The <em>descolocada</em> of displaced Jorge Borges


The descolocada of displaced Jorge Borges

JOAN HAMBIDGE wonders why the writer never won the Nobel Prize for Literature.


“Our destiny is not horrible because of its unreality; it is horrible because it is irreversible and ironbound. Time is the substance I am made of. Time is a river that carries me away, but I am the river; it is a tiger that mangles me, but I am the tiger; it is a fire that consumes me, but I am the fire. The world, alas, is real; I, alas, am Borges."


Edwin Williamson's biography Borges: A Life (Viking, 2004) offers a fascinating look at one of the greatest writers of our time. Jorge Francisco Isidoro Luis Borges Acevedo (1899-1986) was an Argentinian short story writer, poet, essayist, translator and polemicist.

In this study of more than 500 pages, one reads about how a love interest with one Norah Lange fuelled him creatively. She, like Dante's Beatrice, personified the various levels of misery and ecstasy.

At age 55, Borges went completely blind. As a nine-year-old, he translated The Happy Prince into Spanish, even noting that his father's library was the biggest inspiration of his life. Due to the political turmoil in Argentina, they left for Switzerland where the young Jorge learnt French. In 1921 he returned to Buenos Aires where he first became known as a poet. He was briefly married. His mother cared for him through his progressive blindness and acted as his secretary.

In this biography, one becomes aware of a writer with a sharp tongue. Among other things, he claimed that the assassination of Spanish poet Federico García Lorca led to an overestimation of his work as a writer. In a polemic, he remarked that it reminded him of two bald-headed men fighting over a comb.

Sheila Cussons translated some of Borges' stories under the title Die vorm van die swaard en ander verhale  (1981). 

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The important question is why did he never win the Nobel Prize in Literature?

To this Williamson replies unequivocally that his outspoken political statements did not go down well with the Nobel committee. The socialist writer Artur Lundkvist, a friend of Pablo Neruda, shuffled his cards there. About Neruda, he was similarly critical. He recognised him as a great poet but an unpleasant person. Neruda won the Nobel prize in 1971.

Was it Borges' political views and support of Augusto Pinochet alone? Or was it also his criticism of Juan Perón? Were his statements perhaps also fuelled by his blindness and his disappointment in a world descended into chaos?

Williamson focuses on Borges' sense of descolocada — a feeling of being dislocated or out of place.

All of his love woes — which often nearly drove him to suicide — and disappointment with the politics of his day probably determined his perfectly constructed texts. The tension between how he was viewed in his homeland and his international prestige is well described.

His lecture series at Harvard were well attended by other writers (such as Robert Lowell) but the Vietnam War made the campus a place of unrest with student uprisings.

His visit to Japan, late in life, becomes a search for healing.

But when we focus on his exceptional texts like The Book of Sand, we know Harold Bloom was right.

In his stories, he goes further and deeper than any other writer. His influence on Robert Coover, Donald Barthelme and John Barth, among others, has been pointed out.

The labyrinth or maze in his work can be read as a representation of his beloved city of Buenos Aires, where he often walked. Also, his feeling that he is European and lives in South America. That he is literally blind, yet tries to find symbols in the unseen.

His love for Cervantes was well known. And Franz Kafka. Also, Virginia Woolf.

Further reading.

♦ VWB ♦

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