GENIUSES & FIGURES
as translated by
THE MIRROR AND THE INTERCOURSE
First chapter of an unpublished,
apocryphal novel by Jorge Luis Borges
His name was Feliciano de Silva. He and his forefathers lived locked within the walls of the city of Ciudad Rodrigo. In life he was the successful author of the best known series of novels ever published in Spain: the Amadís. After his death he would suffer the most extravagant of misfortunes; negated, vituperated, slandered, until he was converted into the scapegoat of Spanish literature.
It is very easy to fall back on my own flimsy authority; so for that reason, in the course of this novel I will put forth the testimony of the writer who, in immortalising Feliciano de Silva, condemned him forever: Miguel de Cervantes.
In the second page of the Quijote, Cervantes makes his first homage to our author; eulogy that would be so obtusely interpreted by the critics, even by the lamented essayist Marcelino Menéndez Pelayo:
“…and of all of them (the books that don Quijote bought), none were regarded as highly as those written by the famous Feliciano de Silva, because the clarity of the prose and its complex rationality seemed like absolute pearls…”
I have derived enormous pleasure from counting the innumerable references that the author of the Quijote makes to his admired Feliciano de Silva. He refers to him constantly, letting his characters intervene, inspiring himself over and over again in his adventures.
Feliciano de Silva dreamed one night that a tiger called Zahir witnessed, while hidden in the undergrowth, the stoning of a blind man by the faithful in a mosque in Surakarta. It was September 28, 1547. The following day he died with dignity and courage, surrounded by his relatives, housekeepers and friends. On the same day, in the Jewish-converts’ quarter of Alcalá de Henares, Miguel de Cervantes was born.
Destiny, with its implacable touch, chose this year, 1547, so that thousands of vicissitudes agreed to meet, ostentatiously, with the sole desire to show that all stories are really one single story; the heads and the tails of this coin are, for God, exactly the same. In 1547, not only did Feliciano de Silva die while Cervantes was born, Luther, Henry VIII and Francis I also died; the Protestants were defeated by the Emperor Charles V at Muhlberg; the last conquistador, Hernan Cortés, died abandoned and in poverty in Seville; Ivan the Terrible, Prince of Moscow, assumed the title of Czar; in Spain they published the first expurgatory Index of prohibited books; Ignacio de Loyola drafted the constitution of the Company of Jesus; in Toledo a group of fanatics captained by Silíceo promulgated the first statute of limpieza (purity of ancestry), etc.
Owing to a strange interpretation of the life of Cervantes, which has more to do with cold aberration than passionate fervour, the author of the Quijote has passed into history as a patriot who gave his arm fighting for his country. I have discovered, without the least surprise, that a similar insensitive thesis was recently picked up by the Times’ Literary Supplement.
Cervantes, when he began to compose the Quijote, basing it on the Amadís of Greece by Feliciano de Silva, was locked up in a prison in Seville. Of which he said: “in there, every discomfort had its place.” And let us not forget that it is an expert who is judging the Andalusian dungeons, having already spent five years as a slave in Algeria.
No-one can know the thoughts that trotted through his head while he was wrapped in chains in that Spanish gaol. It has been quite faithfully said that he could have died of hunger and thirst. He recalled the sentence that he had heard of in Algiers attributed to the poet Abdalmalik: “Glory will be with he that does not die.”
His country had maltreated, denounced, and excommunicated him, condemning him to have his right arm cut off and exiled. Cervantes felt a tranquil hate of Spain without vengeful scars.
Urged on by the fatality of doing something, of filling in time somehow, he recalled, in the shadows, everything he knew. One night he felt that he was approaching a precise memory: the books he had read as a teenager with such infinite passion, the books of knight-errantry by Feliciano de Silva.
In his dungeon he considered that Feliciano de Silva was an outlaw and a fugitive like himself. It had been almost sixty years since that novelist from Ciudad Rodrigo had died, and his work, still in vogue, was denigrated by the same men who had condemned and imprisoned him. Those novels of knight-errantry of which so many editions had been printed in the author’s life, now prohibited, sold in an underhand way, like clandestine literature. Those books that had inspired the conquistadors and filled America with names invented by the novelists like Patagonia, California or Florida. The Casa de Contratación in Seville prevented them going to the New World through a fear that reading them could stir up the Indians against the Spanish.
In fact, the works of Feliciano de Silva had been so persecuted and denigrated that sixty years after his death they had been forgotten. The novels of chivalry had been buried.
The reasonable scorn that the imprisoned Cervantes felt for his country moves him, one electric, February morning, toward the imperious exertion of resurrecting those books, without ever lowering himself to either resentment or vengeance.
He decided to construct a labyrinth so perfect and subtle that the more prudent of men did not dare to enter, while those that did found themselves lost. This labyrinth would be a novel within which resides confusion and wonder. And, as such, scandal, because these two operations belong to God and not to man.
Nevertheless, Cervantes believed the idea of composing a vast novel; of stretching an idea (the recital of which could be managed in but a few minutes) into 500 pages, to be a tedious and impoverishing absurdity. A much better approach, he maintained, would be to pretend these books already existed and offer a summary, a commentary. Let us not forget that, much later, this is exactly what Carlyle (in Sartor Resartus) and Butler (in The Fair Haven) did.
Less rational, less inept and less idle than Cervantes considered himself to be, he preferred the elaboration of the Quijote in order to mirror the books of chivalry by Feliciano de Silva. Cervantes knew that mirrors had something monstrous about them, like copulation, because it multiplies the number of men. But, if all those who repeat a line of Dante Alighieri are Dante Alighieri, Cervantes, who copied so many lines from Feliciano de Silva, was Feliciano de Silva, in the centre of an infinite game of fate.