Jorge Luis Borges is unquestionably one of the great South American writers. Since he has been widely translated he is perhaps one of the best known of them, honoured both in the mainstream and within genre fiction, particularly science fiction, even though his work was not specifically in that genre.
What is perhaps less widely know about this literary giant is that he was blind by the 1960s, and had to rely on others to read to him and transcribe the work he was creating in his head.
As a boy in Buenos Aires, Alberto Manguel was one of Borges' readers. Manguel was working part time in a bookstore and it was there that Borges met him and asked him to become a reader. From 1964 to 1968 the young man enjoyed a relationship which undoubtedly influenced his later career as an anthologist, historian of reading and an author in his own write.
This small memoir is probably as much about the author as it is about his subject, ranging back and forth through their acquaintance, examining Manguel's reactions to his friend and also setting them in the context of what he learned about him later on.
We begin and end with an evening's visit for a reading, and between those literary bookends, discover that Borges, though blind, had an active mental life, knew where to find every object and book in his apartment, enjoyed going to the theatre, and could lip-sync entire gangster movies as well as musicals.
At sixteen, Manguel had no idea how privileged he was to be assisting Argentina's greatest writer. The memoir reflects this, as the fifty year old looks back on his younger self with a bit of indulgence. Clearly he wishes he had been paying better attention, or taking notes - or something.
"But these are not memories," he writes near the end of the book, "they are memories of memories and the events that sparked them have vanished away, leaving only a few images, and even those I can't be certain were as I remember them."
Yet memory remains a powerful tool for identifying the self, and Manguel is certainly aware of this, having quoted his old friend's "The Craft of Verse" in the opening pages of this book.
"My memory carries me back to a certain evening ...
in Buenos Aires. I see him; I see the gaslight;
I could place
my hand on the shelves. I know exactly
where to find ...
Burton's Arabian Nights and Prescott's
Conquest of Peru,
though the library exists no longer."
With Borges is a charming little book, tidily put together, with eight black and white photographs of its subject in his most representative haunts. At 4.5 by 7.5 cm it is a small book, and really is scarcely more than an essay bound in hardcovers. I have to hope that it will see a paperback edition, for I think most will view this as a stiff cover price for a book this size, regardless of its virtues.