Borges Fakes It

“Please your Majesty,” said the Knave. “I didn’t write it, and they can’t prove that I did: there’s no name signed at the end.”

“If you didn’t sign it,” said the King, “that only makes the matter worse. You must have meant some mischief, or else you’d have signed your name like an honest man.”

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Chapter 12

Borges describes the apocryphal Menard’s attempt to write Don Quixote again: not to copy it, not to effect a pastiche. “His admirable ambition,” Borges writes, “was to produce a few pages that would coincide — word by word and line by line — with those of Miguel de Cervantes.”

Borges suggests . . . [that] it is the reader who determines the nature of a text through, among other things, attribution. The same text read as penned by one writer changes when read as penned by another. Don Quixote written by Cervantes (cultured seventeenth-century scholar) is not the same Don Quixote written by Menard (contemporary of William James). . . . No book is entirely innocent of connotations, and every reader reads not only the words on the page but the endless contextual waves that accompany his or her very existence. From such a point of view there are no “fakes,” merely different books which happen to share an identical text.

Borges’s own writings are full of such redemptive fakes. Among them, there are:

  • Writers such as . . . Mir Bahadur Ali and Pierre Menard, and others, such as the English eccentric Herbert Quain, author of infinite fictional variations of one ur-novel.
  • Adulterated versions of scholarly sources, as in the “translations” collected in various volumes under Borges’s name. . . . In these short texts, both sources and quotations used by Borges were transformed by him through interpretation and in translation. . . .
  • Imaginary books carefully annotated, as in various sources given in his stories and essays, or quoted from, such as the unforgettable Chinese encyclopedia which imperturbably divides animals into “(a) those that belong to the emperor, (b) embalmed, (c) those that are domesticated, (d) suckling pigs, (e) mermaids, (f) fabulous beasts, (k) those drawn with a very fine camel’s hair brush, (l) others, (m) those that have just broken a vase, (n) those that from a distance look like flies.” And, of course, such mythical fake creations as the parallel universe of Tlön Uqbar, Orbis Tertius, and the Library of Babel.

And yet, all these fictions are never gratuitous: they are necessary inventions, filling in gaps that the history of literature neglected to fill. The Chinese encyclopedia quotation provided Michel Foucault with the starting point for Les Mots et les choses. “The Library of Babel” (and Borges himself, under the name Juan de Burgos) needed to exist before Umberto Eco was able to write The Name of the Rose. Herbert Quain is the required precedent for OULIPO. Menard is the obvious link between Lawrence Sterne and James Joyce, and it is not Borges’s fault that France forgot to give birth to him. We should be thankful to Borges for remedying such acts of carelessness.

Fake, then, in Borges’s universe, is not a sin against creation. It is implied in the act of creation itself and, whether openly recognized or adroitly concealed, it takes place every time a suspension of disbelief is demanded. “In the beginning was the Word” asks us to believe not only that “the Word was with God” but that “the Word was God,” that Don Quixote is not only the words read by Menard, but that he is also their author.

Life, which so many times provides us with fake representations, provided Borges himself with a perfect simulacrum of a Borgesian fictional device in which the reader imbues a certain text with the required perfection of an all-encompassing answer.

In April 1976, the second world convention of Shakespearean scholars met in Washington, D.C. The high point of the congress was to be a lecture on Shakespeare by Jorge Luis Borges entitled “The Riddle of Shakespeare,” and thousands of scholars fought like rock-band groupies for the privilege of occupying one of the seats in the largest hall available at the Hilton Hotel. Among the attendants was the theater director Jan Kott, who, like the others, struggled to get a seat from which to hear the master reveal the answer to the riddle. Two men helped Borges to the podium and positioned him in front of the microphone. Kott describes the scene in The Essence of Theatre:

Everyone in the hall stood up, the ovation lasted many minutes. Borges did not move. Finally the clapping stopped. Borges started moving his lips. Only a vague humming noise was heard from the speakers. From this monotonous humming one could distinguish only with the greatest pains a single word which kept returning like a repeated cry from a faraway ship, drowned out by the sea: “Shakespeare, Shakespeare, Shakespeare . . .” The microphone was placed too high. But no one in the room had the courage to walk up and lower the microphone in front of the old blind writer. Borges spoke for an hour, and for an hour only this one repeated word — Shakespeare — would reach the listeners. During this hour no one got up or left the room. After Borges finished, everyone got up and it seemed that this final ovation would never end.

No doubt Kott, like the other listeners, lent the inaudible text his own reading and heard in the repeated word — “Shakespeare, Shakespeare, Shakespeare” — the answer to the riddle. Perhaps there was nothing else to say. With a little help from ailing technology, the master faker had achieved his purpose. He had turned his own text into a resonant fake composed by an audience full of Pierre Menards.

— Alberto Manguel, from “Faking It” in A Reader on Reading

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