Borges and Mexico: An Intimate Friendship
How the secret current of Borges' relationship with Mexico was more intimate than most people realized.
When we try to think of the bond Borges had with various countries aside from his native Argentina, the first country to come to mind will probably be England, where his literary formation began and whose literature he never ceased to love. Then, in a sort of haphazard list that doesn’t adhere to hierarchies, we could mention the U.S; the Nordic Countries with their kenningar; Spain, for his youthful attachment to the only artistic movement we would join —the Ultraist Movement—; Switzerland, where he was allegedly stricken by the epiphany that he was a citizen of the world and where he would later be buried; Japan, where as he put it in one of his conferences, “I felt continuously thankful, continuously stunned, continuously indignant about all that I could see through my ignorance and blindness.” And to a lesser extent, we may bring up France, Brazil (the deep south, gaucho territory), Germany, and maybe a couple more places mentioned tangentially in his work.
It’s while treading the waters of this last category that Mexico comes through. Throughout Borges’ writing, the subject of Mexico remains relatively minor and inexplicit, except for “The Writing of the God” ––a story that evokes Mayan cosmology–– and a direct allusion to Mexico in *** post-scriptum in “The Aleph”. There, the narrator states that “the second death known as ‘Death and the Compass’ can occur only in Mexico, using a dagger in ancient style.”
That Mexico makes such little appearance in Borges’ work may lead us to think that the country simply didn’t play a very big role in his life. And yet, if we dig deeper, we find a wealth of intimacy between Borges and Mexico, revealed to us simply by taking a closer look into the writer’s personal life.
The first thing that sticks out is the great importance Alfonso Reyes had on Borges’ literary development. Ten years older and with a nomadic lifestyle somewhat similar to Borges’, Reyes was a decisive influence on the young Argentinean and definitively led him down the path of literature. For his part, Borges always publicly acknowledged Reyes with an epithet that has become famous, the “best prose stylist in the Spanish language”.
Vast and delicate splendors
Your style accomplished, that precise rose…
Their friendship began way back when the author of Visión de Anáhuac became the Mexican ambassador to Argentina. Rumors had it that the two had exchanged letters before meeting, in which Borges described his first books to Reyes. Around 1920, they were able to coincide in Madrid, where they got to know each other better through mutual friends (Ramón Gómez de la Serna among them). It was only then that they began to form one of the most fruitful friendships known to Hispanic Literature.
Through Reyes, Borges learned the value of writing clearly; he realized that verbal pyrotechnics might not be the best tool for him who chooses language as his primary medium. He learned the importance of anecdote and to subvert the imperialism of form in order to privilege communication. Lastly, he discovered that, in order to write, one needs courage and boldness more than discipline.
Aside from Reyes, Mexico’s significance to Borges is more or less circumstantial and stems from the fact that Mexico and Argentina were the two most important poles for Latin American literature. It was a time in which both countries had some of their best writers and, in many cases, close amongst themselves despite their belonging to different generations.
In the opposite way, Mexico was also one of the fist places where the reading of Borges ––whose fame began only until his last years of live–– was prolific. At the beginning, Borges’ readers were but a few cult fans that came to his books as one who has lost his way deep in a city’s alleyways and suddenly arrives to a beautiful, occult temple. Alejandro Rossi— born Venezuelan but who produced most of his work in Mexico—says he came upon Borges’ work without knowing who Borges was ––a dignifying pleasure that only few can boast of. Octavio Paz has a similar story, although his acquaintance with Borges was not until 1940 through an issue of Sur ––the renowned magazine founded by Victoria Ocampo and Adolfo Bioy Casares––, which was always thriving with big literary names such as Enrique Pezzoni and Jose Bianco. Paz was so inspired by Sur he later used it as a model for his own two magazines, Plural and Vuelta, which later became the most important publications of the Mexican cultural life in the XX century. In time, many Mexican readers shared similar stories during award ceremonies and other intellectual events (among which were the chess tournaments with Juan José Arreola).
Maybe Borges and Mexico have one of those intense friendships that blossom in spite of oneself; that are vehement for many reasons, and enjoyed, but impossible to hold up. But one that, nonetheless, leaves an indelible and profoundly significant mark.
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