Una entrevista a Borges / An Interview with Borges

By Fabian Spagnoli, translated from the Spanish by Jillian Tomm

by Gabriel García Ochoa

Much of what we know about Jorge Luis Borges’ life comes from his literary friendships with younger authors. In the 1970s Emír Rodriguez Monegal published what is still the most comprehensive biography of Borges, Jorge Luis Borges: A Literary Biography. Monegal, who was more than twenty years younger than Borges, was an important literary critic and scholar of Latin American literature and an early champion of Borges’ works, when it was unfashionable to be one, in the 1940s.

In 1967 Borges met Norman Thomas Di Giovanni, when the latter was thirty-four years old and Borges was sixty-eight. Di Giovanni would become one of Borges’ closest collaborators and the first to translate his compiled short stories into English. In 2003 Di Giovanni published Lessons of the Master, a volume of essays and memories on his work with Borges, and in 2014 Georgie & Elsa: Jorge Luis Borges and His Wife—The Untold Story, in which he recounts the fraught relationship between Borges and his wife, Elsa Astete Millán, as well as the author’s struggles with old age and blindness.

Argentinian like Borges, journalist and poet Roberto Alifano was Borges’ amanuensis for the last ten years of his life, collaborating with him in the translation of important works, including poems by Hermann Hesse and Robert Louis Stevenson’s fables. Alifano, who published a series of interviews with Borges, was forty-five years younger than the celebrated writer.

Fabian Spagnoli’s Una entrevista a Borges / An Interview with Borges falls under the category of lesser-known but no less interesting interviews with the famous writer. Published in Spanish by the Venice-based publisher Damocle Edizioni, what is remarkable about the book is the improvised nature of a conversation between a boy and the titan of Latin American Literature. Spagnoli, seventeen years old at the time, had to finish a school assignment that aimed to “bring together two generations.” He found Borges’ number in the phonebook, called, and was told the author would see him immediately—no time for preparation, no pondering what to ask. He grabbed a tape recorder and hopped in a taxi. But like Hermann Sörgel, a character in Borges’ short story “Shakespeare’s Memory,” Spagnoli is wrestling with something he doesn’t understand. He came up with questions as best he could, and this book is the unedited transcription of that encounter. It is rough, spontaneous, and sweet. If it weren’t for Spagnoli’s innocence and Borges’ patience, the result would be risible; instead it is endearing.

Borges uses Spagnoli’s questions as prompts to discuss the topics he is fond of: labyrinths, infinity, literature, himself. By the time of Spangoli’s interview in 1980, Borges had been nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature, and lost, twenty-six times. The first and last time, frustratingly, to other Spanish-speaking authors, Juan Ramón Jiménez in 1956, and Pablo Neruda in 1971. When Spagnoli asks Borges why he writes about labyrinths, Borges relates this to losing the Nobel. Labyrinths in his work, Borges explains, represent chaos. He is afraid that there may not be a natural order to the world, so he clings to signs that may indicate otherwise, like losing the Nobel:

Well but think of this: I’ve lost count of the years that I’ve been nominated as a candidate for the award, and people talk about it (mainly in this country, not in Stockholm, of course) and then they give it to someone else. It’s like a pattern, a storyline that repeats itself every 365 days; that is to say that it’s a kind of order: Just like there is a kind of order in, say, day and night, the different stages of life, the four seasons, the path of the stars. It would be small proof that we’re not in a chaos but in a cosmos; it would be a tiny demonstration of the existence of God for example, and that should make me happy. If the next year they give me the award . . . then that, caramba! that would be an inkling that there is no order in the world.

Spagnoli may not have been aware of it, but this is one of the few instances in which Borges interprets the meaning of his own writing. Halfway through the original Spanish transcription of the interview, the conversation switches to French, then English; there is a smattering of German too, which Borges taught himself in order to read Heine’s Buch der Lieder. At this point, Borges and Spagnoli start discussing the nature of language. Borges fears for the future of certain languages. He thinks many are likely to disappear because there is no economic incentive to learn them (like Indigenous languages) and laments that others like French and English are learned only for business and not the beauty of their literatures. His underlying fear appears to be the loss of the habit of reading, which could eventually lead to the loss of literature itself.

It is interesting that forty-three years ago, when the interview took place, radio and television were taking over and Borges was already noticing the decline in reading that is so evident these days. Very little of the interview speaks to Spagnoli’s school assignment, which he probably failed miserably if, instead of discussing intergenerational discourse, he wrote about labyrinths and infinity. But Borges’ preoccupation with the future of reading and literature certainly comes through. One of Borges’ most remarkable contributions was that he taught us new ways to read. Fifteen years before Roland Barthes’ “The Death of the Author,” Borges wrote in “A Note on (towards) Bernard Shaw”:

A book is not an isolated being: it is a relationship, an axis of innumerable relationships. One literature varies from another, prior or posterior, less because of the text than because of the way in which it is read: if I were granted the possibility of reading any present-day page–this one, for example–as it will be read in the year two thousand, I would know what the literature of the year two thousand would be like.

For Borges, reading is a creative act, as active and purposeful as writing. A text can change us, of course, but we too can change a text by reading it in a new way—our way—such is the power of subjectivity and interpretation. In his interview with Spagnoli, Borges is genuinely worried that young people don’t read enough. His last admonition to Spagnoli is so simple, so moving—perhaps one we should all take to heart:

Fabian Spagnoli. Jorge Luis Borges, you said that you could easily be my great-grandfather. What advice would you give me? Imagine that it were true—what advice would you give me for my future?

Borges. I don’t know . . . that you read, that you study, that you write only when you feel that you need to do it.

Published on January 26, 2024