17 April 2011

Borges and the Eternal Orang-utans (Luis Fernando Verissimo)

The book in question is a very funny, very entertaining and refreshing whodunit, with more than passing references to Borges (a major character here), Poe, and Lovecraft. Vogelstein is a 50-year old translator and English teacher who adored Borges with the same fanatical zeal as the narrator of the Borges story "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote." His first "encounter" with the master was not agreeable: Vogelstein translated one of Borges's stories for a Portuguese magazine but he changed some aspects of the story to fit his own preference for how the story should proceed. Of course, Borges, upon learning of the travesty, was furious. They eventually exchanged letters, which was the start of Vogelstein's literary hero worship.

Their second encounter was face to face, in a conference about Edgar Allan Poe held in Buenos Aires. But even before the conference was to start, a murder of one of the speakers took place. The murder victim was found, in true Borgesian fashion, in front of a mirror – his body's position was such that it formed a letter from the alphabet, a clue that could point to the solution of the crime. Borges and Vogelstein were enlisted to help uncover the identity of the killer. The ensuing investigation was a riot of literary speculations, invoking the mystery stories of Poe, the Kabbalah, Necronomicon book of the dead, et cetera. This novel was criminally funny. I'm sure there were some in-jokes (Borgian, Poetic, Lovecrafty) that went past me but it was altogether a solid detective work, if a bit too neat the way it all tied up, in a postmodern postmortem, in the end. Verissimo was nonetheless guilty of leading the reader into a maze of intertextual pleasures. There's a chance that a fan of Borges or Poe or Lovecraft will revel in the games and gimmickry of the Brazilian writer Luis Fernando Verissimo.

The short novel was translated by Margaret Jull Costa, who was probably in top form the way she came up with words to describe the murder weapon:

You mentioned that Palermo, the part of Buenos Aires where you were brought up, had been a violent place full of bohemians and bandits. There they had two names for the knife, "the blade" and "the slicer". The two names described the same object, but "the blade" was the thing itself, and "the slicer" its function. "The blade" could fit in the hand even of a sickly child shut up in his father's library, "the blade" could be any of the superannuated daggers and swords belonging to his warrior grandfather or great-grandfather and displayed on the walls of his house, but "the slicer", the knife in the hand slicing back and forth, in and out, existed only in his imagination, in a fascinating world of rapid settlings of accounts and duels over honour, an insult or a woman, in dark streets where you never went, where no writer went, except in the literature he wrote.

Whether it's "the knife" (instrument) or "the blade" (form) or "the slicer" (function), the essence of light and dark comedy here cuts through like any sharp object.


  1. This sounds marvelous, Rise, and much more hysterical than that Terry Eagleton you reviewed later in the day. :D Will have to try and keep this one in mind the next time I'm in need of a Borges-like boost.

  2. How did you find this one, it sounds absolutely wonderful, a book with Borges ad a character in a book that sounds like one of his, then chuck in Poe, Lovecraft etc. What's not to like, thanks for the info will track thus one down.

  3. Richard, I actually read this book right after the Eagleton in order to apply the theory. Lol. But I have to say Borges really fits his Poirot role well.

    Parrish, I got it from BookMooch. The title alone tweaked my antennae. And when I read what it's about I knew it's a blast.

  4. Got myself a copy, thanks for the info.