Saturday, 6 February 2010

Borges, Citizen of Buenos Aires

Though I didn’t make a special effort to find a rental there, I am now living in a stretch of calle Serrano (Serrano Street) that was, a number of years ago, renamed calle Jorge Luis Borges, in the old Buenos Aires barrio of Palermo. Borges was born on calle Serrano in 1899, but his childhood home was evenutally demolished (a disappearance that wouldn’t, I think, have surprised him). This part of Palermo, again, was renamed at some point Palermo Soho, either in honor of London or New York or both. Another part is called Palermo Chico, another, Palermo Viejo, and still another Palermo Hollywood. Actually, New Yorkers might conclude that P. Soho resembled Greenwich Village, an inexpensive neighborhood that became fashionable over time partly because it contained some interesting old architecture and partly because low rents enabled artists and bohemians to live there. (This feature of Palermor Soho has now been brushed aside.) The busy center of it all is Plazoleta Cortàzar (formerly Plaza Serrano), renamed in honor of the experimental Argentine novelist, who, along with Borges, ushered in the “boom” for Latin American fiction that began in the 1960s.

One of the main reasons I wanted to come to Buenos Aires was to see the environment that fostered one of the 20th century’s greatest writers. Because of his many travels and the multinational references in his writing, we think of Borges as a supremely cosmopolitan author. He is, yes, but it must be remembered that JLB over and again affirmed his nationality and, even more, his home city. His first book of poems was titled Fervor de Buenos Aires (Passion/Fervor of/for Buenos Aires), which, besides several poems with Palermo settings, contains the lines “siempre estaba (y estaré) a Buenos Aires.” (“I always was and always will be in Buenos Aires.”) The poem opening the volume is titled “La Recoleta” and describes the city’s most famous necropolis, situated in Recoleta, where rich porteños (citizens of Buenos Aires) have lived since the 19th century. The poem’s final line describes it as “el luego de mi ceniza,” “the site of my ashes.” In the event, it didn’t turn out to be that because Borges is buried in a cemetery in Geneva, where he lived the last two years of his life.

I went to see the cemetery, which is enclosed by a wall, with an entrance bearing the motto REQUIESCANT IN PACE. The sentiment can’t be entirely true, considering how many visitors flock here, the great majority anxious, I suppose, to see the tomb of Eva Perón. What they don’t bargain for is the labyrinthine acreage of marble, granite and onyx they must pass through before finding her in the Duarte family vault--mausoleum after elaborate mausoleum, dating from the early 19th century up until the mid-20th. This must be the most resolute necropolis in the world, with no exposed earth and no grass, just a few arbor vitae trees planted in one or two places along the central avenue. In addition to the main grid of fairly wide streets, there are other diagonals cutting through the right angles, and it's easy to get lost, even with a map in hand. I was struck by the duplication of names on the mausoleums and the street names of Buenos Aires: Rivadavia, Saenz Peña, Sarmiento, Figueroa, Saavedra, etc. But I also wondered whether many visitors had the remotest idea who those figures were. As for the others, not eminent enough to have streets named after them, the bid for immortality was hopeless. Stone funereal monuments, designed to serve as a reminder to the living of the dead, all too soon become essentially anonymous once the descendants of the commemorated person themselves die.

I found the Casares family vault, where I believe Adolfo Bioy Casares is buried. He was of course Borges’s closest writer friend and indeed collaborator in several works published under the pseudonym H. Bustos Domecq. As for Borges’s poem “La Recoleta,” it must finally be read figuratively; first poem in his first volume, it implies that the book itself is a kind of necropolis, each poem a tomb inscription, recording some important moment of feeling that has now ceased to live and breathe. In fact, the topic of two of the poems is a tomb inscription, and there is an elegy for his grandfather, plus a poem titled “Remordimiento por cualquier muerto” (“Remorse for an unknown dead man.”) Wordsworth stated a similar view of the, should we call it, mortuary relationship between poems and the occasions that inspired them in his “Essay on Epitaphs.” “Emotion recollected in tranquillity” is, truth to tell, emotion only in a secondary sense. Written with the lofty despair characteristic of twenty-somethings, Borges’s first book is filled with late afternoons and sunsets, with elegies, goodbyes, and terminations. There are a few wrenching poems about the end of a love affair about which we’re given no details. I sense the mystery of Borges’s personality but don’t know where to begin in trying to understand it. There are doors that close with complete finality, some of these being mausoleum doors.

As a footnote, I’ll mention coming upon—an event that doesn’t strike me as in any way inevitable—the granite final hermitage of someone named Alfred Cornu. I’d been noticing that the local custom here was for friends or institutions to attach bronze plaques to the tombs of the deceased person. Cornu’s had one saying: Querido Alfredito, vives en los corazones de tus amigos. ("Dear Alf, You live in the hearts of your friends.") Let’s hope the equivalent will be said when time comes (perhaps twenty years from now?) to say goodbye to "fervor for Planet Earth," even if the sentiments don’t get recorded in bronze.


  1. A fascinating reversal: "each poem a tomb inscription, recording some important moment of feeling that has now ceased to live and breathe."

  2. Here's a surmise. Might it be a characteristic of those who "become" blind gradually, over time--as it is for old people generally, that their memories become increasingly focused on more distant events in time (i.e., in childhood)--that they come more and more to be limited by the sounds and sensations and impressions of their earlier years, which remain vivid and immediate, whereas those things they experienced as "leaving" or "fading" (out) tended to fall away, both in importance and clarity?

    I often have the feeling that Borges' "library" was his mind, and that he came more and more to inhabit it as the "external" world visible to him through the windows of his eyes, faded from view.

    We constantly sort and limn the vast sea of data which our senses send to us. We have a sort of personal iconography of our respective pasts, with certain areas and images and feelings standing more revealed over time. Often these images or feelings are irrational, without other significance than that we impart to them.

  3. Borges is one of the most important characters in Argentina literature. He was very intelligent and wise. He wrote really interesting stories and tales as El Fin or La Biografia de Tadeo Isidoro Cruz, also El Aleph, the well-known book written by this author. He deserves to have a street on his name since he is significant to the Buenos Aires culture. Last year I had an apartment rental buenos aires located in Borges street, in the heart of Palermo.
    Very nice place.