Borges and the Eternal Orangutans

In Borges and the Eternal Orangutans, Brazilian writer Luis Fernando Verissimo offers a brilliant literary tour de force: The novel is at once an homage to the great Argentinean writer Jorge Luis Borges; a classic detective story; a study of conspiracy theory; a philosophical treatise on geography and coincidence; and a send-up of all of the above. Verissimo uses a style reminiscent of Borges’s detective stories, mixing facts from Borges’s life with fictional details created for the book and drawing on many of Borges’s favorite themes.

The narrator of the book is Vogelstein, a fifty-year old scholar of the works of Edgar Allan Poe. Vogelstein structures his tale as a letter to Borges. He writes the book, he says, to remember the events that took place at the 1985 meeting of the Israfel Society, a group devoted to the study of Poe, in Buenos Aires. (Fittingly, Borges, the writer of stories such as “Borges and I,” is doubled in the book: He is both the party to whom the book is addressed and a main character in the action of the story.)

“Geography is destiny,” Vogelstein begins, and geography and coincidence play major roles in the story. The Israfel Society has invited the aged Borges to speak at the society’s first meeting held outside the Northern Hemisphere. For Vogelstein, this is a happy coincidence. Not only does he belong to the society, he also idolizes Borges, and the meeting is sufficiently close to his home in Brazil to allow him to attend the conference. In addition, his cat Aleph (named after a Borges short story) has died, and Vogelstein has placed his Aunt Sophie in a nursing home, leaving him free to travel. “I did not see that I was being subtly summoned or that this story needed me in order to be written,” Vogelstein writes. “I did not see that I was being plunged headfirst into the plot, like a pen into an inkwell.”

Vogelstein further relates that years earlier, he translated a short story by Borges and committed the nearly unpardonable sin of changing the text by adding a “tail,” an ending other than the one written by Borges. In the intervening years, Vogelstein repeatedly attempted to apologize to Borges for this presumption, but the Argentinean never replied to his letters. With time, Vogelstein developed an obsession with Borges, fully identifying himself with the “master.” As he describes himself, Vogelstein uses Borges’s images and language: “I am fifty years old. I have led a cloistered life, ’without adventures or surprises’, as you put it in your poem. Like you, master. A sheltered life spent among books, and into which only rarely did the unexpected enter like a tiger.” Borges, blind for much of his life, wrote often of libraries, labyrinths, and tigers.

Before he even arrives in Buenos Aires, Vogelstein knows that the Poe scholars are a contentious group, their sniping and feuds carried out in the pages of the Israfel Society’s journal, The Gold-bug. The most arrogant of them, a German named Rotkopf, has tricked one of the scholars into committing an academic faux pas, and Rotkopf now threatens to expose him. Furthermore, Rotkopf had traded insults with yet another Poe scholar at a previous meeting of the Israfel Society. The three men hate one another deeply; yet through another coincidence, all three are staying at the same hotel, along with Vogelstein.

At the conference’s opening reception, Vogelstein meets these three as well as the criminologist Cuervo (whose name means Raven, another reference to Poe). Vogelstein also has his first meeting with Borges. He is in rapture: “Jorge Luis Borges! I was standing next to Jorge Louis Borges! You were smiling at me and holding out your hand to be shaken. Your hand was real; yes, the hand of Jorge Luis Borges, which I was incredulously shaking, was made of flesh and blood!” The reception, furthermore, is the site of an antagonistic meeting between Rotkopf and the two scholars who have reasons to wish him dead. In addition, Rotkopf carelessly bowls over a Japanese professornot once but twiceduring the course of the evening.

When the reception ends, Vogelstein finds himself returning to the hotel in a car with Rotkopf because no one else will ride with the ill-tempered and boorish man. When he leaves Rotkopf at his room, Vogelstein warns the German to lock his door, as Vogelstein believes there are many who would like to see him dead.

Later that...

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Booklist 101 (June 1, 2005): 1757.

Kirkus Reviews 73, no. 6 (March 15, 2005): 316.

Library Journal, July 15, 2005, p. 71.

The New York Times, August 28. 2005, section 7, p. 18.

Publishers Weekly 252, no. 15 (April 11, 2005): 32.

The Seattle Times, August 14, 2005, p. K7.

The Washington Post Book World, July 17, 2005, p. T02.