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Reviewed by:
  • Jorge Luis Borges: A Writer on the Edge
  • Marcy E. Schwartz
Beatriz Sarlo, Jorge Luis Borges: A Writer on the Edge. London: Verso, 1993. 148 pages.

Sarlo’s first book in English combines intellectual history with close readings to restore to Borges’s work what she claims has been lost in a critical “process of triumphant universalization” (2). Jorge Luis Borges: A Writer on the Edge reexamines Borges in the context of Argentine thought, letters, history and politics. Sarlo draws from her earlier work on the intellectual history of Buenos Aires (in particular Una modernidad periférica: Buenos Aires 1920 y 1930, Buenos Aires, Nueva Visión, 1988), and from lectures given at Cambridge University in 1992. The chapters discuss Borges’s poetry, short stories and essays as well as his participation in cultural projects such as the Ultraísta movement and the avant-garde journals Martín Fierro and Proa. Sarlo approaches Borges from a Marxist, cultural studies perspective, directly responding to what she calls the leftist “suspicion” of Borges. She links Borges’s personalized version of Argentine tradition and fantastic fiction to moral as well as esthetic responses to a historical moment. [End Page 457]

Sarlo’s study complements and corrects the overwhelming tendency of scholarship on Borges that categorizes him as a cosmopolitan writer whose national tradition is an incidental rather than a decisive element in his writing (i.e., Michel Berveiller, Le Cosmopolitisme de Borges, Paris, Didier, 1973). Sarlo reestablishes Borges as a paradoxically regional writer: he is an urban elite cultural figure on the margins of both European and Latin American canonical esthetic movements. She focusses on Borges’s early poetry, his study of Evaristo Carriego, and gauchesque themes in his fiction to reveal the overlooked regional and local issues that occupy much of his work. Her study examines Borges’s work as the product of a cultural identity crisis, and situates specific texts in the cultural and political context of their time.

The first chapter, “A Landscape for Borges,” sets the scene for Borges in the Buenos Aires of the 1920s and 1930s. This compact and far-reaching introduction synthesizes her earlier work on Buenos Aires and modernity. Sarlo goes beyond situating Borges in his literary generation among Güiraldes, Lugones, Arlt, and Girondo. She simultaneously considers the art, architecture, media, technology, and debates over the canon and popular culture of these decades to reconstruct the urban modernity that ushered in middle-brow literature in Argentina. Sarlo here engages in some of her most provocative cultural analysis of Argentina’s relationship with its past in discussing how modernity’s “restorative fantasies” also harbor loss and nostalgia.

The following chapter, “Borges and Argentine Literature,” presents Borges’s response to this modernity and nostalgia. Some of the book’s richest material appears in Sarlo’s examination of Borges’s esthetics and personal reconstruction of the past that form his early poetry. She introduces the theme of “las orillas” as Borges’s imaginary territory that reconstructs a mythical past for Buenos Aires made up of margins without a center. Borges opposes the rural regional novel as the essential space of Latin America. He creates instead an urban periphery whose borders blur into the pampa, where modernity meets the gaucho and literacy confronts the compadrito’s knife.

The book’s middle chapters (three through six) take on Borges’s short fiction and venture readings that politicize the stories’ themes and narrative strategies. Sarlo connects Borges’s use of local tradition (the gauchesque, national and family history) and his philosophical esthetics within a socio-historical perspective. These chapters link Borges’s plots, seemingly distanced from any lived world experience, to underlying moral principles and questions of cultural identity. Stories such as “El sur” and “El fin” exemplify the conflictual blend of European and criollo culture that results in distant artificiality. Borges’s contemporary history witnessed some of the most horrid international nightmares and the only antidote to that horror is invention. Fictions then become a moral imperative, a “strategy for establishing order for a society whose old orders were vanishing” (70). Stories such as “La lotería [End Page 458] de Babilonia” and “El informe de Brodie...

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pp. 457-459
Launched on MUSE
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