Borges and crime fiction

For the “Criminal Content” issue of Words Without Borders, Alberto Manguel reminisces about Jorge Luis Borges’ love for detective novels.

He found in their formulae the ideal narrative structures that allow the fiction writer to set up his own borders and to concentrate on the efficiency of words and images made of words. He enjoyed significant details. He once observed, as we were reading the Sherlock Holmes story “The Red-Haired League,” that detective fiction was closer to the Aristotelian notion of a literary work than any other genre. According to Borges, Aristotle had stated that a poem about the labors of Hercules would not have the unity of the Illiad or the Odyssey, since the only uniting factor would be the single same hero undertaking the various labors, and that in the detective story, the unity is given by the mystery itself.

He was not above melodrama. He would cry at westerns and gangster films. He sobbed at the ending of Angels With Dirty Faces when James Cagney accepts to behave as a coward when they take him to the electric chair, so the boys who idolize him will not look up to him any longer. Standing on the edge of the pampas, the sight of which he said affected Argentines as the sight of the sea affected the English, a tear would roll down his cheek and he would mutter: “Carajo, la patria!” (‘By God, my homeland!’). His breath would stop when he would come to the line where the Norwegian sailor says to his king as the mast of the royal ship cracks: “That was Norway breaking/ from thy hand, O king!” (in a poem by Longfellow, a line — Borges pointed out — then used by Kipling in “The Most Beautiful Story in the World”). He once recited the Lord’s Prayer in Old English, in a crumbling Saxon chapel near Dr. Johnson’s Lichfield, “to give God a little surprise.” He wept at a certain paragraph by the forgotten Argentinian writer Manuel Peyrou because it mentioned Calle Nicaragua, a street close to where Borges was born. He enjoyed reciting four verses by Rubén Darío, “Boga y boga en el lago sonoro/ que en el sueño a los tristes espera/ donde aguarda una góndola de oro/ a la novia de Luis de Baviera,” because in spite of the long vanished gondolas and royal brides, the rhythm brought tears to his eyes. He confessed many times that he was unabashedly sentimental.

But he could also be pointedly cruel….

Bonus Borges link: Colm Tóibín reviews Edwin Williamson’s riveting Borges: A Life, which spurred many long conversations in the Maud household last winter. (Thanks, Wah-Ming.)


You might want to subscribe to my free Substack newsletter, Ancestor Trouble, if the name makes intuitive sense to you.