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  • BorgesFaith in Your Face
  • Brett Levinson (bio)

It is obviously disturbing that . . . the man who may turn out to be Latin America’s most important, or influential, writer of the twentieth century should be—virtually alone among contemporary authors—almost ingenuously Eurocentric, ethnocentric, phallocentric, a vicarious militarist and imperialist contemptuous of tribal cultures and native peoples everywhere: in short, an anti-Latin Americanist ashamed . . . to share the continent with Bolivians and Paraguayans, an idealist, an ideological perpetrator of the civilization-barbarism dichotomy (your barbarism confirms my civilization).

—(Martin 1989, 162)

Borges stands for many as the model of the cosmopolitan, Third World writer. His works attain their canonical status through an international reception; the intertextual and intellectual dialogue is with the Western tradition; the themes explored are universal rather than local or [End Page 53] Latin American; the form is extraordinarily complex and seemingly elitist, catering to the most educated and advantaged reader (when Borges addresses marginal populations, he either berates or romanticizes them); the politics, if it is not escapism itself (the appeals to the fantastic are legendary), is antidemocratic, antipopulist, anticommunist, and deeply conservative. Borges, in short, is a figure of Eurocentrism, a “high art” betrayer of the Latin American universe from which he emerges. To quote a prominent scholar in the field:

“The Handwriting of the God,” from The Aleph, opens the way for a deliberation on this take on the Argentine author. The story describes the plight of Tzinacán, a Mayan about to be annihilated, along with his people, by the Spanish during the Conquest. While imprisoned, through years of painstaking labor, Tzinacán comes first to locate, then comprehend, a divine code: fourteen random words or forty syllables, arranged across the skin of a jaguar. By enunciating the cryptogram, Tzinacán can recover the empire, avenging the enemy. Yet he elects not to: “I, Tzinacán, would rule the lands once ruled by Moctezuma. But I know that I shall never speak those words, because I no longer remember Tzinacán” (Borges 1999, 253).1 A contradiction arises. The high priest of the pyramid of the Mayan god Qaholom, Tzinacán would rebuild a temple that pertained to the deceased Moctezuma, an Aztec king. Thus, Tzinacán presents himself as a victim of Pedro de Alvarado, a conquistador who partook in the obliteration of both the Mayans and the Aztecs. Through the Conquest, Borges intimates, the Mayans are already proper to a European construct that teams Mayans and Aztecs into one category: the indigenous. Destruction unites the pre-Colombian people “at the origin,” simultaneously constructing, not the present, but this past, the pre-Colombian was. Split between high Mayan priest and indigenous prisoner, the subject Tzinacán cannot remember himself “truly,” for the rift between I and I pertains to him beforehand. In advance of himself, Tzinacán was another:

. . . he who has glimpsed the burning designs of the universe, cannot think about one man . . . though he himself be that man. He was that man, who no longer matters to him. What does he care about the fate of that other when he, now, is no one?

—(1999 254, translation modified) [End Page 54]

Now, before tracking the cipher, Tzinicán makes the following observation concerning his search:

A mountain might be the word of the god, or a river or the empire. . . . And yet, in the course of the centuries mountains are leveled and the path of a river is many times diverted, and empires know mutability and ruin. . . . I sought something more tenacious, more invulnerable. . . .

(1999, 251)

Tzinacán seeks to restore, not a given empire (“empires know mutability and ruin”), but a divine marker that precedes, survives within, and structures these, and all civilizations. Every human reign, according to Tzinacán, is in fact akin to the jaguar, an epiphenomenal carrier of a code, blind to the missive that orientates it and that it carries—the bearer cannot see what it bears, but bears it all the same—which nonetheless loyally follows, preserves, and forwards the foundational conduit.

I imagined to myself the first morning of time, imagined my god entrusting the message to the living flesh of...


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