The Harsh Realities of Place
The two short stories (“Man on Pink Corner” and “The South”) that bookend On Argentina, a collection of miscellaneous writings by Jorge Luis Borges, fictively and perhaps psychologically describe the harsh realities of the celebrated writer’s beloved country in ways that the essays and reviews, which make up the bulk of the collection, do not.
The opening story, “Man on Pink Corner,” describes the violent happenings one night in Villa Santa Rita, at a notorious whore house called Julia’s, filled—as the narrator says–with “musicians, good drinks, and girls that could dance all night if they was asked to.” The star attraction is La Lujanera, usually with Rosendo Juárez, a gaucho accustomed to rough and tumble living. The tango can be observed most nights, as well as “strumming guitars,” stray dogs, and plenty of hard drink. Though Rosendo’s manhood has never been in question, one night when Francisco Real–an even rougher guy–arrives, Rosendo cowers and lets La Lujanera run off with Real “turning tail [to] that stranger’s insufferable bullying.” One man, it appears, has been humiliated by another, which is no surprise given the seedy characters who frequent Julia’s house. But things suddenly change. Francisco Real returns with a knife wound in his chest and falls down dead. Speculations are that Rosendo must have knifed Real, but others believe it was La Lujanera, who has disappeared from the area. “Man on Pink Corner” is all action—lowlife types not much more advanced than the mangy dogs referred to in the story.
“The South” is as different from the earlier story as it could be, with one major exception. Juan Dahlmann, “secretary of a municipal library” in Buenos Aires, “considered himself profoundly Argentine,” in spite of his European ancestors. His goal is to visit the home of his ancestors one day—in the south of the country. Then one afternoon, while reading a book, he bumps his head on a metal casement window. The cut is significant enough that he goes to a sanatorium so a doctor can examine him. What happens to Dahlmann in the sanatorium is not immediately clear, but–for whatever reason—he undergoes a radical medical procedure (possibly a lobotomy) before his release. Then, shortly thereafter, he travels south, not only into the agrarian south but also into his past. There he encounters gauchos and other low-level types (like the characters in “Man on Pink Corner”) who foist a duel upon him, a duel that he knows will result in his death.
That’s the surface of the story, but Borges hints that Dahlmann never actually leaves the hospital but hallucinates all the subsequent events that he believes happen to him inside a bar, where several coarse customers thrown spitballs at him to provoke the final encounter. Such a reading shifts the story from action to the imaginary, from the physical to the intellect, which is the second characteristic of Borges’ work: the imagination. Dahlmann, like Borges, worked in a library much of his life; both were fascinated with arcane manuscripts. Moreover, the intentional confusion about what may or may not have happened (Did Dahlmann ever leave the sanatorium once he entered it? Did he ever go South into his past) is the mark of much of Borges’ magic realism, the split between the real and the surreal.
In between “Man on Pink Corner” and “The South,” Alfred Mac Adam, the astute editor of On Argentina, has included numerous early writings that Borges wrote of Argentine writers in the early part of the twentieth century. These essays and poems collectively establish a literary tradition for the country rooted in gauchesco poetry, in both European and Argentine writers, in the frontier-like atmosphere of the compadritos: “Foulmouthed men who whiled away their time behind a whistle or a cigarette and whose distinctive traits were a high-combed mane of hair, a silk handkerchief, high-heeled shoes, a bent-over gait, a challenging gaze…[in a] classic time of gangs, of Indians,” i.e., the characters in “The Man on Pink Corner” and the men Dahlmann encounters when he travels South.
On Argentina, thus, roots Jorge Luis Borges and his remarkable writings in the Argentine past. Thanks are due to Alfred Mac Adam, the editor and the translator of many of the works in this slim volume. Simultaneously, Penguin Classics has issued two other volumes of Borges’ work: On Writing, edited by Suzanne Jill Levine, and On Mysticism, edited by Maria Kodama.
By Jorge Luis Borges
Edited, introduced, and translated by Alfred Mac Adam
Penguin Books, 167 pp., $15
CHARLES R. LARSON is Professor of Literature at American University in Washington, D.C.