Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 812
In “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote,” Borges combines a sophisticated sense of humor, directed toward the scholasticism of the academic, with one of his favorite images—that of the simulacrum. The story begins as a eulogy written in the first person and dedicated to the memory of an admirable French author, Pierre Menard. The narrator first provides a list of the author’s visible works in a rather pompous, academic style; the narrator often invokes his literary authority by dropping names of famous writers or providing documentary proof through the citation of very real authors or journals in his footnotes. The insertion of footnotes for the purpose of creating an impression of assumed authority is a much-used technique in Borges’s stories. In this story the footnotes add to the general irony, since Borges uses them to mock academic critics. He mimics the style of bookish scholars who catalog literary works and associate themselves with reputable names in order to give themselves some stature as literary critics. Borges implies that such critics remain well on the outskirts of literary activity. Through such spoofs of literary techniques and genres, he invites the reader to participate in a playful activity that exposes the pretentiousness of some brands of scholarship.
From the imitation of bombastic critics and styles, Borges proceeds to another form of imitation. Menard, the eulogized writer, is credited with another set of “subterranean” works, one of which is an attempted imitation of Miguel de Cervantes’s El ingenioso hidalgo don Quixote de la Mancha (1605, 1615; Don Quixote de la Mancha, 1612-1620). The reader is led to another typically Borgesian idea. Since, according to Borges, everything that seeks to amaze has already been said before, there are no longer any new stories left to narrate. Rearrangement of old plots in new patterns is the only available type of creativity that writers in the twentieth century can enjoy. Therefore, he suggests the fabrication of simulacrums, or copies, of original tales. These copies will be different from the originals because they will rearrange facts, color them, or throw a new light on them through the use of an ironic or humorous tone.
The fictitious French author, Menard, who decides to rewrite Don Quixote de la Mancha three hundred years after its original publication, takes this Borgesian device even further. Menard does not want to rearrange the story of Quixote or to imitate its style in a modern tale. Rather, he wants to succeed at creating an identical story, a book that will duplicate the original in every minute detail. Any thought of creating a mechanical transcription is of course rejected at the outset. At first, Menard conceives the plan of immersing himself completely in the seventeenth century world of Cervantes. He decides to learn Spanish, become a Catholic, and fight the Moors and the Turks—in other words, experience the life of Cervantes in order to become Cervantes. This plan, however, does not seem challenging enough to the rather eccentric French writer, who then conceives an even more difficult method. Since by being Cervantes it would be relatively easier to write the book that Cervantes had written, Menard undertakes the task of creating a copy of the original work while he remains Pierre Menard. Having read the original work in childhood, he will depend entirely on his hazy memory of the work and his imaginative powers to reconstruct Don Quixote de la Mancha word for word. He succeeds, according to the narrator, at creating an exact replica of two complete chapters and a fragment of a third one.
The narrator then provides excerpts from Menard’s and Cervantes’s works and comments that Menard has created a new text that is infinitely richer and subtler than the original. Considering the fact that Menard’s sentences are exact duplicates of those of Cervantes, the suggestion that Menard’s work differs so radically from the original is funny yet not completely gratuitous. Although the passages to be compared are identical, the narrator draws the reader’s attention to the fact that the more recently composed text is the work of a man who was culturally, geographically, and historically removed from his predecessor. The same words, written in the twentieth century, are bound to lead to new critical interpretations as well as the presumption of different authorial intentions. The narrator, placed in the role of a reader, is thus able to perceive subtle differences between excerpts that on the surface are exact replicas of each other. The reader’s perception and interpretation, then, is as important a tool in the construction of fiction as the ability of the writer to fabricate these texts. In this very postmodern story, Borges undoes the traditional opposition between reader and writer, showing how both can achieve new variations of a text and how both play a role in the creation of fiction.
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