Christopher Hitchens

From the archives: Christopher Hitchens meets Jorge Luis Borges

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To mark the death of Christopher Hitchens, here is a piece he wrote in June 1986 to commemorate the life of Jorge Luis Borges.

Jorge Luis Borges, Christopher Hitchens, The Spectator, 21 June 1986

Christopher Hitchens recalls a meeting with the Argentine poet, who died last Saturday

‘This is my country and it might be yet, But something came between us and the sun.’

As the old man threw off these lines, he turned his blind, smiling face to me and asked, 'Do they still read much Edmund Blunden in England?' I was unsure of what might give pleasure, but pretty certain in saying that Blunden was undergoing one of his eclipses. ‘What a shame,' said Jorge Luis Borges, 'but then you still have Chesterton. I used to live in Kensington, you know. What a writer. Such a pity he became a Catholic.'

The changes of pace in a conversation with Borges seemed alarming at the time, but in retrospect showed nothing but one's own nervousness. He was always searching for a mutually agreeable topic, and seemed at times to fear that it was he, lonely, sightless and claustrated, who might be the dull partner in chat. When he found a subject that would please, he began to bubble and grin, and even to tease.

I had made my way to Maipu 944, near the Plaza San Martin, and found apartment 6B after a great deal of discouragement: Argentine government officials, usually so quick to sing of the splendours of their country, became curiously diminuendo when I asked if Borges was well enough to receive visitors. 'He does not welcome guests, Senor. He does not welcome invitations either. It is better not to trouble him.'

At last I simply dialled his number, and was rewarded with an invitation to call upon him.

This was at the height of General Videla's pogrom against dissent, and I had already learned that a private telephone conversation in Buenos Aires was a difficult thing to have. Borges didn't care about this, partly because he heartily approved of the generals then in power. He gave me the couplet from Blunden as an instance of his feeling for Juan Peron, the vulgar mobster who had persecuted him and his family.

But we didn't touch upon this until much later. He wanted to discuss English and Spanish as mediums of literature. 'I was speaking Spanish and English before there were any such languages. Do you know that in Mexico they say, "I am seeing you" when the mean, “I will see you"? I find the translation of the present into the future very ingenius. But when I think of the Bible I think of King James. And most of my reading is in English.'

He had a great respect for Martin Fierro, the demotic gaucho epic that is the distinctive Argentine ballad. And he had a feeling for the folklore of the country's numerous and futile wars. But he disliked the ornate pageantry that sometimes substituted for tradition in Buenos Aires, 'the showy pomp and circumstance — the hypocrisy'. His religion, he said, was presbyterian if anything, and he had some Portuguese Jewish influence in his family. It was this latter aspect that had helped stir the malice of Peron and, though he did not realise it, was the reason for the coolness of General Videla's people as well.

Back to England. 'I began to learn Old English when I went blind in 1955, and it helped me to write "The Library of Babel". I made a special pilgrimage to Lichfield once, because of Dr Johnson. But I hated Stratford.' 'Did you learn Old Norse?' 'No, not really, that is — no. But would you read me some Kipling?' 'With pleasure.' 'Then make it 'The Harp Song of the Dane Women'. And please read it slowly. I like to take long, long sips.'

What is a woman that you forsake her!

And the hearth fire and the home acre

To go with that old, grey widow-maker …

When I had finished he sat for a while and said, ‘Kipling was not really appreciated in his own time because all his peers were socialists. Will you come and read me some Kipling tomorrow?’ I said yes.

Next day I led him down a spiral staircase on my arm, and took him to lunch. He talked of how reverse and obverse were the same to him, so that infinity was almost banal. He said that he always felt utterly lost when he was dreaming, which was perhaps the source of the recurrent labyrinth in his writing. I asked him why he had always been so polite about Pablo Neruda, and he replied that while he much preferred Gabriel Garcia Marquez, he didn’t want anyone to think he was jealous of Neruda’s Nobel Prize for literature. ‘Though when you see who had has it — Shaw, Faulkner. Still, I would not grab it. I feel greedy.’ He said later that ‘not giving me the Nobel Prize is a minor Swedish industry.’

I read him lots more Kipling and Chesterton until the time came to part. Could I come back again? Alas, I had to fly to Chile that evening, ‘Ah, well if you see General Pinochet, please present him with my compliments. He was good enough once to award me a prize and I consider him a gentleman.’ I don’t remember what I answered to that, but I do remember that it made a perfect match with the rest of his conversation. He delighted in saying that the Videla government was of ‘gentlemen rather than pimps’. He explained to me the precise etymology of the Argentine slang for pimp, which was canfinflero or, as he also relished saying, ‘cunter’. Though he was aloof from the cold war (‘Why should we choose between two second-rate countries’) he loathed the idea of the mob and the many-headed. For him, English literature was a respite from all that. ‘My “Dr Brodie’s Report” is taken from Swift. And “Death and the Compass” is like Conan-Doyle in 3-D’.

Long before war broke out between his homeland and his beloved England (works like ‘folk’ and ‘kin’ recurred in his talk), Borges had seen through the Videla regime. He had signed a public protest about the 15,000 ‘disappeared’, which was perhaps the more powerful for having been so belated. He had spoken against the idea of a macho war with Chile over the stupid issue of the Beagle Channel. And his poem deploring the Falklands was as ironic and eloquent as anything written in Buenos Aires could afford to be. For a man who told me that ‘I spend my days alone, in daydreams and the evolution of plots,’ he was alive to ‘the outside’ and peculiarly ready to take risks. I can never hear the sneer about ‘ivory towers’ without reflecting that Borges, who was confined to one by his blindness, managed to make honourable amendments to his cherished point of view.

As I left him, he said he would like to give me a present. I made the usual awkward disclaimers about how he shouldn’t think of such a thing but he pressed on and recited a poem which told me I would not forget. Looking me in the eye, as it were, he said:

What man has bent o’er his son’s sleep, to brood

How that face shall watch his cold it lies?

Or thought, as his own mother kissed his eyes.

Of what her kiss was when his father wooed?

This remains the only Dante Gabriel Rossetti sonnet I can unfailingly recall.