Pierre Menard, Author of the Summary
The title of this story indicates that Jorge Luis Borges is engaging in his customary mischief of rearranging the universe, for almost any reader of the fiction of this master storyteller would know that the author of El ingenioso hidalgo don Quixote de la Mancha (1605, 1615; The History of the Valorous and Wittie Knight-Errant, Don Quixote of the Mancha, 1612-1620; better known as Don Quixote de la Mancha) is not Pierre Menard but Miguel de Cervantes (1547-1616). The narrator begins by relating the details of his encounter with Menard through a series of mutual friends, in particular the baroness de Bacourt and the countess de Bagnoregio, formerly of Monaco but now married to an international philanthropist in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
The narrator lists what he calls the “visible” work of Menard, comparing his enumeration of works to the catalog prepared by Madame Henri Bachelier and published by a newspaper suspect for its Protestant tendencies. The list includes translations of classical authors, treatises on philosophical and metaphysical problems, monographs on poetic language, and various works of poetry. The narrator then turns to the other, more important work—the subterranean, heroic, peerless, and unfinished. This extraordinary composition consists of two chapters and a fragment of a third chapter of Don Quixote de la Mancha. Menard’s work is not another Quixote; rather, it is the Quixote itself.
Menard’s inspiration came from two sources: a fragment by Novalis (1772-1801), which deals with the theme of a total identification with a given author, and an unnamed parasitic book that places a classic fictional character in a modern setting. Menard attempted to create a few fragments that would coincide word for word with the Quixote, not by copying the text but by assimilating it completely and then inventing it anew.
Menard first tried to accomplish his task in 1918 by becoming Cervantes—knowing Spanish well, fighting the Turks and the Moors, and forgetting the history of the world from 1602 to 1918. He then discarded that plan and adopted another, which led to the final invention analyzed by the narrator. He wrote the Quixote from the experience and perspective of the twentieth century author Pierre Menard.
The result of Menard’s endeavor is three passages that coincide in every textual detail with the corresponding chapters of Cervantes’s Don Quixote de la Mancha. As the narrator observes, however, there is a vivid contrast in style. Cervantes’s style is contemporary and natural; Menard’s is archaic and affected. Cervantes’s view of history as “the mother of truth” is merely rhetorical; Menard’s history as engenderer of truth is an astounding and original concept.
The narrator reasons that Menard’s greatest contribution is his enrichment of the art of reading through the techniques of deliberate anachronism and erroneous attribution. Menard’s illuminating labor has made possible the reading of great classics as contemporary works. To read the original text of the Iliad (c. 750 b.c.e.; English translation, 1611) as a twentieth century romance or William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (1600) as a story of modern intrigue is to fill these classic works with an extraordinary sense of adventure.
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...
(The entire section is 1,986 words.)