On certain tightly scheduled mornings, planned several days in advance, Jorge Luis Borges "holds court" in his Buenos Aires apartment, receiving a steady stream of visitors from all parts of the world.
Since Argentinians are the least punctual people in Latin America, I was rather surprised (and not a little bemused) by Borges' rigid adherence to what Latinos call "gringo time." I was also surprised to learn that most of his visitors are charged a fee for thier half-hour audiences with Borges; but since I was on a lecture tour for the State Department, which had arranged the appointment, i was given an audiencia gratis that lasted a full hour.
"We do certain favors for Borges," an American cultural attache later explained, "and he reciprocates whenever we schedule appointments for our special guests. So you got a freebie."
Having been informed of Borges' very un-Latin punctualness, I arrived at his apartment five minutes before the appointed hour and was ushered into his salon exactly six minutes later. A rather scholarly Japanese journalist was leaving the room as I entered, and Borges was holding a white envelope in his left hand. I wondered later wherther it contained extremely devalued Argentine pesos, equally devalued U.S. dollars or comfortably stable Japanese yen.
His pallid blind eyes staring blankly in my direction, Borges graciously invited me to have a seat on a small divan that faced the easy chair where he habitually sits during an audiencia.
"I assume from the way you speak Spanish that you're a Mexican," he said, his delicate fingers probing the space between us as if to trace the contours of my accent.
"I was born in Mexico," I said, "but I was raised and educated in the U.S., so you'll have to excuse my occasional lapses into Pocho." I explained that Pocho is the way Chicanos speak Spanish in the United States, a sort of amalgam of anglicized Spanish and hispanicized English, and I gave an example.
He smiled and gently pawed the air again, his fingers also seemingly amused by the quaint mixture of idioms. "It's like Yiddish," he said, nodding his head.
We spoke of how languages borrow from each other, of how Mexican Spanish differs from Argentine Spanish, and I introduced him to a new word that delighted him: papalotes, the Mexican word for a kite, derived from the Aztec papalotl, which means "butterfly."
"How lovely," he said, his face lighting up with a child's delight. "Absolutely lovely. And very graphic, you know, because a kite is certainly more like a butterfly than a comet," the Argentine term for a kite.
Soon we were talking about writers, switching back and forth from Spanish to English, and he listed some of his favorites: Kafka, Max Brod, Joyce, Frost, Faulkner, Lawrence and Pound. I asked Borges whether he thought Pound actually knew all the languages he had woven into "The Pisan Cantos."
Pursing his lips for a moment, then permitting himself an impish smile, he stared toward the ceiling and said, "Oh, I guess he knew some of those languages, some better than others -- but I'm not sure he had complete command of the Anglo-Saxon. Take for example . . . "
His voice suddenly several decibels louder and somewhat gutteral, he recited a fairly long poem in very fluent "Anglo-Saxon."
"Now Pound used the last three lines of that poem -- pero fijese que ha traducido el sonido en vez del sentido," he said, switching to Spanish to emphasize his point. "But please note that he's translated the sound instead of the sense of those particular lines. So I'm rather skeptical about his use of Anglo-Saxon, which I myself learned after I lost my sight in 1955, having decided to learn something new and challenging to compensate for that rather disturbing trauma."
Stunned by this linguistic feat and by his remarkable memory -- after all, he's nearly 80 -- I automatically asked the question I previously had in mind: "What about Pound's translations of Li po -- especially that beautifully poignant poem about the river merchant's young wife? Did he really know Chinese -- or . . .?"
"But I don't care whether he knew Chinese or not!" he exclaimed with sudden animation. "That poem is so lovely . . . At 14 I became your wife And so bashful that I could never bare my face But hung my head and turned to the dark wall; You would call me a thousand times, But I could not look back even once . . .
Then . . . Some day when you return down the river, If you will write me a letter beforehand I will come to meet you -- the way is not too long -- I will come as far as the River Chang-feng Sha.
So exquisitely sensitive, that it makes no difference whether it's a true translation or Pound's free adaptation."
As he said this, he rose from his chair and gropingly led me to the floor-to-ceiling bookcase on the left wall, his loosely tied black shoes shuffling across the rugless parquet floor. "I've lost my copy of Pound's translation of Li Po -- but there's another one by Obata," he said.
It's somewhere on this shelf, probably near the collected poems of e.e. cummings, whose sonnets have that same fragile quality."
We found the Li Po, and he asked me to read "The River Merchant's Wife," the soft pallor of his face becoming almost translucent as he closed his eyes, the trembly fingers now quietly resting on his lap as if anesthetized by the peaceful flow of the River Chang-feng Sha.
"The butterflies Li Po mentions remind me of your Aztec papalotl," he said when I had finished reading. "I seem to remember that cummings mentioned butterflies in some of his early poems."
His reference to cummings prompted me to ask him about another poet, Robert Lowell, and his response was quick and surprisingly blunt.
" no me hable de ese senor," he said in firm, clipped Spanish. "Don't talk to me about that man. I had a most unpleasant meeting with him."
"At Harvard?" I asked, alluding to his lectures at the university.
"No, it was right here in this apartment," he said; "Senor Lowell came to see me through an arrangement with the American embassy. And when he came into this room, he tossed his coat aside and, instead of sitting on the sofa, he lay down on the floor in front of my chair like a tramp, like a silly drunk. And my mother, who was sitting on the sofa, reached down and grabbed him by his shirt collar, yelling, 'Levantese, bribon, levantese!" (Get up, you scamp, get up!) How dare you insult us with your stupid manners!"
Apparently unable to quell the anger of Borges' 90-year-old mother, Lowell left the apartment a few moments later; (When I mentioned this incident to the cultural attache, he was not at all surprised. "Lowell was hitting the bottle pretty hard while he was in Buenos Aires," he said.)
Perhaps feeling that he'd been too harsh in his comments about a fellow poet, Borges abruptly changed the subject; "Some of my Argentine colleagues, particularly the linguistic purists, may look askance at this idiom you call Pocho," he said. "They like to think that we speak pure Spanish in this country -- but I always remind them that Spanish, after all, is a mere dialect of the original Latino."
I was about to express my complete agreement when his stern-faced housekeeper, who has succeeded his deceased mother as Borges' timekeeper, appeared behind his chair and clearly let me know that my hour was over. Thanking Borges in the somewhat profuse manner dictated by the florid excesses of formal Spanish, I followed her out of the room and briefly nodded at the two young women waiting their turn in the small foyer. They both held bouquets of fresh roses in their hands, and one of them had a white envelope which she hastily handed to the housekeeper.
"I'm sorry I kept you waiting," I said, noting that I'd overstayed my period by four and a half minutes.
"No hay de que, ," one of them said, graciously smiling, "There's no reason to apologize."