and he would launch into a long talk. When we arrived somewhere, and he was asked, how was the trip, he would answer with something literary. It was very tiring, but I love him and his work. Right now I'm working on some of his stuff."
His American editor, John Macrae III, remembers traveling with Borges to Israel, where Borges "did an extraordinary thing: He took off his shoes, rolled up his pants and waded into the Dead Sea, tasted the water, and exclaimed: 'It's salty.' "
While in Israel, Borges went to see the late Gershom Scholem, author of one of the Argentine's favorite works, "The Major Trends of Jewish Mysticism," which has influenced his writing. In a poem, Borges pays homage to the Jewish writer: the Cabalist who officiated as divinity called his farfetched creature "Golem": these truths are related by Scholem in a learned passage of his volume.
"I just sat back and listened to Scholem," said Borges. "We had two long talks, and I listened to many things. He wrote in German, you know, not in Yiddish. The German Jews look down on Yiddish, which has very few Hebraic words. It's mostly Germanic."
Borges did not enjoy Israel, which he has lauded in his writing. "I was disappointed in it. Too nationalistic, too commercially minded. They took me to a soap factory. I wonder why?"
The Old Man and the Music
Night after night he has sat here, his smooth hands clutching his black cane, on a bench in the crowded breezeway of Preservation Hall. The light from a bare bulb frames his long, honey-colored face, giving his sightless eyes the glow of aquamarines and highlighting his smile of private pleasure. Borges bobs his head and shoulders to the music's rhythm, an incongruous small figure in his pin-stripe suit.
Borges' conversation bristles with quotations. Kipling ("I love Kipling"), Dante Gabriel Rossetti ("A fine poet. I wonder why he's been neglected?"), Cervantes, the King James Bible ("It's the only readable version, an Oriental book"), a fragment of Poe, the Lord's Prayer in Anglo-Saxon ("faeder ure,/put pe heofonum . . .")
And a song: "I went down to St. James Infirmary,/ I saw my baby there . . .," he sings joyously. Borges has loved jazz since the 1920s. "It was a revelation to me, this genuine American music."
The American Way
He said he has been in love many times. With Greta Garbo, with Miriam Hopkins, with Rita Hayworth ("not much of an actress, but very beautiful") and, "I'm always thinking of women, but the act of love is very private." He does not write about sex because lovemaking, he explains, must be described in "dirty words, and I don't think loving is dirty. I don't like dirty words."
Ancestry and history are important to Borges, as his stories make clear. He and his secretary are learning Norse because he is convinced that Viking blood flows in his veins. Despite his age, he travels to Iceland frequently.
Among his ancestors is his English grandmother, Frances Haslam, who introduced an alien language and literature into a family of soldiers. Among the soldiers were the founders of Buenos Aires and Asuncion, the capital of Paraguay. They were Spanish officers and then men who fought in wars of independence against Spain. They helped wipe out the Indians of the pampas.
"The wars against the Indians were brutal," the frail writer said. "I remember hearing that when the Indians captured white men they killed them with lances, but when the Christians captured Indians, they had their throats cut by the regimental cutthroat. My English grandmother lived on the frontier and told me about Indians. They lived in tents and didn't know what a house was, a window, a door. They were either too stupid or too proud to show astonishment."
Just then Borges announced that he had to "go shake hands with the bishop." He explained that he had learned the expression in his favorite American state, Texas. "I suppose they call the penis a bishop because of its shape, don't you think so?" he asked.