During a recent trip to Argentina, I was talking to an old friend, a successful psychiatrist, about Jorge Luis Borges, the famous Argentine writer considered by many as one of the greatest writers of the XX century. She told me about the only time she had met him. “I had gone to a lecture by Borges at a cultural center in Buenos Aires. I was a 14-year old student planning to study literature at the university and become a writer and Borges was a hero to me.
I was enraptured by Borges strong personality. However, there was a big discrepancy between his physical appearance and the quality of his speech. I saw him as an old man who looked very tired -a sensation increased by the poor lighting in the place- but the magic of his words transported me to another world, the world of the imagination. After the lecture, I decided that I wouldn’t study literature since I would never be able to write like him. On my way out, there were several books on sale. On an impulse, I bought a book called Psychosomatic Medicine, by Eric Wittkower and Hector Warnes. I was so taken by it that after reading it I decided to become a psychiatrist, a decision I never regretted. I can truly say that although I saw Borges only that one time, he dramatically changed my life.”
Although in reading Borges one may think he was a very serious person, he was actually a man who loved jokes and always had unexpected responses to everyday events. Mario Rojman, a friend I met in Buenos Aires, told me that Borges visited Peru when he was an attaché at the Argentine Embassy. Because he loves poetry, both he and Borges would recite some of the writer’s poems aloud, each one a line at a time. They were having a lot of fun, said Rojman. During that visit, the King and Queen of Spain decided to visit Peru. When Rojman told Borges the news he replied, with a mischievous smile, “I hope they won’t bother us…”
His sense of irony never left him. In her book Seven Voices, Rita Guibert says that after Borges published his first book called Fervor de Buenos Aires (Fervor of Buenos Aires) he took 50 copies of the book and gave them to Alfredo Bianchi, who was the editor of the magazine Nosotros. Bianchi looked at him in disbelief and asked Borges, “Do you want me to sell this book?” Borges answered, “No, I am not mad. I want something that the book’s format makes possible –for you to slip a copy into the pocket of every overcoat that passes through your office.”
María Esther Vazquez, who was his secretary and then his romantic partner (in the book The Other Borges by Mario Paoletti) says that on one occasion, when he was with a group of ladies and as he walked to the bathroom, Borges said, “I am going to shake Monsignor’s hand.” When Borges returned from the bathroom one of the ladies reproached him, “Georgie, you don’t shake hands with a Msgr. When you meet him you have to kiss his ring”.
On another occasion, during an interview in Rome, an Italian journalist tried to embarrass him. As he failed to do so he asked Borges, “Do you still have cannibals in your country?” Borges replied, “No, we don’t. We ate them all…” The Argentine writer Abelardo Castillo recounted that on one occasion he asked Borges what he thought of Sartre. Borges replied, smiling: “Well, really, I do not usually think about Sartre”
Borges could have a wry sense of humor. Talking to his translator, Norman Thomas di Giovanni, about his secretary Borges said, “…I have a very efficient secretary –efficient in the sense that she is altogether stupid. For example, instead of saying “I am,” let’s suppose I made the mistake of saying “I is.” She would write that down. And my friend di Giovanni can testify to the fact that in reading manuscripts of mine he often and quite suddenly comes upon the word “period” or “semicolon.” But I feel quite safe with her and can’t make a fool of myself. She is a very nice woman and is very fond of me, which makes things easier.”
One of Borges great admirers is Mario Vargas Llosa, recipient of the 2010 Nobel Prize in Literature. Borges never hid his disdain for politics. When he was a young reporter a Parisian Radio sent Mario Vargas Llosa to interview him. Vargas Llosa took the opportunity to ask Borges what was politics for him. “It’s one of the ways of tedium,” said Borges.
In an interview with The Paris Review Vargas Llosa says that he met Borges in different parts of the world. Once, when Borges was in Lima, Vargas Llosa gave a dinner for him. It the end, Vargas Llosa says, “…he asked me to take him to the toilet. When he was peeing he suddenly said, ‘The Catholics, do you think they are serious? Probably not,’” he answered himself.
Ezequiel de Olaso, an Argentine philosopher and essayist, wrote that he had once proposed Borges to meet with a group of young poets, something similar to what Borges had done before with a group of young people on a television program in New York. At that time, some young people, with uncontained emotion, wept quietly as Borges was reading. However, Borges refused to repeat the experience and told Ezequiel de Olaso in a falsely confidential tone but with unavoidable good humor: “Look, I’m old, I’m blind, I’m a poet and I am Latin. If they didn’t cry they would have behaved like a bunch of scoundrels”.
I had the honor of meeting Borges personally. In 1970, I was doing biomedical research in Buenos Aires. For my wife and me, living in Buenos Aires was a far cry from the provincial kind of life we had been leading in Tucumán, a city in the North of the country. At the time, she was taking language and literature courses at the Instituto de Lenguas Vivas in Buenos Aires.
One of her professors was an American named Donald A. Yates, a professor emeritus of Spanish American literature at Michigan State University (East Lansing). He is the translator of both novels and short stories by many Spanish American authors, including Labyrinths: Selected Writings of Jorge Luis Borges. One day, he invited both of us to join him and Borges for dinner at an upscale restaurant in Buenos Aires. For us, it was a wonderful change from our daily life. And Borges didn’t disappoint us. He was practically the only person who spoke the whole evening, always full of charm and knowledge.
Learning that my wife was of Basque descent from both sides of her family, he talked a lot about Basque history. He had come to dinner alone and was virtually blind. He ordered a pair of fried eggs, which were brought to him in a deep dish with a spoon. All evening he kept trying to catch the eggs with the spoon, and only succeeded in pushing them to the side of the dish. Although we felt bad about seeing this, Borges didn’t seem to mind at all and kept talking as if nothing unusual were happening. For a blind person used to living on past memories, perhaps the life of the imagination was for him more important than real life.