Thursday, 31 December 2015

Sabbatical



I wish the title of this post foreshadowed a review of John Barth’s Sabbatical, but I’m really writing to announce that I’m interrupting indefinitely my blogging activity at St. Orberose.

For more than a year now I’ve been thinking of closing this place up; at first my reason had to do with my difficulty in reconciling my needing time to write a novel with my keeping a blog. I began my novel in September 2013 as a project that I thought would take up a few months only; but a few months became around two years as I grew more entangled in the responsibility of writing something I could be proud of; so that meant sacrificing practically all my personal life to it: I gave up going to the movies, going out with friends, visiting relatives; I moved from a full- to a part-time job to have more hours. Eventually last January I was fired, and I was actually elated because I acquired more spare time to finish my novel. (Writing does strange things to the mind, is what I’m saying.) Blogging was in fact the time-wasting activity I most tenaciously clung to – because the one I most liked – as I slowly divested myself of everything else.

Anyway, that was my reason at first; my current reason is because I feel despondent, bitter and unsociable right now. I finished a novel I can’t interest any editor in publishing it; to keep myself busy while jobless I translated a novel I can’t interest any editor in publishing it either; and a few weeks ago I finally got a new dreary office job that, although a monetary relief, is of no interest to me with its rigid routine. So little in my life has turned out the way I hoped. As if this weren’t bad enough, notwithstanding my feeble first frolic through the world of letters I’ve been at work on a second, equally useless book for months now; why I don’t know; perhaps because nothing else cheers me up except writing, although insanabile cacoethes scribendi is not all it’s cracked up to be; in my case it cracked me up to such an extent I still can’t find joy except when I’m writing – hardly a recipe for happiness when the world isn’t built to make life easier for someone who takes joy in writing. No, I guess the real reason for the second book is because, at the age of 31, not having accomplished anything of value, it helps me pretend I’m not a total failure, although it doesn’t help that well since I know full well I am one.

I should have ended St. Orberose, as I intended, after the “Eça de Queiroz Month”, the best thing I wrote for my blog. Instead I let it wither with growingly-infrequent posts that were becoming more and more tedious to cobble together. So instead of going out on a bombastic bang, it ends with a whinny whimper. Well, why not? So much of my life has followed that pattern recently, why should my blog be exempt from it? I always wanted it to be a reflection of my self – so I guess it is.

I don’t plan to disappear; I’ll be around reading other blogs and commenting whenever I can; I’ll continue to exchange e-mails with some of the wonderful bloggers I had the pleasure of meeting and who have entertained, delighted and taught me so much about literature and other things. I enjoyed very much these years belonging to the merry band of book bloggers, which includes some of the kindest, funniest and smartest people I’ve met. I hope my critical scribbles have been as enjoyable and worthwhile to those who came across them as so many blogs out there have been for me. And let me thank everybody who read my blog and took the time to comment; and apologize for so many asinine, impatient, ungenerous views about books. I had to write a fickle one to realize how hard it is to write literature; it’s so easy to patch up a few sentences to tear apart writers who can combine words in a more complex, vivid, unpredictable, emotional way than I can ever hope to achieve. If my useless novel has taught me how to read others with more care and tolerance, perhaps it’s not a complete fiasco.

Shantih shantih shantih

Tuesday, 1 December 2015

Some poems by Ruy Belo




Ruy Belo (1933-1978) was a Portuguese essayist, translator (of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Blaise Cendrars, Raymond Aron, Montesquieu, Jorge Luís Borges, and Federico García Lorca), editor, teacher and poet. His brief poetic career, nowadays collected in three volumes, or about 800 pages, left a mark and nowadays he’s considered a major figure of the second half of 20th Portuguese poetry.

I don’t know much about him besides this. I’ve been leafing through his collections and reading his poets in a rather careless way, but I’ve liked what I’ve read so far. Belo had a thickness to his language that appeals to me, and some of his verses are hard to understand let alone translate. I figured you’d like to read a few:

PRAISING ONE’S BELOVED

Lo she comes plenteous numerous chosen
secret full of thoughts devoid of cares
She comes sitting in the new spring
surrounded by smiles on her bosom lilies
eyes made of shade wind and moment
oblivious to these days that I can never
Time bites on her face laughter’s roots
beyond her it begins to be faraway
The beloved is good childhood come see me
There are ancient birds in the limpid paths
and deaths as before never more
Lo since she stretches wide like a fatherland
on the threshold of our indifference
Our halls are for her solitary feet
We have all forgotten our parent’s houses
she fills with days our empty hands
Pain is in her until god begins
in her the heel of love I do feel
What does it matter us being of a single morning and around us
No tree exiting more wind-whipped?
What does it matter us leaving on a collapse of sunsets?
Sadder even the life where others will pass through
multiplying it its absence what does it matter
if where we put our feet it’s spring?

SEPULCHER OF THE DAYS

I know that you wait for me by the mouth
of the round day upon you like a desire
and that when all the landscape is pointless
you’ll protect me with your rain of lines

And yet appareled with ideas of circumstance
perhaps I’ll look at myself on other mirrors and admit
concepts aerated like rugs forgetting
that you continue to climb up from the sepulcher of my days
like the first dew that the lady
happy for having the possibility of being seen outside
receives on her face on opening the window

But if tomorrow you look at me your look will rise
clouds of centuries upon my path of dust
Leaves at least are as natural as words
and the radical tree where they immolated you had been
although wrought vegetable and green

MAN’S GREATNESS

We are the great island of God’s silence
Whether seasons rain winds blow
they shall never get beyond the riverbanks
Let even a boot fall upon
the great redoubt of God and it won’t succeed
in erasing the primitive footprint
This is the great humility the small
And poor greatness of man

BETRAYALS AND MISENCOUNTERS

I sing the solar man who steps on the snow
The word confirms itself in silence
metaphors go up metaphors go down
Man is desire and not work
that is in fact one of his definitions
all earthly paradises are based on the present
but on killing death they kill pleasure
What have I done with my youth?
he asks saddened once finished the sortilege
that him to isolde the blonde and of the bright face
I sing that ago that time today impossible to us
when rivalen marc’s subject
with the furor of cornish lovers
fell in love by blanchefleur marc’s sister
and thus started a tale of love and death
Isolde loved tristan with mad love
and heard his singing the way the nightingale
alone sings when summer ends
Both sheltered in the woods of morois
they see the warm season arrived a third time
as beautiful and immobile like statues but
marc tristan’s naïve uncle
instead of reality saw appearances and
how much torture love must have caused
Man’s only happy time must have been the neolithic
when the moment triumphed upon the future
He who later devoted himself to edifying tomorrow’s house
was victim of the present time’s portrait

This poem, by the way, goes on for another 15 pages; Belo liked his poems lengthy and wordy, with long verses. He got himself cured of that vice with age, as one of his poems towards the end of his life attests:

FIVE WORDS FIVE PEBBLES

In the past I wrote long poems
Nowadays I have four words to make a poem
They are: listlessness prostration desolation letdown
And I almost forgot one: quitting
It occurred to me before the closing of a poem
and in part sums up what I think of life
after the eight day of each month
Of these five words I surround myself
and from them comes the necessary music
to continue. To reiterate this:
quitting listlessness prostration desolation letdown
In the past when the gods were grand
I always had at hand many verses
Nowadays I just have five words five small pebbles

However his short poems contain some of my favourite ones, like this one:

AN ENDING FOR WHATEVER POEM

He walked around the days’ mirrors
his clandestine joys
which were no sooner reflected than gone.

And this one:

CERTA CONDITIO MORIENDI

All the poets gazed upon death
and later got together in a laughing assembly
to forget who they were
But death was the only way out

Saturday, 21 November 2015

Tales of the Wandering Louse




Portuguese Literature can’t brag about a prominent place in the history of long narrative prose fiction; it always inclined to lyricism. Portugal is a nation of poets, or so its people like to think; but as the philosopher Eduardo Lourenço once wittily remarked, every nation considers itself a nation of poets. The empty self-back-patting mitigates the truth that, a few pastorals and chivalric romances, Portugal before the 19th century didn’t add anything worthwhile to long prose fiction. The dearth spread out in the 16th century, after the Inquisition started kindling fires in 1536, until 1843, when the first genuine Portuguese novel came out. There were a few works between those dates, obscure and inconsequential enough not to have trouble official literature: books aimed at the masses, pure entertainment, that never presumed to be art. One in particular that I recently read and greatly enjoyed is called O Piolho Viajante, or The Wandering Louse, by António Manuel Policarpo da Silva. It’s such a neglected work it hasn’t been reprinted since 1973. The gentleman who gave it a brief lease on life was a writer I like very admire, José Palma-Ferreira (1930-1989), novelist, diarist, translator (of Ulysses no less), book reviewer, literature teacher, literary historian and lover of popular fiction that had fallen by the wayside. He was a tireless discoverer, promoter, annotator and prefacer of oddities and curiosities. Read and acclaimed in his lifetime, Palma-Ferreira eventually joined his hosts of pariahs in the oblivion he tried to rescue them from. Most of his work is out of print, and nowadays you can only find his careful, elegant, expensive editions of classics in secondhand bookshops. That’s a pity because The Wandering Louse is remarkable book.

Not much is known about the author: Policarpo da Silva was a bookseller and publisher with a shop in the Terreiro do Paço square, by the Tejo River, that nowadays teems with tourists. In 1802 he began the anonymous serialization (doubts about his identity lingered for some time; Palma-Ferreira shrewdly solved the matter by simply checking the records of the Inquisition for that particular year, since the periodical required a license, which was granted) of the Louse’s adventures. There is no plot to speak of, just episodic good fun in the manner of the old Spanish picaros. Much like Lazarillo de Tormes who switches from  master to master bathing in the sordidness of 16th century Spain, the Louse jumps from host to host (all in all there are 72 extant tales), giving us a panoramic view of Portugal’s lumpenproletariat in all its amoral, petty, cheating splendor. It was published up to the 1920s (when Policarpo da Silva may have passed away) and reprinted many times throughout the 19th century. It remained a popular work with the masses, however it never received much attention from the academy until Palma-Ferreira. Policarpo da Silva wasn’t a skilled raconteur, but he had a vibrating satirical vein, a delirious imagination and a comical turn of phrase that elevated his whimsies from mere dreck into respectable, sometimes inspiringly good prose. It’s not a novel with character development, rather an assortment of situations focused on ridiculing societal types, and so it’s best read in the jolly spirit of loose books like Il Decameron, Gargantua and Pantagruel, and the first part of Don Quixote.

The book starts with an introduction by a man claiming to have acquired a manuscript from a Moor in Algiers written in “louse language.” Having an inclination for foreign languages, he claims the present book to be a translation and adaptation into Portuguese society. Fair enough; translation is a tricky business; sometimes you have to tweak stuff around to make them it clearer for readers. The actual narrator is the Louse. “I was born over there in Asia, from an intercourse between a She-louse and an Elephant, although some said that a male Tarantula was the person who gave me my day. But whether or not it was, that’s an insignificant thing; for since Lice don’t have estates to inherit, She-Lice don’t have many scruples about this or that being the Father of their children, albeit there are many scrupulous She-Lice and with many good feelings.” Palma-Ferreira, who was also an expert on picaresque fiction, explains that this beginning is meant to emulate the Spanish picaros that tend to begin with the narrators denigrating their parents. (Curiously, when Eça de Queiroz wrote his own special brand of picaro, The Relic, he did just the same; he was genre-savvy.)

Always adhering to the picaresque tradition, this book is about the lengths people of any social stratus will do to subsist. Although upper classes also get ridiculed, the Louse spends most of his time on poor people’s heads; but they’re not the downtrodden of social realist fiction; these are brutish, vicious, lying ogres that probably never had any intimation with lofty morals and ideals. This allows Policarpo da Silva to create a fine contrast between the Louse’s natural instinct to suck blood and man’s depravity. “For we don’t suck anybody’s blood in order to own carriages and support vices.” Not so with the men and women on whose grimy, filthy hairdos he hides and thrives.

The book is a window into many aspects of daily live that you wouldn’t find in literary fiction from this time; the most fascinating is the focus on poor hygiene conditions (the Louse frets over the pomades, tinctures, ointments, greases and medicines people put on their hair), including a lice-picking scene. “The husband begins, with his little finger, to pick his wife’s head. I take notice of that, and of the danger I was in, I move to the husband’s head. After a while the husband stops the picking and the wife gets to picking him. I return to the wife’s head, and thus they spent all night and me jumping from head to head. At dawn I rested somewhat but protesting that I’d jump bail as soon as I could, which I succeeded the next day,” he says, at which point he manages to jump to another host. He changes for many reasons: sometimes by accident, like when heads collide and tumbles into another hairdo; sometimes the host dies from illness; or else he’s in danger or being wiped away by cleaning products; other times he finds his hosts so dull (he’s a curious Louse) that he longs to meet a more exotic head. The picaro generally involves a journey; although the Louse stays in Lisbon, his head hopping constitutes in itself a journey.

He lives on barbers, dressmakers, doctors, philosophers, politicians, noblemen, bartenders, grocers, beggars, bandits, even a poet. Deception, greed, abjection and iniquity are running themes: incompetent doctors prescribe medicine that have no effect; grocers adulterate products with cheaper material and cheat on the weights; washerwomen steal clothes; bartenders make beverages last longer by adding water. (This was still common enough in Eça’s time.) Most people are grafters trying to make ends meet, and for them a good trick means survival pure and simple, and moral qualms don’t even come into it.  It’s a grim, voracious world, all the funnier because the Louse seldom judges but finds everything perfectly normal in accordance with basic human needs. A particularly grotesque host is a man the Louse calls Avaricious (there few have proper names): on finding a dead man in bed, the first thing he does is cut off his hair to sell it. “Once he threw out a daughter just because she broke a glass,” the Louse reveals. But he can be even more vile: “And there was another thing about him: on Sundays, he called his children and joined them in catching flies for eating and told them it was the same as lupin seeds [eaten in Portuguese bars like peanuts in America]. And they were so skilled at this that, in the end, they already caught them with their mouths.”

Here’s how a ruthless apothecary worked; medicine in Portugal in 1802 was pretty primitive, people could become doctors with almost no credentials, and medicine was still based on folklore, not science. The following flimflam is a stretch, but conveys the spirit of crude solution-thinking that passed for medicine at the time:

The apothecary also had a prescription for eyes which was a thing never seen before, and a neighbor who had this malady was cured by him in three days. I wish to relate the prescription because it’s a useful thing. He put him in dark house and then removed every furniture from his house and painted several figures with coal on the walls. He told the man he could come out, that he was fine. The patient, who saw no furniture at home, claimed he was worse than before because he saw nothing. But the apothecary insisted it was a lie and asked him: “Do you not see these paintings on the walls?” “Yes I do, sir,” replied the poor man. He asked him again: “And before I cured you, did you see them?” No, sir.” “Then why do you complain, if you’re seeing so well? You even see what you didn’t see before.

There’s also a tale about a mediocre poet; here’s his idea for a play: “He composed a Tragedy wherein the first death on stage was the Investor’s. Then began dying, in their order, all the Actors and Actresses so that an Extra, who turned on the lights, had to come to give notice that the Tragedy was over.” Policarpo da Silva should have written this play instead; he’d be famous nowadays as a forerunner of the Theater of the Absurd.

Another running theme, like in a good British Victorian novel, is the widespread abuse of drinking. “There were many who never lunched at home. It was easier for them, when they only a penny, to leave their whole family fasting, for with a penny’s worth of bread they’d hardly kill hunger, just to come to the gin joint to chat and take their coffee with a toast.”

A layer the Louse lives on perhaps conveys the book’s motto: “In this world everything is business. Today I sell, tomorrow I buy.” And there’s money to be made with everything; through cunningness, lack of scruples, boldness and some luck, anything becomes a commodity in the feral struggle for life. This book would be absolutely horrifying if it weren’t so hilarious. Policarpo da Silva had the genius to find a great metaphor for early 19th century vermin-riddled Portugal: in a world where everyone feeds on others, like lice do without our noticing, by ruse and schemes, everyone is a blood-sucking louse. It’s not that sophisticated, but what he does with it is very different enticing.

Trendy Americans like to make up lists of foreign untranslatable words; there are two Portuguese words that usually make the rounds: one is saudade, which is not very useful and we won’t waste our time with it; the other, far more vital, is the bedrock of Portuguese thought: desenrascanço, which means coming up with a crude, last minute solution for a problem because of lack of planning of foresight. It’s very much the Portuguese way of being. The Wandering Louse, it could be said without exaggeration – although The Voyages of Fernão Mendes Pinto may be a precursor – is perhaps Portugal’s first and yet best treatment of desenrascanço.

A few brief remarks on the languages. Although Policarpo da Silva was writing mass entertainment, his prose is surprisingly good. There are frequent word puns, inner rhymes, alliteration, and paronomasias. Not being a genius writer, Policarpo da Silva was quite the coiner of lively sentences wholly unexpected in their oddness. This book is so foreign to the general character of Portuguese fiction, I’m amazed it even exists, and ever so thankful for it. If only more mainstream, literary authors had read it and absorbed some of its insanity, instead of the Walter Scotts, Balzacs and lifeless Romantics that only led to dull copycats, the course of the Portugal novel would have improved astronomically.

Tuesday, 27 October 2015

Borges talks about his mom




So I was looking into the serviceable Osvaldo Ferrari/Jorge Luis Borges book for another post for The Argentine Literature of Doom, when I came across a conversation about a most unusual subject: Borges’ mom, Señora Leonor Acevedo Suárez. I didn’t remember this conversation at all, and I’ve read the book twice. But, oh!, it’s brimming with stuff. Borges talks about his mom, translations, foreign languages versus Spanish, or Castellan as he prefers to call it, fake memories, terrorism and equestrian statues. This one has everything!

As always, it begins with Ferrari, Boswell to Borge’s Johnson, picking a theme. This time he chooses Borges’ mom, “A figure that seems crucial in your literary life,” he claims. Borges quite readily agrees, no angst at all with him. “Yes, I owe a lot to my mother… to her indulgence, and then she helped me in my literary oeuvre. She advised me not to write a book about Evaristo Carriego, she suggested to me two themes that would have been far superior: she suggested to me a book on Lugones and another, perhaps more interesting, on Pedro Palacios-Almafurte. And I told her, with feeble conviction, that Carriego had been our neighbor in Palermo, and she told me, quite right: “Well, nowadays everybody is somebody’s neighbor,” of course, unless you live in a desert oasis, no? I don’t know, I wrote that book… I had become enthused, more or less, with Palermo’s apocryphal mythology. I finished second in a municipal award, which was nothing to sneer at, since it was three thousand pesos. They gave the third place to Gigena Sánchez, the first I don’t remember who won it. Anyway, those prizes allowed – I gave some money to my family – allowed me, let us say, one year of leisure. And I wasted that year writing that book, for which I’m quite regretful, as of almost everything I’ve written, titled Evaristo Carriego, which was published by Manuel Gleiser, from Villa Crespo.”

OK, let’s have a pause here to break this super-long reply, and to remark that his memory is amazing; circa 1984 he still remembered events from 1930 so crisply. The Wiki entry on Carriego is lovely, by the way; we learn that he “was an Argentine poet, best known for the biography written about him by Jorge Luis Borges.” Anyway, moving on:

“That book is illustrated with photos by Horacio Cóppola of old Palermo houses. It took me about a year or so to write it, which led me to certain researches and to meet Nicolás Paredes, who had been a caudillo in Palermo in Carriego’s time, and who showed me, or told me, so many things – not all of them apocryphal – about the neighborhood’s lowly past. Besides that, he taught me… I didn’t know how to play card tricks (laughs), he introduced me to popular payador Luis García [a wandering singer], and I hope to write something one day about Paredes, a character by far more interesting than Evaristo Carriego. However, Carriego discovered the literary possibilities of the outskirts. Well, I wrote that book, in spite of my mother’s opposition, or better yet, resignation. And then my mother helped me a lot, she read me long texts aloud, and when she was voiceless, when she was losing her eyesight, she continued to read for me, and I was not always dutifully patient with her… And… she invented the ending for one of my most famous tales: “The Intruder.” I owe it to her. Well, my mother barely knew English, but when my father passed away, in 1938, she couldn’t read because she read a page and forgot it, as if she had read a blank page. So she imposed upon herself a task that would force her to pay attention, that task was translating. She translated a William Saroyan book; it was called The Human Comedy, she showed it to my brother-in-law, Guillermo de Torre, and he published it.”

Here Borges starts digressing, but Ferrari steers him back to her translations. “But we can also remember other translations made by your mother, which were exceptional, like the translation of D.H. Lawrence’s tales.” And Borges replies: “Yes, the tale that gives the book its title, ‘The Woman Who Rode Away,’ and she translated it very well, I think. And then, why not confess that she translated, and I later proofread without hardly changing anything, the novel The Wild Palms, by Faulkner. And she also translated other books from French, from English, and these were excellent translations.” “Yes,” says Ferrari, “but perhaps you didn’t have the same affection she did for D. H. Lawrence; I never heard you talk about Lawrence.” Borges, as always, is quite candid about his likes and dislikes: “… No, she liked D. H. Lawrence, and I, alas, was rather unlucky with him. Well, when my father passed away, she got to translating; and then she thought that one way of getting close to him, or pretending to get close to him, was improving her knowledge of English.” And he adds: “Yes, and she liked it so much that in the end she couldn’t read in Castellan anymore, and she was one of the few people here who read in English… there was a time when every society lady read in English; and since they read a lot, and read good authors, that made them skillful at English. Castellan was for her a bit like, I don’t know, like Guarani must be for a lady in Corrientes or in Paraguay, no? A rather homely language. So I met many ladies here who were quite skillful at English, and fatally trivial in Castellan. Of course the English they read was a literary English, and, on the other hand, the Castellan they knew was a homely language, no more.”

Ferrari, focusing on the question of English, flatters him, “Borges, I always imagined that being skillful at English was one of your never revealed secrets.” But Borges replies, “… No, Goethe used to say that French writers shouldn’t be excessively admired because, he added, ‘The Language versifies for them.’ He thought French was a skillful language. But I think the fact of one having a good page in French or English doesn’t allow any judgments on them: as languages they’ve been so overwrought that they practically function on their own. On the other hand, if a person achieves a good page in Castellan, he had to overcome many adversities, many strained rhymes, many ‘entos’ – which group together with ‘entes’ – many words without hyphen, so that, in order to write a good page in Castellan you have to have, at least, literary gifts. And not so with French and English, these are languages that have so overwrought that they practically function on their own.”

After this hilarious, concise put-down of three languages Ferrari returns to his mother, why I don’t know, this was quite obviously the climax of the conversation. But no, it gets better.

Ferrari mentions that his mother, like Borges, was famous for having a prodigious memory. “Yes, “ agrees Borges, “she told me so many things,” about Buenos Aires in the past, “and in such a vivid way that I now think these are my personal memories, but in fact are memories of things she told me. I suppose that happens once in a while to everyone; especially if it’s about very ancient things: confusing what’s heard with what’s perceived.” And he adds: “I have personal memories that can’t have been registered by me, for chronological reasons.” Borges really was a character in a Borges short-story! He was a Naturalist all along. “Well, my sister sometimes remembered things and my mother told her: ‘It’s impossible, you hadn’t been born yet.’ And my sister replied: ‘Very well, but I was around already.’ By this she drew close to the theory according to which children chose their parents; that’s what Buddha presupposes, who up in the sky chooses a particular region in India, which belongs to a particular caste, or to particular parents.”

Ferrari chips in that “memory is hereditary,” which Borges agrees with of course. “An admirable aspect in my mother was, I think, the fact that she didn’t have a single enemy, everybody liked her; she had every sort of female friends: she entertained in the same way an important lady and a black old woman, great-granddaughter of slaves on her family’s side and who used to pay her visits. When this black woman died, my mother went to the chapel where they were carrying out the wake and one of the black women got atop a stool and announced that the black woman who had died had been my mother’s wet nurse. And there she was, in a circle of black folks, acting quite naturally. I don’t believe she ever had a single enemy; well, she was in jail, honorably in jail, at the start of the dictatorship. And once she was praying and the lady from Corrientes, who ever since has been our house maid, [the text is not clear here;], asked her what she was doing, and she replied: ‘I’m praying for Perón,’ who had passed away; ‘I’m praying for him because he really needs someone to pray for him.’ She absolutely held no grudge.” You really need to read the two volumes from start to finish to appreciate how Borges couldn’t forget and forgive Perón.

Ferrari brings up her courage. “Yes,” says Borges, “I remember someone phone her once and a quite rude and terrorizing voice told her, ‘I’m going to kill you and your son.’ ‘Why, sir?’ asked my mother with a rather unexpected courtesy. ‘Because I’m a Peronista.’ ‘Very well,’ she said, ‘as for my son, he goes out every day at ten. You only have to wait outside to kill him. As for me, I’m… (I don’t remember how old she was, eighty something); I advise you not to waste any time talking on the phone because if you don’t hurry I may pass away first.’ Then he hung up.” And there were no more phone calls, suggesting perhaps that the secret ingredient in Gandhi’s ahimsa is ridicule.

Next Borges mentions some of the illustrious officers in his family, which prompts this bit about people wanting him to sign a public petition to rise a statue in honour of his ancestor General Soler. “And the last thing our unfortunate country needed was more equestrian statues. There were so many equestrian statues you could barely walk around with all these statues; naturally I didn’t sign it. Besides that, they’re all ghastly, why foment that hunger for statues? But I was told there’s a Don Quixote statue that beats all the others in ugliness.” Now, if someone knows which statue he means, please let me know.

Borges isn’t crazy about his military ancestors; he seems prouder of his mother’s religiosity. She “was sincerely religious,” he says. “As was my English grandmother because she was Anglican, but of a Methodist tradition; that is, her ancestors moved all around England with their wives and Bibles. And my grandmother lived almost four years in Junín. She married Colonel Francisco Borges, whom we just mentioned [I cut out his quoting a poem about this figure], and she was quite happy – she said so to my mother – for she had her husband, her son, the Bible and Dickens; and that was enough for her. She had no one to talk with – she was amongst soldiers – and, besides that, it was a prairie with nomadic Indians; farther out there were the Coliqueo huts, belonging to friendly Indians, and in Pincén too, filled with spear-yielding Indians, warring Indians.” I was just thinking that Borges, like Gabriel García Márquez, can boast of having had important military man in his family history.

There’s a final note about Borges’ mom that fills me with joy. Ferrari mentions her “familiarity” with literature. “Yes,” says Borges, “her love for books was remarkable, and so was her literary intuition; she read, around the centennial, the novel The Illustrious House of Ramires, by Eça de Queiroz. [the Centennial was held in 1945, but it must have occurred before 1938 since Borges’ dad was still alive, as we can see below; anyway, I’m amazed echoes of the event reached Argentina.] Queiroz was unknown at the time, at least here [no, almost everywhere actually]; because he died in the century’s final year. And she told my father, ‘It’s the best novel I ever read in my life.’”

And there you go; now we all know a bit better Señora Borges, and above all that she had a magnificent taste in books.