Tuesday, April 08, 2008

En un lugar en Buenos Aires . . . una biblioteca

{Photo by rocketlass.}

Until recently, I’d never felt the urge to read Paul Theroux, novelist and writer of dyspeptic travel books. The little travel writing I read tends to be relatively old and arcane: why read Theroux’s contemporary wanderings when I could instead turn once more to Travels in Arabia Deserta?

Last week, however, I scurried to my local bookstore in search of Theroux’s The Old Patagonian Express (1979) following a review at the Millions in which the reviewer, C. Max Magee, mentioned one of the people Theroux met on his rail journey from Boston to Patagonia. I’ll let Theroux himself tell you the name of the person he encountered who so piqued my interest, in this passage from his introduction to the 1997 edition of the book:

I was lucky in the people I met. The Panama Canal was in the news: President Carter had convened a conference to hand the canal back to the Panamanians. The Zonians—delightful name—were furious at what they took to be Carter’s treachery. And I found a reasonable man to discuss these matters, and more: Mr. Reiss, the head mortician in the Gorgas Mortuary. And there were others: the woman in Veracruz looking for her lover, Mr. Thornberry in Costa Rica, the Irish priest who had started a little family in Ecuador, Jorge Luis Borges in Buenos Aires.
That final name is slid in there so casually, delivered without even the benefit of an "and" or an ellipsis, as if this is the sort of matter-of-course encounter we all have when we visit Buenos Aires.

Theroux can’t quite sustain that air of nonchalance when he comes to describing the moment when, after a couple of people offer to put him in touch with Borges, he learns that he’s going to meet the man. Though related plainly, the scene crackles with the mysterious energy of destiny that animates so many of Borges’s own stories:

Later the next afternoon, my phone rang.

“Borges wants to see you.”

“Wonderful,” I said. “When?”

“In fifteen minutes.”

A Borges fan can’t help but think of Borges's story “Shakespeare’s Memory,” in which a Shakespeare scholar receives an unsolicited phone call offering him Shakespeare’s memory; in that moment, some of the magic and terror of the early days of instant communication are revived, the realization that this machine--with its ability to rupture one's day with news good or bad--could possess unexpected and unsettling power.

After all, any of us might at any time receive such an unexpected call, delivering horrible news . . . or offering us a quiet evening in Borges's library. Perhaps the latter is even more likely now that the man himself is long gone, with no obligations to distract him from his books, slowly read aloud to his shade by good friends.

And now, to follow Theroux into Borges’s library. I’ll report back soon.


  1. What makes Theroux's story even better is that, if I recall correctly, Borges decision about whether to give Theroux an audience hinged on whether he liked an essay Theroux had just published about Kipling.

    Apparently Borges found Theroux's piece acceptable.

  2. You're right, David. Theroux had written on Kipling for the New York Times Book Review recently, and Borges had been impressed.