Borges and I

Translated from Spanish by Jeremy Biles

(Borges biographer and scholar Geronimo Eduardo Rostro claims that the anonymous author of this brief memorial almost certainly knew Borges personally, though the account is obviously fictional and rife with chronological inaccuracies.)

"You again?" So says Jorge Luis Borges as I enter the Library where we work. He says this every day. And though this is many years ago, I can still recall his genuine surprise each morning upon seeing me: "You again?"

We work together in the vast Library, sometimes far from each other, sometimes side by side, but always together. There are days when I hardly catch a glimpse of him, and others on which we seem to be stumbling upon each other as if by design. I rarely see anyone else. Borges occupies his days ordering the books on the endless shelves. I, on the other hand, spend my time shuffling the books. We, the two imperfect custodians of the Library.

It is a strange game we play, a kind of dramatic enactment of the universe's dream. Borges arrives early, and begins the endless task of arranging the books according to some secret order to which he alone holds the key. I arrive shortly after he does, and go about the business, no less arduous, of wreaking a quiet havoc, disarranging the books, transporting this one here to the farthest reaches of the library, displacing that one there by just a volume's-width or two.

In all the years I worked with him, I never was able to figure out the key to the secret order he sought to impose on the Library's limitless contents. I was never certain, in fact, that I was not somehow contributing to this order, that I was not an unwitting agent of a grand arrangement that I was simply unable to discern. Each day I contemplated possible ordering systems which Borges might have employed, so that I might better undermine his method of organization. Indeed, I wonder if I did not spend more time contemplating the order than did Borges himself, as I had to proceed carefully so as to shuffle books in such a way that no possible corresponding order could be conceived. Thus in the course of attempting to introduce chaos into his order, I imagined thousands of possible configurations. I suspect that Borges did not have just one system, or that the system was not only constitutive of a spatial arrangement, but also a temporal one.

Once, when I knew that Borges was looking for a particular citation from the first Canto of Dante's Inferno, I took this book and placed it in a remote little room of the Library that had not seen a visitor for many years. But no sooner had I set the book in this most unlikely hiding place than Borges, who had been working far from me, walked in and plucked the book from the shelf. On another occasion, when Borges was in the process of writing a story involving Cervantes, I "hid" the copy of Don Quixote in what I thought to be a most obvious place. But Borges, who had placed the book in just that spot on a previous occasion, was unable to locate it, and finally bought a used copy at a small bookshop several miles away. (By this time, Borges no longer had a personal library to speak of, having given away most of his books to students and friends.)

Sometimes Borges would claim to see features of faces in the arrangement of books on the shelves. Occasionally he spoke of seeing whole faces in the patterns made by the colors, shapes, and sizes of the book spines. These faces, in turn, became features of other, larger faces, which themselves were features of still greater ones, spanning multiple levels and sections of the Library. Borges postulated one great face of the Library, composed of an infinite number of smaller faces. Though I never saw the visages of which he spoke with patent affection, he once told me that my work gave the faces, and the Great Face, ever changing expressions.

Borges offered me almost no clues concerning his method. Only once did he admit to me (perhaps with the intent of throwing me off the scent) that his system had to take into account my shuffling, and that, indeed, his order could not exist without it. I wonder if Borges did not, over the years, spend more and more time shuffling books, as I spent more and more time inventing and executing ordering and counter-ordering systems. I became his mirror, and he, my mask.

In the evenings, over dinner, we laughed long and deeply. When we parted ways at the end of the night, we never said goodbye.

Jeremy Biles is a writer living in Chicago. He also recently curated the "Zounds" exhbition at the Hyde Park Art Center, Chicago.