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     Volume 9 Issue 47| December 10, 2010 |

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Book Review

The Borges Legacy


The Lesson of the Master: On Borges and his Work Norman Thomas di Giovanni New York and London: Continuum, 2003 (reissued by Friday Books, London, 2010).

Norman Thomas di Giovanni's collaborative translations of Jorge Luis Borges belong in the realm of legend rather than mundane literary history. The story begins in Harvard, 1967-68. Borges, already world famous and partially available in English translations, albeit of uneven merit, is in residence as Charles Eliot Norton, Professor of Poetry. di Giovanni has just won his spurs as a translator and editor with a selection from the Spanish poet Jorge Guillen. Bowled over by Borges' Obra Poetica ('Poetical Works'), he writes to the poet, proposing to edit a selection translated by di Giovanni himself and others; among them would be John Hollander, Richard Howard, W.S. Merwin, Alastair Reid, John Updike and Richard Wilbur. Uncharacteristically, Borges writes back; the project gets going at once.

Unlike previous translators di Giovanni makes full use of Borges' mastery of English; the two put their heads together to produce English versions that read like originals. di Giovanni moves to Buenos Aires and the collaborative effort goes on for nearly five years, resulting in the translation of eleven books, mostly prose fiction. In the process di Giovanni nudges Borges into a fresh burst of creativity. One interesting product is a 65-page collaborative autobiography written directly in English. di Giovanni tells the story of his literary adventure with Borges in The Lesson of the Master, an engaging mix of memoir, scholarship and criticism, indispensable to the Borges buff; it is also an excellent lesson in the art of writing.

The story has an unpleasant surprise ending, though. Weeks before his death, the terminally ill Borges marries Maria Kodama, 38 years his junior and leaves her his estate. She loses no time in renegotiating translation rights to the entire Borges oeuvre, at the same time cancelling the rights for the collaborative work done with di Giovanni. The reason obviously is pecuniary; but for Kodama's gain it's the student of literature who has to pay a price. It's a supreme irony that the Borges estate has withdrawn from print a rich trove of Borges texts that are canonical by any definition of the term.

di Giovanni, however, continues to mine his Borges legacy a spiritual, literary legacy as his splendid new translated volume testifies. It was Borges who drew his attention to certain nineteenth century Argentine writers, and for good measure presented him with editions of their works. One of the five acknowledged masterpieces from that period is Esteban Echeverria's story 'El Matadero' ('The Slaughteryard'). It is only 30 pages long, just long enough for a pamphlet. di Giovanni presents it as the piece de resistance in a literary and cultural feast, and follows it up with a wholesome salad of notes in a Glossary. The Spanish original is included as a side dish, a bonus for students of the language.


The Slaughteryard Esteban Echeverria Translated by Norman Thomas di Giovanni and Susan Ashe. Introduction and editorial notes by N. T. di Giovanni. London: Friday Books, 2010.

For starters di Giovanni succinctly places Echeverria's career in its historical context. Argentina attained independence from Spain in 1816, only to explode into civil war. Two powerful factions evolved. On one side the Unitarians (not to be confused with the Christian denomination of that name), with their bastion in cosmopolitan Buenos Aires, were squarely in the tradition of European liberalism, and favoured a strong central government; on the other the Federalists, many of them ranch owning caudillos, were conservative (to put it mildly) and wanted local autonomy. The Federalist caudillo Juan Manuel de Rosas emerged as the strongman, and save for a three-year interregnum, ruled with an iron hand from 1829 to 1852. Echeverria, like Borges' ancestors, was a staunch Unitarian, and fled into exile in Uruguay, leaving behind his manuscripts; not long after, at 45, he was dead.

'El Matadero' was first published in a journal in 1871, to wide acclaim; and is now said to be the most widely used school text in Hispanic America. The story is set towards the end of the 1830s during Lent. The Church's interdiction on meat eating, in a land addicted to beef, produces dangerous withdrawal symptoms. Lest the discontent take a political turn, Church and government ease up and allow the slaughter of fifty heads of cattle at the Alto slaughteryard. It has been raining heavily for days, evoking apocalyptic thoughts. The account explicitly alludes to the Deluge; and to at least one reader, it looks forward to another famous deluge in Latin American fiction: in Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude.

The Alto is an infernal quagmire whose denizens are monstrous characters, rabid Federalists all. The symbolism is clear and it gains in power through the vivid description. The horrible slaughter is nearly over when a mounted stranger comes cantering down. The knife-wielding slaughteryard louts identify him from his clothes and appearance as a Unitarian: colours worn and styles of keeping facial hair were signifiers in Argentine political semiotics. They take him by surprise, so that his pistol is of no avail. He is strapped down, subjected to a burlesque trial, and martyred through murderous play. Till the end he heroically affirms the liberal Unitarian creed and roundly condemns the Federalist barbarians. Admittedly, 'The Slaughteryard' has a naive, propagandist aspect, but this is more than offset by the relentless naturalism of the descriptions and a dash of mordant satire.

Seven appendices make up a divers dessert tray: there is Juan Martin Gutierrez's foreword to the first edition of the story; accounts of contemporary travellers, Darwin among them; bloodthirsty Federalist verses; and poems about the Federalist tyranny by Echeverria and his fellow Unitarian Ascusabi. They significantly enhance our understanding and appreciation of the story.

The Envoi offers the meditative brandy and cigar to round off the feast. di Giovanni highlights the continuing relevance of 'The Slaughteryard' to contemporary Argentina and, indeed, to the whole world, a point those of us who lived through the Bangladesh independence war of 1971 will well appreciate; he himself saw at first hand a latter-day manifestation of the kind of tyranny depicted in the story in recent Argentine military dictatorships, and notes with chagrin that even Borges publicly hailed the dictator General Videla. The moving final paragraph will strike a chord in every if I may borrow a phrase from Adrian Mitchell 'heart on the left':

'Reading and re-reading Echeverria gives us a sense of innocent individuals in their thousands crowding round with unvoiced voices Argentines of Rosas' time and since desperate for recognition and redress, desperate to be heard. To all such victims we have a debt of honour, just as we have a debt of honour everywhere and in every age to victims of social injustice.'

Kaiser Haq is Bangladesh's foremost English language poet. His last volume of poetry is 'Published in the Streets of Dhaka' (Dhaka; writers.ink).



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