Zahir and I

The Zahir and I

In Gujarat, at the end of the eighteenth century, the Zahir was a tiger; in Java it was a blind man in the Surakarta mosque, stoned by the faithful; in Persia, an astrolabe that Nadir Shah ordered thrown into the sea; in the prisons of Mahdi, in 1892, a small sailor’s compass wrapped in a shred of cloth from a turban and touched by Rudolf Karl von Slatin; in the synagogue in Córdoba it was, according to Zotenberg, a vein in the marble of one of the synagogue’s twelve hundred pillars; in the ghetto in Tetuán, it was the bottom of a well. By sometime around 1949, the Zahir turned up in Buenos Aires; it had become a common twenty-centavo coin, issued in 1929, into which a penknife or a razor had scratched the letters N T and the number 2. Today, in New York and London and San Juan, Puerto Rico and a little town in Maryland, the Zahir is a blind poet named Jorge Luis Borges.
Today is the thirteenth of December, 1999; in the summer of 1993 the Zahir came into my hands. I am not the man I was then, but I am still able to recall, and perhaps recount, what happened. I am still, albeit only partially, Andrew Hurley, just as there was a part of Hermann Sörgel (that case reported on at length in the newspapers some years back) that remained Hermann Sörgel even while another, ineluctable part of him was William Shakespeare. Like Sörgel, when I wake up in the morning I do not always know which of the two of us, Borges or I, is speaking the words that I delude myself I speak into the mirror. I do not know, in fact, which of the two of us is speaking these lines now. Soon, we are to enter a new millennium, and for some, the zeros of the calendars will cipher forth the possibility that lies in blankness; for me, and for many others, I know that even when all else is new, our fate, like the fate of poor Edwin Williamson in that madhouse in Edinburgh, is to go on being, albeit still only partially, and as though with the accoutrements of an actor, Borges.
Each man’s story of the fatal contact is different, but what happened to me is this: In the course of a translator’s life, he may handle (or sometimes even manhandle) dozens of authors, scores of texts, never thinking that they may pose great peril to his mental health, his sleep, his very sanity. Unassuming, mute, the words on the page do not, despite some mad author’s fevered dream after a night of wine and oysters, mix and mingle when the book is closed, do not rearrange themselves into unreadable and untranslatable lines such as O time thy pyramids or axaxaxas mlö (which can only be pronounced as the author’s cruel, mocking laughter) that the translator must translate in the morning. No, for most lifetimes, the words are gentle beasts of burden that come when beckoned to the yoke. Not so the fatal Borges.
I recall (though I have no right to speak that sacred verb – only one man on earth did, and that man is dead) that my wife and I had rented an apartment in Austin Texas, where the fatal Borges had spent several months in 1961 or thereabouts and again, diabolically, sometime later: the myth of the eternal return, of cyclical paths in time and space, embodied. Had I only known. . . . We were sitting at the table after dinner. We had lost all track of time in a vast debate over the way one might go about translating some word or other (cleave, I believe it was, or perhaps fuga) into Lunfardo or, mutatis mutandis, early twentieth-century Liverpudlian, discussing how one might show one’s erudition while preserving the translator’s mask of invisibility. We discovered (late at night such a discovery is inevitable) that there is something monstrous about translations, for they multiply the number of books. That was when my wife remembered a saying attributed to one of the heresiarchs of translation theory, Walter Benjamin. It was an astonishing claim, though literarily unremarkable, and she remembered it like this: A translation issues not so much from the life of an original as from its afterlife, and the translation of an important work of world literature marks its stage of continued life. A theory of cannibals, I remarked. Or of vampires, she darkly suggested.
I ignored the shiver that passed through my weary body; the effect of the hour and indigestion, I thought. (It had been my night to cook.) But in fact it was the beginning of a fever. Then the thought struck me that there is no fiction that is not the symbol of all the fictions that shine down through history and fable, and that Borges’ fictions might stand for them all: the stories of Scheherazade, staving off death when the morning comes; the story of the dreamers of Ephesus; the madman who dreams a land peopled by giants and splendid maidens with names like Dulcinea; the blind poet and his hero’s quest across oceans only to return, old and tired and beggared, home again; the rigorously concentric hells of Dante Alighieri and John Barth; the novels of the mysterious genius Herbert Quain, with their “regressive and ramifying” plots; the unperformed plays of the eccentric Jaromir Hladik who composed while standing erect before the firing squad, as a way of preparing himself for the reviewers’ reception of his works; the infinite detective tales of Agatha Christie and Ellery Queen and all the others with their mysterious murders in the beginning, their long muddled middles, and the satisfying or unsatisfying solution to the crimes at the end; the tragically unfinished novels by Pierre Menard, local colorist manqué; science fiction’s tales of parallel worlds, of a king’s coin of a single side, of books made of the infinite grains of sand, of the nightmare worlds for translators in which people write in languages that consist of nothing but verbs or nothing but adjectives or nothing but nouns with the vowels removed, like Arabic. But I was overcome with weariness, and so I went to bed. Or rather, we went to bed – the three of us: my wife, Borges, and I. For from that day forth, he haunted me.
The next day, I decided I’d been drunk. That damned Sangre de Toro, I told myself, for I was but a freelancer and could afford no better. And yet the mysterious fever persisted, through days clouded by the mists that rose from intricate labyrinths of stone and brick and incorporeal metaphysics and through nights peopled by the minotaurs and kings and lions that inhabited them. For whole months I searched, fruitlessly, for a suitable English word for the Spanish adjective atroz. It was a meta-quest, I realized later, a metaphor for my own condition. Sometimes I would go out for a walk, to clear my mind, and find myself hours later in the reference room of the library, browsing almost blindly through the eleventh edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica or searching for the call numbers of the collected works of Sir Thomas Browne. (I was also obsessed with Urne Buriall.) Finally, my wife greeted me at the door one day with shock and consternation in her eyes; a bloody flourish marked my forehead, and I could not tell her, did not know, whether it was the mark of a casement window I had brushed on the way up the stairs or of the sword wielded by one of the characters in one of Borges’ convoluted tales of courage and betrayal.
She rushed me to a clinic on the south side of Austin, where my clothes were stripped from me, my head was shaved, I was strapped with metal bands to a table and blinded and dizzied with bright lights, my heart and lungs were listened to, and a man in a surgical mask stuck a needle in my arm. I awoke nauseated and bandaged. My wife smiled bravely, telling me that I was going to be all right, that they would soon “get rid of this virus in your brain.” Still, for days I hovered between life and death. The fever wore me away, and illustrations from The Book of Imaginary Beings wallpapered my nightmares. When, on the seventh night, I began hallucinating, the doctors tried reading Zola to me; realizing it, too, was a translation, and thus could only aggravate my symptoms, they soon stopped, bringing in the new Tom Wolfe book to try to exorcise the demon. One morning they even tried Stephen Hawking, but it hurt too much when I laughed. At last, either by force of the strong doses of reading from a parallel world or because my constitution had adapted to the possession, I was judged fit to return home.
My wife, ever solicitous, asked me if I wanted to stop at Starbuck’s. It had been weeks since I’d had a decent cup of coffee; the hospital served only Sanka. The caffeine, you know. . . , they said. But when I told her I’d just brew up some mate when we got home, she broke down and cried.
The details of the months that I, or we, have lived since that fateful fall of 1993 – for I cannot bring myself to call it a fortunate fall, or a happy one – have faded into inconsequence. One day has followed another, one week another, and the years have passed uneventfully, at least outwardly. Inwardly, I continue to be multitudes; I feel, pullulating inside me, the characters of Borges’ fables, feel the knotted labyrinths of their lives, or perhaps plots. Some days I am almost myself; some days I am the other, or yet another. I shall never forget the day I tried to cash a check and realized that I’d signed it “Emma Zunz.” Tomorrow, I feel, I shall be Juan Muraña; the day after, the dread redeemer Lazarus Morel. I have become a serial-personality murderer – tradutore, tradittore is nothing in comparison to that. My wife, my faithful wife, who has walked with me through the red labyrinth of London and, like Ulrikke, slogged with me through the snow outside York and shuffled through the infinite libraries in Buffalo, has filed papers for divorce. Soon, she will leave me to the other and I shall be alone yet infinitely accompanied, as I am now. Soon, forgetting her manners, she will be able to say I told you so – Borges is fated to continue, through translations, and in me, into the new millennium and beyond; Borges’ influence is fated to go on working its dark power on a new generation of readers and writers. No longer shall it be only Calvino and Burgess and Barth and Rushdie and Auster and Robert Coover and Luisa Valenzuela and Alicia Borinsky and those others who carry Borges’ dark fire into the future, but he shall have passed, through the forking paths of multiple paternity, into those writers’ offspring as well, and the offspring of those offspring, ad infinitum. Soon, the entire world will be Borges, yet soon, none of us will know that, for we too will be Borges. Contact with Borges, the habit of Borges, will have disintegrated this world. Spellbound by Borges’ rigor, humanity will have forgotten, and will continue to forget, the messiness of the world and most other literature. Already Borges’ (conjectural) language has filtered into our schools; already the teaching of Borges’ harmonious biography (filled with moving episodes) has obliterated the biographies of Washington, Lincoln, Henry James that governed my own childhood; already, no one may have a cocktail conversation in which they are not reminded of a witty saying by the master. A scattered dynasty of recluses, the translators of Jorge Luis Borges in prose, poetry, and fiction, in every language in which books may be sold in sufficient numbers to justify the printing costs, has changed the face of the earth – and their dark work continues. If my projections are correct, a hundred years from now someone will discover the three new volumes of the Second Collected Works of Borges – and it will be called simply “the Encyclopedia.” Once just a single man who broke with tradition to forge another, he has now become the multiple precursor of yet further traditions of literature, new figurations of time and space and lives and stories. Once merely peripheral, merely Argentine, Borges now spreads through imaginations as a quarter is passed from hand to hand through an entire population, leaving its germs wherever it goes, or like that twenty-centavo piece that infected Borges himself in Buenos Aires in 1949, and he has become the new Zahir, and our fate, once we are touched by him, is nevermore to be able to escape him. Meantime, I am at work on a new vorticist translation of the works of Ana Lydia Lope de Vega.

 Andrew Hurley is Professor of English at the University of Puerto Rico in San Juan. He has recently provided new translations of Borges’ entire fictional works for the Viking book Jorge Luis Borges: Collected Fictions.