by Gina Apostol
LA Review of Books
What is it about the writer in the First World that wants the Third World writer to be nakedly political, a blunt instrument bludgeoning his world’s ills? What is it about the critic that seems to wish upon the Third World the martyred activist who dies for a cause (O’Connell: “In his own country, six coups d’etat and three dictatorships” — one hears exclamation points of disappointment)? Where does this goddamned fantasy come from — that fantasy of the oppressed Third World artist who must risk his life to speak out, who’s not allowed to stay in bed and just read Kidnapped? I have to say, look at it this way: It only benefits dictatorships when all the Ken Saro-Wiwas die — and the loss of all the Ken Saro-Wiwas diminishes us all. Why is it not okay that an old man in Argentina lives for his art — and yet it is okay for a writer in The New Yorker whose country is targeting civilians abroad in precision assassinations to merely sit and write reviews about dead Argentines whose political feelings are insufficiently pronounced? Where is the great American artist leading his fellow citizens in barricades against the NSA? And why are these New Yorker critics not calling them out for their “refusal to engage with politics”?
Although it is amusing to imagine a blind librarian in Buenos Aires brandishing his weapons of Kipling tomes against the old junta, it is less possible to imagine Jonathan Franzen or Jeffrey Eugenides risking jail at all for any reason. Why are Americans allowed to be more cowardly than others?
These are momentary, kneejerk thought-bubbles that rise up whenever I read reviews in The New Yorker. But this is only part of the problem, because for any of us who read Borges closely from the perspective of the colonized, Borges is very political: he gives us a template to think about our politics and our problems. He provokes us to imagine what “identity” and “nation,” the “other” and the “self” are, with cunning, humor, and incalculable, astonishing vision and precision. This is not to say that he provides his political lessons directly, or even intentionally. As O’Connell notes, “To read his stories is to experience the dissolution of all certainty, all assumption about the reliability of your experience of the world.” Borges’s stories, in fact, dissolve the certainties of that hegemonic world of The New Yorker; but then, he decenters everyone’s assumptions — about politics, about being, about God.
Borges is the author of the essay “The Argentine Writer and Tradition,” an amusing, deconstructive lesson on how to read and write a country. In anti-colonial poetics in Argentina, in the Philippines, and elsewhere, the question of “tradition” is dominant: what makes a literature “Argentine”? What makes a story “Filipino”? It’s a question that always drove me nuts — because the arguments always seemed at best foolish, and at worst dangerously essentialist. Anti-colonial critics at one point suggested that one must isolate “Filipino-ness” or “Argentine-ness” and find some pure, untrammeled state beyond history, when the “native” was pristine and untouched by the foreign, or even time. But the Filipino or Argentine or Kenyan or Indian is necessarily hybrid, condemned to deal with the past: history makes our identities irreducibly multiple. The Filipino is Western and Asian, European and Ifugao, animist and Christian, all simultaneously and vertiginously so. To isolate what is “Filipino” is to seek a chimera. And in such lucid essays as “The Argentine Writer and Tradition,” a quite polemical work that sends up these fantasies of our singular national identities, Borges dissuades people like me from seeking such illusions. The essay is a classic in deconstructive postcolonial thought, before Gayatri Spivak, before Homi Bhabha. The public intellectual Borges may not have directly wrestled with political stances and historical dilemmas in his passing interviews. But in his essays and his fiction, with clarity and logic, he sets up for the Argentine, or for someone like me, a template for how to think about our historical reality, and thus our art. That portal he provides is a political act.
In typical fashion, Borges presents the problem of Argentine tradition with doubt:
My skepticism does not relate to the difficulty or impossibility of solving this problem. [. . .] Rather than with a true mental difficulty, I take it we are dealing with an appearance, a simulacrum, a pseudo-problem.
The essay’s logic unfolds to dissipate a chimera. Borges takes as his departure the “almost instinctive” solution to the problem of tradition — that “the Argentine literary tradition already exists in the gauchesque poetry.” To me, this is the same solution that nationalist critics (and they may be Filipino or Western or both) often come to — they wish to isolate a pre-colonial form or story, say epic syntax in Tagalog, or the dusty themes of a Native American romance with plants, or the too-much-sung story of migration, and expect the artist to grapple with such “traditions.” But Borges proceeds to devastate that solution with a close reading of motifs and syntax in gauchesque poetry: “gauchesque poetry is a literary genre as artificial as any other.” In short, one form is not more essentially “Argentine” as the next. He makes definitive, political pronouncements: “The idea that Argentine poetry should abound in Argentine traits and Argentine local color seems to me a mistake,” he writes, employing with humor that Borgesian trick of inverse persuasion, his trademark logical-jujitsu move: “The Argentine cult of local color is a recent European cult which the nationalists ought to reject as foreign.”
As a writer from the colonized world, I find Borges’s work almost intolerably revealing, as if spoken directly to the political debates that beset my country. Borges’s postcolonial critique and analysis in his ficciones are obscured by his philosophical sleights of hand, startling plots, and narrative wizardry, but though buried, his critique is powerful. In particular, I am struck by his logic of the inverse. His use of doppelgangers (sometimes triplegangers) and mirrors and refractions and texts within texts — spies that become victims, heroes that are villains, detectives caught in textual traps of their own making, translators who disappear in puffs of smoke in someone else’s writer’s block — in Borges’s stories, these astonishing mutations force us to see reality from new perspectives, force us to question our own encrusted preconceptions. While questions of ontology and Berkeleyan illusion and all those philosophical games beloved of Borges are paramount, the constant revisiting of the problems of fictionality and textuality in these stories have profound echoes for the postcolonial citizen, bedeviled by and grappling with questions of identity and nation, questions seething always under our every day, our working hours, our forms of art.
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