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Evaristo Carriego by Jorge Luis Borges
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Evaristo Carriego

by Jorge Luis Borges

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I remember the first time I read this book: I was in rural Mongolia, working as a Peace Corps volunteer, and it was the day after Men's Day, a holiday left over from Soviet times. I'd competed in the Men's Day competitions as a representative of my school (there were only a handful of men working at the school, and I was pretty much automatically signed up for all community events) and I hadn't impressed anyone, especially in the shooting competition. Most Mongolians living in the countryside know how to shoot a gun reasonably well, but I certainly do not. Furthermore, I had underdressed for what turned out to be an all-day activity, and ended up sick in bed. I lived in a family's yard in my own individual ger, and the entire compound was surrounded by a tall wooden fence. My neighbor and a few of his friends came to visit me, and one of them had a black eye from a vodka-fueled Men's Day scuffle that he did not remember, but his friends did.

So I opened up Evaristo Carriego, and read Borges' prologue about growing up in Palermo, how he thought he'd grown up in the neighborhood but in truth had grown up behind a high fence in his family's library filled with innumerable English books. The Palermo of guitar duels, knife fights, and the dangerous, violent men of the Buenos Aires outskirts did not pertain to him, and as he sets out to write about Carriego, a friend of the Borges family whose poems depicted the Palermo on the other side of the fence, his book aims to paint a picture of that Palermo of his childhood that was not his.

I thought about the straight-shooting, tough Mongolian men on the other side of my own fence, and I thought about how similar my isolation was to Borges'. Some of my neighbors had scars from knife fights that might have been similar to those that took place more than a century ago on the dusty streets of Palermo. There was a vast and uninviting steppe beyond the edges of my little town that wasn't unlike the Argentine pampa. And there I was, sitting behind a fence, thinking that my Mongolian friends and neighbors were as foreign to me as Borges' gauchos, cuchillero, guapos and malevos. I sat behind my fence reading Borges, who sat behind his fence reading Stevenson.

I decided to revisit Evaristo Carriego for a couple of reasons: for one, I had bought a copy of Evaristo Carriego's Poesías completas last year and wanted to be able to read the poems discussed by Borges in their entirety; I'd also mentioned this book in another thread, with the idea that it would be a good introduction to Jorge Luis Borges, the Argentine. His short stories are sometimes about Argentina, it's true, but many of them take place in other corners of the world, or in worlds different from our own. In this book, he begins with a brief history of his neighborhood, Palermo, where Argentine dictator Juan Manuel de Rosas built his residence in the mid-1800s. He documents its slow incorporation into the city of Buenos Aires, a process that led to paved streets, new constructions, and a slow departure from its humble beginnings. He refers to Palermo as a suburb, a word that has a somewhat different connotation in English in the 21st century. When I hear the word suburb, I think endless strip malls and everybody driving their cars all the time. In this case, the word connotes poverty and isolation from the central, urban districts of the rapidly expanding city at the mouth of the Río de la Plata. Suburban Palermo was something like a semi-rural slum, with poor apartment communities (Argentine conventillos of that time sound quite similar to American project buildings) mixed with empty lots and open spaces. The community is plagued by social problems such as alcoholism, domestic violence and violent gangs led by neighborhood caudillos who employed cadres of men responsible for strongarming citizens into the voting booths and carrying out general dirty work. Borges, writing at the end of the 1920s, recognizes that the neighborhood is rapidly changing; in fact, by the end of the 20th century, it had become a hip, trendy, rapidly gentrifying part of town. But after noting some of the changes he's seen during his life, Borges returns to turn-of-the-century Palermo, where Evaristo Carriego was consorting with the roughnecks and writing poems that represented life on the outskirts.

His analysis of Carriego's poetry occupies two chapters, each devoted to one volume by the suburban poet. His poems are uniformly about life in the suburb of Palermo: women are battered by their husbands, who later brag about their violent acts to their neighborhood buddies; marriages are celebrated with parties full of guitar playing and family members nervous that things will get out of hand, instructing the groom not to drink too much and enlisting the help of a tough guy to keep the peace; women suffering from tuberculosis ruefully look back on that fleeting moment of romance so many years ago, long since replaced by solitude and handkerchiefs stained with blood; and skilled guitar players pick tunes in bars and on patios, to which dangerous men dance tango figures in pairs (women being discouraged from participating in such activities with men famed for their violence and skill with the knife). Borges admits that Carriego's poetry is not perfect, and he is not afraid to point out its shortcomings, the misplaced allusion to a musketeer at the end of an otherwise exemplary depiction of a guapo (a thug, more or less), or the clumsy collection of images assembled in "La guitarra," a poem deemed by Borges to be unworthy of the poets other, superior compositions. On the balance, though, Borges finds much to admire, and recognizes Carriego's particularly local, neighborhood genius. He was the first Argentine poet to write of the arrabal, that region between the civilization of the city and the barbary of the open plain, and Borges opines that his best poems will endure in the Argentine canon for their accurate depiction of life in that specific place and time.

As I understand it, Evaristo Carriego is the first volume of essays that Borges published and didn't later repudiate. The core texts of my edition (the prologues, the chapter on Palermo, the two chapters on the poet and his works, and the short conclusion) were published in 1930. The book was later reissued, adding a series of supplementary essays about particularly Argentine subjects such as horsemen, the card game truco, and the origins of the tango. These texts are the work of an older, more mature Borges, and they are uniformly excellent. I particularly enjoyed how, after pursuing more universal themes in his short stories of the 1930s and 40s, he returns now to the Argentine subjects but is able to identify each one as a local representation of a universal figure, symbol or custom: the troop of gauchos that attacked the city of Paraná in 1870, made a few victory laps and then rode back off into the countryside, are just another iteration of the Mongolian horsemen who swept through China and razed the great cities of the Jin Dynasty because they were disconcerted by them and did not understand them. The dagger that lies in a box in Borges' desk, inherited from his father and once held by Carriego, is one with the dagger that was used last night in a murder in Tacuarembó, and is also one with the dagger used to kill Caesar. And the hands that make up each game of truco, following the same ever-repeating combinations of cards, represent the generations of Argentines who played those same hands any number of times before. As I think about it, that's one of the reasons why I find this book particularly compelling: it starts with a young Borges, seeking to define the neigborhood on the other side of his childhood fence, and finding it in the poems of a man who used to come around the Borges household from time to time. That young Argentine then wrote stories that penetrated a universe full of possibilities, libraries with all possible books, lotteries that come to represent life iteslf, and men whose memories encompass all of human experience. Then, a few decades later, he returned to his favorite Argentine themes, looking at them with new eyes open to the infinite possibilities he pursued in his fictions.

Of course, I also liked it because it was so relatable to the world I saw on the other side of my fence in the Mongolian countryside. I liked to think of the people in that rural community as the last cowboys, with the vast Mongolian steppe the closest thing to a Wild West that I would ever hope to find. And Borges' essays helped me see the folks who would come into town every so often to buy supplies before returning to their herds as part of a greater, more universal tradition of horsemen who have populated the many steppes and pampas of the world, also reminding me that they often fall victim to civilizing forces, with Chinggis Khaan and his men eventually embracing the cities they conquered and growing old inside their walls. He also reminded me that, no matter how much time I spent hanging out with community members, learning Mongolian and drinking tea and watching Mongolians dominate Japanese Sumo Wrestling on poorly-transmitted TV broadcasts, I'd always be on the outside looking in, like he was as he sat in his family's library in a house surrounded by a fence in Palermo. ( )
1 vote msjohns615 | Aug 1, 2011 |
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Ho creduto, per anni, di essere cresciuto in un suburbio di Buenos Aires, suburbio di strade avventurose e di tramonti invisibili. A dire il vero sono cresciuto in un giardino dietro le lance di un'inferriata, e in una biblioteca d'innumerevoli volumi inglesi.
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