Thursday, February 5, 2009

Aimless Reading: The B's, Part 31.3 (Jorge Luis Borges)

Originally uploaded by Michael_Kelleher
Borges, Jorge Luis

Not sure when or where I purchased this, but it appears I bought it used, as it contains someone else's marginal notes, all of which are in English, which means I probably did not buy it in Ecuador.

That being said, I am sure that the first time I read it was when I was living in Ecuador. I worked as a volunteer teacher in 1994-5 at the Centro Del Muchacho Trabajador in Quito, which is a social services center and school run by the Catholic church. You could call it a mission center, and I often do because the horrified looks this idea elicits from my historically aware peers is highly amusing. As mission centers go, it is fairly benign. They feed, clothe and educate about 2000 people a day, and there is no quid pro quo between receiving services and worship.

The school, where I taught reading, writing, math, music, theater, arts and crafts and gym (often while smoking in class), had a little library that had a few hundred books, most of them for children. Fortunately, they had a copy of Ficciones on hand, which I read several times while a lived there. Remarkable I didn't steal it. I remember the copy in their library had a purple cover with white text and was protected by one of those plastic library covers.

We had a lounge for volunteers just off the chapel, where me and the other gringo teachers spent our free time smoking, eating, talking, sleeping and reading in between classes during our 12-hour workdays. If I wasn't in there reading, I was often in a little dark room one of the nuns had set up on site developing photos I had taken of my students.

One day, I was catching a nap in the lounge when I was awakened by a rumbling and a lot of yelling. I assumed it was kids playing outside the door of the lounge and I leapt up to tell them to play down on the patio instead of outside the lounge. No one was there when I opened the door, but the rumbling got even louder. Behind me a dish crashed to the floor and broke, which finally clued me in to the fact I was experiencing a (decidedly minor) earthquake.

Without question, Ficciones is a desert island book. Here's a bit from the English translation (by Andrew Hurley) of "Pierre Menard, Author Of The Quixote," the story about the writer who decides to copy Don Quixote word for word and publish it:

There is no intellectual exercise that is not, ultimately, pointless. A philosophical doctrine is, at first, a plausible description of the universe; the years go by, and it is a mere chapter--if not a paragraph or proper noun--in the history of philosophy. In literature, that "fall by the wayside," that loss of "relevance," is even better known. The Quixote, Menard remarked, was first and foremost a pleasant book; it is now an occasion for patriotic toasts, grammatical arrogance, obscene de luxe editions. Fame is a form--perhaps the worst form--of incomprehension.


rdeming said...

You're never smiling in any of these photos. Don't you like your books?

Michael Kelleher, Buffalo, NY said...

Richard, you've known me long enough to know that I am ALWAYS smiling on the inside.

rdeming said...

What are you, the Buster Keaton of the blogosphere?