- "Borges and the Kabbalah" and Other Essays on His Fiction and Poetry, and: Gabriel García Márquez and the Powers of Fiction, and: Lives on the Line: The Testimony of Contemporary Latin American Authors
The Argentinean whom Perón once "promoted" from librarian to poultry and rabbit inspector died in Geneva two days before Bloomsday, 1986 and was buried two days after. Journalists had been told he had been suffering from pulmonary emphysema. It was liver cancer. Scholars had been told he had been agnostic. The night before his death a Catholic priest heard his confession and granted him absolution. The man without whom "there simply would not be a modern Spanish-American novel," as Carlos Fuentes has rightly asserted, was buried under a yew tree just a few yards from John Calvin's grave.
Jorge Luis Borges' death was, then, a work of art. Ponder it or any other aspect of his life and letters, and you discover complex networks of meaning spinning within complex networks of meaning. This is Jaime Alazraki's point in his slim collection of thirteen essays, most of which first saw print more than a decade and a half ago: "Borges not only invites commentary and rumination," Alazraki writes, "he provokes tautology. We all, his readers, search and strive for some unturned stone, for an undiscovered pearl waiting, iridescent—that is, full of new insights—at the bottom of some recondite line, on the reverse of an overlooked ambiguity, in the elusive meaning subtly intimated between the lines. Borges has turned us all into inquisitive Kabbalists." Borges provokes redundancy on Alazraki's part, surely, a hall of mirrors where the same handful of insights, at times even the same handful of key phrases and quotations, is cast up repeatedly. Because of this common pitfall in essay collections, we Kabbalists discover few iridescent pearls waiting for us. Although Alazraki never asserts as much, his real audience seems to be not so much the Kabbalist as the undergraduate, the person coming to Borges for the first time who needs a clear, thoughtful introduction to many of the writer's key ideas.
Borges and the Kabbalah is divided into four sections. The first concerns the "contextual resemblances" between Borges' projects and the Kabbalah, both of which view a work "as a multilayered text each writer reads, interprets, and rewrites." Alazraki traces the Kabbalistic world as it weaves through Borges' writing in the form of such notions as the golem, reincarnation, and reality-as-illusion and concludes this section with an essay by Borges himself which stresses the suggestiveness of the Kabbalah. Although it is clear that Borges was familiar with the Kabbalah, it is also clear that Alazraki tends to push the familiarity too far, as when he claims Borges' language reflects that of the Zohar. Moreover, Alazraki remains mute about how Borges' central idea of multilayered narrative is any different from that exhibited by other postmodern texts whose authors certainly are not familiar with the Kabbalah. The second section of essays charts the well-known [End Page 314] geography of Borges' fiction and offers few really new maps. Alazraki reads "The South" structurally, arguing that the story is paradigmatic of Borges' projects in that it foregrounds the instability of meaning by telling a linear tale at the level of denotation while disrupting the linear tale at the level of connotation. An interesting piece that follows tracks Borges' style as it moves from "mannerism" toward "invisibility." Related to this is an essay that examines how A Universal History of Infamy (1935) prefigures Borges' later writing in terms of theme and style. The third section centers on Borges' poetry, emphasizing the idea that, although Borges thought of himself primarily as a poet and although the bulk...