The Tawny Carnet

By Raphael Pallais

Borges’ son was a prematurely aged young man whose stooped shoulders conjoined a drooping jaw at an obtuse angle with a receding chin. Nattily dressed in old-fashioned chinos and Spanish alpargatas, his hair shone with the Argentinean brillantina redolent of tango’s old compadritos and deadly cuchilleros. But there was nothing menacing about him as he brought forward his treasure trove, his father’s literary debris, the flotsam of a life obscured by imagination. He had happened upon it all, he claimed, his long pianist’s fingers jabbing the air uselessly, while cleaning Maria Kodama’s attic on Corrientes 348. She had refused to even look at it. But it was Borges all right. After a quick perusal I established that the dusty stacks of manuscripts, papers and notebooks probably dated from an early period, before literature’s greatest blind mind lost his beloved father. Immediately my eyes were drawn to a bizarre-looking carnet, obviously hand-crafted, its yellowy cover a soft shiny weathered leatherette. I counted thirty-odd pages inside, and they were all crammed from top to bottom with perfectly incomprehensible signs scribbled in a brindle colored ink. Hard as I tried, I could not make out the language in which this carnet might have been composed. I had an intuition that it was not a language, after all. Further computer and material detection examination at the Laboratorio Biológico y Radiológico in central Buenos Aires yielded the following information: 

primo: the carnet’s binding was not made of leather, and – more surprisingly even – the carnet’s pages were not paper – at least not of any kind known to have been manufactured by humans; the actual materials used in the elaboration of the carnet could not be determined by the Laboratorio;

secundo: the “writings” were indeed a language, but clearly did not belong to any of the known human branches. A cryptological analysis had confirmed the intelligible character of the writing, but had not been able to reveal its internal code.  

tertio: although there was visual evidence of heavy manipulation of the carnet, not a single fingerprint could be found!

Mystification is a country, I thought, and this being Borges… it would be the easiest conclusion. However, a nagging doubt persisted. All of Borges’ puzzles, intellectual games and labyrinths were meant to be solved by an average educated person, the solution serving as a sort of anagnorisis, if not quite as peripeteia for the reader. But whatever was contained in the tawny carnet appeared impenetrable, dense, irresolvable. I decided to take it home and examine it at leisure.
It was while boiling the water for my mate later on that day that the notebook began to sing. A gentle percolating sound, like doves cooing softly, rose from the bag in which I had put it on my way home. I opened the bag and contemplated the leathery thing purring inside. It had also begun to glow faintly. I took it out and put it on my kitchen table top.
Then, like a genie from a lamp, Borges himself – or perhaps I hallucinated the whole episode, and it was only his hologram – sprung up whole from the notebook and stood before me, stooped shoulders just like his son, eyes droopy and filled with the weary vacancy of the blind, and the flesh around his mouth hanging like a bulldog’s fleshy lips. In a drone-like voice, he saluted me and proceeded to intone the following lines, which I instantly recognized from his short story, “The Immortal”: 

When the end draws near, there no longer remain any remembered images; only words remain. It is not strange that time should have confused the words that once represented me with those that were symbols of the fate of he who accompanied me for so many centuries. I have been Homer; shortly, I shall be No One, like Ulysses; shortly, I shall be all men; I shall be dead.

I attempted to speak to the apparition, but it failed to respond. After again whispering its statement, which sounded more like a lament, it seemed to dissolve and return to the notebook. When I held the notebook in my hand it shook a bit – or perhaps my hand was not as steady as I’d like to remember –, glowed again and was silent.
It has remained silent for the past forty-five years. But not a day goes by that I do not place the tawny carnet gently on my kitchen table and try to make it come alive again. I have tried so many different ways to bring back his ghost. After all this time, I despair to ever find the key that unlocks this other Borges. Many times I have reached the conclusion that He may not be of this earth, that perhaps He never was of this earth. It is a conclusion both unacceptable and inescapable. But I suspect that I will try to find the key until I am dead, and I fear that even in death I will continue, like Sisiphus and his rock, to try again and again.

(Entry by Raphael Pallais)