Writers love stories about other writers. “A Moveable Feast” or “The Warmest Country“; the tales of significance and its paucity by others who – like themselves – search for that unique brand of immortality. So a story about a writer who found in a brief chance encounter a situation of intense significance with an even greater writer? Now that’s a story.
And that is exactly what “Borges and Me” by Jay Parini is about. Now I’ll be honest, I’d never heard of Jay before this (as he had never heard of Borges before his tale began). But of course we all now have heard of Borges – that legendary Argentine writer of labyrinths. A style so singular and befuddling, how could it not be grand? The “founder of the feast” as it were – the man who started the Latin American Boom in literature. Borges. Those in literati only need that one name.
This story, this tale by Parini is, however, something new and fresh. The unlikely plot: while Jay is draft dodging from the Vietnam War in Scotland, spending his time getting his doctorate and trying to figure out how to become a writer, he is asked by a friend to look after a blind Borges (Borges became blind in his 50s, having to dictate his last stories) and ends up taking the brilliant man on a “sightseeing” tour of the highlands.
The story, written 50 years later with a certain amount of ‘artistic license’ nevertheless holds together well and in doing so holds the reader’s imagination, with the question, “What would you do if asked to tour a blind Borges around the highlands?” Or a blind Hemingway? Or a blind William Saroyan? For I cannot imagine anybody as exacting as a writer – the verbal painter of pictures – who can no longer see.
Back to my point; we who write like to think of times of artistic significance. We love to think about Yerevan in the cold, Aksel Bakunts and Yegishe Charents fighting in the snow in front of Aipetrat Soviet Publishing House before going to the Intourist hotel (now the Yerevan Grand) to drink away their rage. We love to wonder what it was like for Ezra Pound and Gertrude Stein and Pablo Picasso sitting around Shakespeare and Company commiserating the drunkenness of F. Scott Fitzgerald. Of D.H. Lawrence painting banned art in Hotel La Fonde in Taos. These thoughts fill us with a sort of foreign nostalgia; of a creative jealousy of a kind – especially as we lament how badly our own belle époque seems to blow. “Borges and Me” fills that spot in our imagination, and is satisfying for that reason. It is a story profoundly human, reminding us somehow even of ourselves. And that is good.