Borges and I (a story)

Physics and common sense both tell us that no two different times can exist in the one, same space. Experience encourages me to affirm that this is not true. The first time I ever experienced time-space dislocation was in February 1983, in a billiard room in Carlton, Melbourne. Months later somebody told me about what used to be a story by Jorge Luis Borges : The Other, which I read only after I was already in Spain, probably in 1987.

Now my own life has reached a most precarious state, perhaps I will not even have enough strength to complete this. But dying is not important, it can only be a relief from the tremendous suffering. What is important is that you discover why.

It was to be more than five years before I was ever to return to Carlton. In 1988 it had hardly changed at all. The billiard hall was still there with the same bar at the entrance, the same tables, same employees. I sat down in the exact same place I remembered I had been five years earlier, and recalled the atrocious experience.

It was ten o’clock at night, and it had been ten o’clock in 1983 as well. I was reminded of Borges, sitting on his bench by the Charles river in the north of Boston in Cambridge. In Carlton, there had never been any river, certainly nothing with large blocks of ice. My own contemplation of time was wrapped up in the urgency of billiard balls, flying forward only to bounce back. Enclosed, imprisoned . The hurtling spheres escaped only occasionally : always a terrible moment, the crack of the ivory on the concrete floor.

When I had been there five years earlier, I had realised that this was going to be my last visit for a long time. Then, in 1983, I had already got my ticket, purchased that same day, and at that precise instant it sat in the inside pocket of my jacket. Within a few weeks I would be in Japan. Suddenly, like Borges, I had the sensation that I had already lived that moment and through a smoky haze, looking across the bar to the billiard room, I could spy a youth who seemed an almost exact carbon-copy of my good friend Wurm. But a much younger Wurm than the Wurm I then knew, as if I had conjured up a ghost of someone still alive. Yet the most striking thing was not this, the most striking thing was that the lad standing behind him, watching the shot, was a younger version of myself.

In 1988 I tried to re-invoke this apparition. My soul had become afflicted with a gnawing anguish that I believed was rooted in the fact that I, unlike Borges, had never found the courage to speak to that youthful doppelgänger. In fact I had been terrified. In 1983 I had been disturbed by a shuddering sensation that if I moved too close to the apparition before me it would have had an internecine effect that could well have destroyed the entire universe. So I always remained in a dim corner. I watched him finish his game and then hurry past me. He did not notice me. I did not want him to notice me. I watched him escape into the night with his friend and said nothing, indicated nothing.

But, although he left, he did not leave me alone. Afterwards I was tormented by the idea that the most profound moment of my life had slipped me by. Memory turned into nightmares, unbearable. For years I did not sleep. My only chance was to return to Carlton. If I returned to that same spot on the same day five years later, I told myself, perhaps the time warp could be re-opened ; perhaps I could exorcise the ghost. But on returning I saw no-one I knew. No-one at all. And after failing the first night I made the same pilgrimage on five more successive occasions, always to sit at the same table, but never able to escape this same mundane dimension that we are all prisoners to. If I had really experienced a time-space dislocation in 1983 it seemed that there would not be a repeat performance…

 

Of course my torment persisted and then I thought I was forever lost. Later I obtained a doctor’s prescription enabling me to purchase sleeping tablets. I bought the largest bottle permitted and tried to end my life by over-ingurgitation.

The hotel porter found me and after a week in the hospital, and months of psychiatric treatment, I eventually resolved to endure the torment of that afflicted life. Reading the Borges story again also helped, in fact the psychiatrist recommended it, and I consulted it at least once a week.

Then a friend gave me a copy of a book called The Fleeing Mirror by an Italian writer, Giovanni Papini, but in a Spanish version edited by Borges. Borges had also written an introduction in which he eulogised Papini as the author of fables that he himself would have been proud to have created. He recognised that the Italian writer had created atmospheres in his stories that were identical to those that permeated his own work. But especially significant for me was a tale entitled Two Images in a Pond. This dealt with exactly the same idea expressed in Borges’ The Other ; the same experience of time-space dislocation that I had suffered in the billiard hall in Carlton. Papini, like us, confronting his own self, in his case a version seven years younger.

The idea that Borges had plagiarised his theme from the Italian angered me at first, but then I was calmed by the thought that the concept of the doppelgänger was merely a literary tool to investigate some philosophical concept. Borges’ story had been a purely literary invention. Concrete manifestations of one’s youth cannot really exist. My own experience had been pure hallucination…

 

But all of this has been made almost irrelevant by what happened just exactly one month ago. A disastrous miracle. It is only after re-reading Papini that I feel strong enough to scribble this confession, which, I have decided, is the only chance I now have of saving myself.

It was a sad, autumn morning and I was walking through the park near my house when I noticed that someone was walking with me, impersonating my movements, ridiculing me. Of course this upset me, but my anger turned into breathtaking amazement as I realised that the figure was in fact a very young Borges who was involved in a conversation with an older Borges who I could not see and who must have been walking in exactly the same physical space that I was strolling in. We walked down to the fountain, and when we stared into the stagnant water I had to shudder again. The reflection was not of my own face but of the old, blind Jorge Luis that I recognised from the cover of one of his books. Caught by an anguished and violent passion for the man I then irrationally blamed for all my pointless suffering, I grabbed the younger Borges by the shoulders and pushed his head into and under the freezing water in the pond, right in the place where the old man’s image had appeared. He tried to resist, his legs kicking wildly, but I maintained a firm hold on his head, keeping it down, totally submerged, until his body became limp.

The experience of killing someone so famous, so many years after he had already died, was exhilarating; but what a horrendous nightmare it has become…

 

The guilt is unbearable, especially as no-one is capable of ever judging me. Although I was Borges’ assassin, that young Jorge Luis had died before I was born. If I ever locate any official records they will undoubtedly state that he killed himself. But no records exist. The police here in Melbourne say they have no indication of any Jorge Luis Borges, living or dead. When I asked those officers if they had never heard of The Aleph, The Book of the Sand or Other Inquisitions I only received the most negative affirmations, which I realised was the only answer possible. None of those titles could have been of any importance to any policeman or woman, if to anyone at all, for not a single living soul today can possibly remember him. He was killed, I had killed him, before he ever had a chance to write anything lasting; perhaps before he had a chance to write anything at all. When I came to this realisation my own copies of his books turned into dust before my very eyes…

 

But what am I saying? Can a book possibly evaporate? Why am I writing this? If what I say has happened is true, then everything I have written will be completely incomprehensible to all of you. None of you can possibly remember Jorge Luis Borges either. Or can you? Perhaps one of you does possess a vague awareness of an echo of his name embedded in your subconscious. Jorge Luis Borges: does it say nothing? Think, please, think! Perhaps it rings a little bell?

Giovanni Papini, who is now so fervently embraced by post-modernist writers, used to be hardly known at all. Papini now wears so many eulogies that had belonged to Borges before I killed him. Not that I want to undermine Papini’s well deserved reputation, but he was hardly a patch on Don Jorge…

 

Yes, this tragedy is really so sad and painful. If only it had never happened. If only someone could prove to me that outside this flat everything is as it used to be and that Borges is still as renowned and loved as he ever was.

I am paralysed. Gripped by a fear of confronting the enormous scope of my atrocious guilt. My torturous anxiety makes it impossible to leave this house. That the genius of Borges was never ever expressed because of me! Of course it renders me incapable of facing the street. What would happen if I was to wander out there ? Sooner or later I would be drawn into a bookshop in a desperate attempt to prove my madness. Eventually I would have to take the risk. The terrible risk. For what would happen if I approached the front desk, trembling but confident, to enquire after a copy of Artifices, and all the bookseller could do was to look bewilderedly up at me? What would I do? How could I cope if I asked for anything by Borges, anything at all, and he or she should just scratch his or her head and reply what? Of course it would kill me…

 

But I die anyway. I am starving. One month is a long time to be trapped in solitary confinement without even a gaoler to bring me food. There are only enough supplies left to last a few more weeks of the strictest rationing. My meagre diet: occasionally supplemented by the occasional fly or cockroach. That is why I am writing to you, to all of you. I need your help. Anyone, please ! Please look. Go to your bookshelves, open your discarded boxes of old books that some of you have stored away in your attics. Open them, please, and look, look ! And if you should find a copy, just one copy, of one page of anything at all by an Argentinean called Jorge Luis Borges, send it to me.

Will it redeem me ? I do not know. I am worthless, pathetic. But if you can, please help. Please, please. I have no blood on my hands, I choked him to death. When I stand in front of a mirror with the light behind me my skin becomes transparent and I can see my own empty intestines. But in them is a seed. The tiny remains of the genius I killed waiting to grow again. I want to, need to be redeemed. Please help, please. For literature’s sake, help me !…

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