Jorge Luis Borges

Translated by Norman Thomas Di Giovanni

Now I shall not journey to the Estado Occidental; now I shall not set eyes on snowcapped Higuerota mirrored in the waters of the Golfo Plácido; now I shall not decipher Bolívar’s manuscripts in that library, which doubtless has its own shape and its own lengthening shadows but which from here in Buenos Aires I picture in so many different ways.

Rereading the above paragraph preparatory to writing the next, its at once melancholy and pompous tone troubles me. Perhaps one cannot speak of that Caribbean republic without, even from afar, echoing the monumental style of its most famous historian, Captain Joseph Korzeniowski—but in my case there is another reason. My opening paragraph, I suspect, was prompted by the unconscious need to infuse a note of pathos into a slightly painful and rather trivial episode. I shall with all probity recount what happened, and this may enable me to understand it. Furthermore, to confess to a thing is to leave off being an actor in it and to become an onlooker—to become somebody who has seen it and tells it and is no longer the doer.

The actual event took place last Friday, in this same room in which I am writing, at this same—though now slightly cooler—evening hour. Aware of our tendency to forget unpleasant things, I want to set down a written record of my conversation with Dr. Edward Zimmerman, of the University of Cordoba, before oblivion blurs the details. The memory I retain of that meeting is still quite vivid.

For the better understanding of my story, I shall have to set forth briefly the curious facts surrounding certain letters of General Bolívar’s found among the papers of Dr. José Avellanos, whose History of Fifty Years of Misrule—thought to be lost under circumstances that are only too well known—was ultimately unearthed and published by his grandson, Dr. Ricardo Avellanos. To judge from references I have collected from various sources, these letters are of no particular interest, except for one dated from Cartagena on August 13, 1822, in which the Liberator places upon record details of his celebrated meeting with the Argentine national hero General San Martín. It is needless to underscore the value of this document; in it, Bolívar reveals—if only in part—exactly what had taken place during the two generals’ interview the month before at Guayaquil. Dr. Ricardo Avellanos, embattled opponent of the government, refused to turn the correspondence over to his own country’s Academy of History, and, instead, offered it for initial publication to a number of Latin American republics. Thanks to the praiseworthy zeal of our ambassador, Dr. Melaza-Mouton, the Argentine government was the first to accept Dr. Avellanos’ disinterested offer. It was agreed that a delegate should be sent to Sulaco, the capital of the Estado Occidental, to transcribe the letters so as to see them into print upon return here. The rector of our university, in which I hold the chair of Latin American History, most generously recommended to the Minister of Education that I be appointed to carry out this mission. I also obtained the more or less unanimous vote of the National Academy of History, of which I am a member. The date of my audience with the Minister had already been fixed when it was learned that the University of Córdoba—which, I would rather suppose, knew nothing about these decisions—had proposed the name of Dr. Zimmerman.

Reference here, as the reader may be well aware, is to a foreign-born historian expelled from his country by the Third Reich and now an Argentine citizen. Of the doubtless noteworthy body of his work, I have glanced only at a vindication of the Semitic republic of Carthage—which posterity judges through the eyes of Roman historians, its enemies—and a sort of polemical essay which holds that government should be neither visible nor emotional. This proposal drew the unanswerable refutation of Martin Heidegger, who, using newspaper headlines, proved that the modern chief of state, far from being anonymous, is rather the protagonist, the choragus, the dancing David, who acts out the drama of his people with all the pomp of stagecraft, and resorts unhesitatingly to the overstatement inherent in the art of oration. He also proved that Zimmerman came of Hebrew, not to say Jewish, stock. Publication of this essay by the venerated existentialist was the immediate cause of the banishment and nomadic activities of our guest.

Needless to say, Zimmerman had come to Buenos Aires to speak to the Minister, who personally suggested to me, through one of his secretaries, that I see Zimmerman and, so as to avoid the unpleasant spectacle of two universities in disagreement, inform him of exactly how things stood. I of course agreed. Upon return home, I was told that Dr. Zimmerman had telephoned to announce his visit for six o’clock that same afternoon. I live, as everyone knows, on Chile Street. It was the dot of six when the bell rang.

With republican simplicity, I myself opened the door and led him to my private study. He paused along the way to look at the patio; the black and white tiles, the two magnolias, and the wellhead stirred him to eloquence. He was, I believe, somewhat ill at ease. There was nothing out of the ordinary about him. He must have been forty or so, and seemed to have a biggish head. His eyes were hidden by dark glasses, which he once or twice left on the table, then snatched up again. When we first shook hands, I remarked to myself with a certain satisfaction that I was the taller, and at once I was ashamed of  myself, for this was not a matter of a physical or even a moral duel but was simply to be an explanation of where things stood. I am not very observant—if I am observant at all—but he brought to mind what a certain poet has called, with an ugliness that matches what it defines, an “immoderate sartorial inelegance.” I can still see garments of electric blue, with too many buttons and pockets. Zimmerman’s tie, I noticed, was one of those conjuror’s knots held in place by two plastic clips. He carried a leather portfolio, which I presumed was full of documents. He wore a short military moustache, and when in the course of our talk he lit a cigar I felt that there were too many things on that face. Trop meublé, I said to myself.

The successiveness of language—since every word occupies a place on the page and a moment in the reader’s mind—tends to exaggerate what we are saying; beyond the visual trivia that I have listed, the man gave the impression of having experienced an arduous life.

On display in my study are an oval portrait of my great-grandfather, who fought in the wars of Independence, and some cabinets containing swords, medals, and flags. I showed Zimmerman those old glorious things, explaining as I went along; his eyes passed over them quickly, like one who is carrying out a duty, and, not without a hint of impoliteness that I believe was involuntary and mechanical, he interrupted and finished my sentences for me. He said, for example:

“Correct. Battle of Junín. August 6, 1824 Cavalry charge under Juárez.”

“Under Suárez,” I corrected.

I suspect his error was deliberate. He spread his arms in an Oriental gesture and exclaimed, “My first mistake, and certainly not my last! I feed on texts and slip up on facts—in you the interesting past lives.” He pronounced his v’s like f’s.

Such flatteries displeased me. He was far more interested in my books, and let his eyes wander almost lovingly over the titles. I recall his saying, “Ah, Schopenhauer, who always disbelieved in history. This same set, edited by Grisebach, was the one I had in Prague. I thought I’d grow old in the friendship of those portable volumes, but it was history itself, in the flesh of a madman, that evicted me from that house and that city. Now here I am, with you, in South America, in this hospitable house of yours.”

He spoke inelegantly but fluently, his noticeable German accent going hand in hand with a Spanish lisp. By then we were seated, and I seized upon what he had said in order to take up our subject. “History here in the Argentine is more merciful,” I said. “I was born in this house and I expect to die here. Here my greatgrandfather lay down his sword, which saw action throughout the continent. Here I have pondered the past and have compiled my books. I can almost say I’ve never been outside this library, but now I shall go abroad at last and travel to lands I have only traveled in maps.” I cut short with a smile my possible rhetorical excess.

Are you referring to a certain Caribbean republic?” said Zimmerman.

“So I am,” I answered. “And it’s to this imminent trip that I owe the honor to your visit.”

Trinidad served us coffee. I went on slowly and confidently. “You probably know by now that the Minister has entrusted me with the mission of transcribing and writing an introduction to the new Bolívar letters, which have accidentally turned up in Dr. Avellanos’ files. This mission, by a happy stroke, crowns my lifework —the work that somehow runs in my blood.”

It was a relief having said what I had to say. Zimmerman appeared not to have heard me; his averted eyes were fixed not on my face but on the books at my back. He vaguely assented, and then spoke out, saying, “In your blood. You are the true historian. Your people roamed the length and breadth of this continent and fought in the great battles, while in obscurity mine were barely emerging from the ghetto. You, according to your own eloquent words, carry history in your blood; you have only to listen closely to an inner voice. I, on the other hand, must go all the way to Sulaco and struggle through stacks of perhaps apocryphal papers. Believe me, sir, I envy you.”

His tone was neither challenging nor mocking; his words were the expression of a will that made of the future something as irrevocable as the past. His arguments hardly mattered. The strength lay in the man himself, not in them. Zimmerman continued, with a schoolteachers deliberation: “In this matter of Bolívar—I beg your pardon, San Martín—your stand, cher maître, is known to all scholars. Votre siège est fait. As yet, I have not examined Bolívar’s pertinent letter, but it is obvious, or reasonable to guess, that it was written as a piece of self-justification. In any case, this much-touted letter will show us only Bolívar’s side of the question, not San Martín’s. Once made public, it should be weighed in the balance, studied, passed through the sieve of criticism, and, if need be, refuted. No one is better qualified for that final judgment than you, with your magnifying glass. The scalpel, the lancet—scientific rigor itself demands them! Allow me at the same time to point out that the name of the editor of the letter will remain linked  to the letter. Such a link is hardly going to stand you in good stead. The public at large will never bother to look into these subtleties.”

I realize now that what we argued after that, in the main, was useless. Maybe I felt it at the time. In order to avoid an outright confrontation I grasped at a detail, and I asked him whether he really thought the letters were fakes.

“That they are in Bolívar’s own hand,” he said, “does not necessarily mean that the whole truth is to be found in them. For all we know, Bolívar may have tried to deceive the recipient of the letter or, simply, may have deceived himself. You, a historian, a thinker, know far better than I that the mystery lies in ourselves, not in our words.”

These pompous generalities irritated me, and I dryly remarked that within the riddle that surrounded us, the meeting at Guayaquil—in which General San Martín renounced mere ambition and left the destiny of South America in the hands of Bolívar—was also a riddle possibly not unworthy of our attention.

“The interpretations are so many,” Zimmerman said. “Some historians believe San Martín fell into a trap; others, like Sarmiento, have it that he was a European soldier at loose ends on a continent he never understood; others again—for the most part Argentines—ascribe to him an act of self-denial; still others, weariness. We also hear of the secret order of who knows what Masonic lodge.”

I said that, at any rate, it would be interesting to have the exact words spoken between San Martín, the Protector of Peru, and Bolívar, the Liberator. Zimmerman delivered his judgment.

“Perhaps the words they exchanged were irrelevant,” he said. “Two men met face to face at Guayaquil; if one of them was master, it was because of his stronger will, not because of the weight of arguments. As you see, I have not forgotten my Schopenhauer.” He added, with a smile, “Words, words, words. Shakespeare, insuperable master of words, held them in scorn. In Guayaquil or in Buenos Aires—in Prague, for that matter—words always count less than persons.”

At that moment I felt that something was happening between us, or, rather, that something had already happened. In some uncanny way we were already two other people. The dusk entered into the room, and I had not lit the lamps. By chance, I asked, “You are from Prague, Doctor?”

“I was from Prague,” he answered.

To skirt the real subject, I said, “It must be an unusual city. I’ve never been there, but the first book I ever read in German was Meyrink’s novel Der Golem.”

“It’s the only book by Gustav Meyrink worth remembering,” Zimmerman said. “It’s wiser not to attempt the others, compounded as they are of bad writing and worse theosophy. All in all, something of the strangeness of Prague stalks the pages of that book of dreams within dreams. Everything is strange in Prague, or, if you prefer, nothing is strange. Anything may happen there. In London, on certain evenings, I have had the same feeling.”

“You have spoken of the will,” I said. “In the tales of the Mabinogion, two kings play chess on the summit of a hill, while below them their warriors fight. One of the kings wins the game; a rider comes to him with the news that the army of the other side has been beaten. The battle of the men was a mirror of the battle of the chessboard.”

“Ah, a feat of magic,” said Zimmerman.

“Or the display of a will in two different fields,” I said. “Another Celtic legend tells of the duel between two famous bards. One, accompanying himself on the harp, sings from the twilight of morning to the twilight of evening. Then, under the stars or moon, he hands his harp over to his rival. The second bard lays the instrument aside and gets to his feet. The first bard acknowledges defeat.”

“What erudition, what power of synthesis!” exclaimed Zimmerman. Then he added, more calmly, “I must confess my ignorance, my lamentable ignorance, of Celtic lore. You, like the day, span East and West, while I am held to my little Carthaginian comer, complemented now with a smattering of Latin American history. I am a mere plodder.”

In his voice were both Jewish and German servility, but I felt, insofar as victory was already his, that it cost him very little to flatter me or to admit I was right. He begged me not to trouble myself over the arrangements for his trip. (“Provisions” was the actual word he used.) On the spot, he drew out of his portfolio a letter addressed to the Minister. In it, I expounded the motives behind my resignation, and I acknowledged Dr. Zimmerman’s indisputable merits. Zimmerman put his own fountain pen in my hand for my signature. When he put the letter away, I could not help catching a glimpse of his passage aboard the next day’s Buenos Aires-Sulaco flight.

On his way out he paused again before the volumes of Schopenhauer, saying, “Our master, our common master, denied the existence of involuntary acts. If you stay behind in this house—in this spacious, patrician home—it is because down deep inside you want to remain here. I obey, and I thank you for your will.”

Taking this last pittance without a word, I accompanied him to the front door. There, as we said goodbye, he remarked, “The coffee was excellent.”

I go over these hasty jottings, which will soon be consigned to the flames. Our meeting had been short. I have the feeling that I shall give up any future writing. Mon siège est fait.

SOURCE: Borges, Jorge Luis. “Guayaquil,” in Doctor Brodie’s Report, translated by Norman Thomas di Giovanni (New York: Bantam Books, 1973), pp. 117-130.

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