home / summer 2002

The Books and the Night: a film by Tristán Bauer (Argentina, 1999)
by Samuel Monder

It would be a very simple task for me to say what parts of the movie I enjoyed the most. It may not be so simple, however, to elaborate something out of such an elementary joy. In any case, I have to confess that the following comments did spring out of a very basic reaction to some images of the documentary footage in the film.

I loved watching Borges again on the black and white Argentinean TV. It instantly reminded me of how masterfully he would play the literary character he had created for himself. In all of the uncountable interviews that he gave during his last years, he would repeat the story of the writer born and raised in a library, living a bookish kind of life, doing nothing but reading and writing, and publishing if only to stop correcting his manuscripts. He would go through the same lines again and again, without changing a single word, as many times as he could.

I am not saying that we should not believe such a story; however, my point is that, beyond the truth-value of this image, he was skillfully constructing a certain type of literary personae. And after endless (but always delightful) repetitions, this construction has been so strongly established that we probably cannot talk about Borges (or make a film about him) without paying attention to the symbolic universe that he proposes as the only framework to understand his project. All other references to his sentimental companions, his political opinions and the other many accidents of his biography seem to become shallow when confronted with the ascetic account that he would offer of his own life.

Of course, I am well aware that we should not take Borges’s portrayal of himself as being completely unproblematic, as if there would be nothing to argue about it. But today I’d like to point out a way in which this movie both honors and challenges Borges’s perspective; or even better: we may say that, by honoring Borges’s official story, it deconstructs the old master in a very Borgesian way as some consequences of his project are revealed. Because, by granting him the right of the soloist, as his voice is allowed to be the only voice in the picture, it becomes apparent that we are listening to a double voice.

Let me explain what I mean. I am just going to point out one central aspect of the movie that calls for a special celebration: the fact that the actor who plays Borges, Walter Santa Ana, does not intend to mimic the actual Borges as is seen in the documentary footage of the film. He plays Borges, of course, but he is not Borges nor does he try to diminish the differences: even if we disregard the huge physical mismatch, his voice is quite different (and it might have been such a temptation for an actor to imitate the unmistakable voice of Borges!). So, literately, in this movie we have one character that speaks with two voices, an image in the mirror that boldly departs from reality. And thus all of the performance becomes a game Borges would be very glad to play: we can call it the mirror game. The scene of the encounter of the old Borges with the young fellow -i.e.: with himself, with his "double"- in Cambridge/Geneva, is just an example, or a variation, of this game. But let me call your attention to something Borges says during one of the interviews, since it may help to understand the deep roots of the game. He says that, when he remembers his mother, he thinks of a picture. This is so, he explains, because pictures are still; on the contrary, reality is a continuos flux of events; we can hardly apprehend the universe in itself, but we can only try to grasp its feeble representations. According to this point of view, language is the impossible portrait of the universe. And thus signs and reality play the mirror game in its most abstract fashion. Signs reflect and betray reality like images in a mirror deviating from the object they are supposed to reflect.

Borges wanted us to remember him as an elusive image in a fictional mirror, which means: to remember him in a way much closer to oblivion. This is not a whimsical desire, but an important part of a literary project: not only writing about but being the librarian of the library of Babel, the guardian of the labyrinth: to erase the bloody fleshy Borges; to be nobody, to become universal.


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