Although I had recently received a master’s degree in psychology in the early ‘70’s, I was still quite unsure of my future inasmuch as I had held hidden dreams of becoming a writer. I enrolled in a short story course at New York University, not for credit, but merely to investigate if and where my talents may lie in this area. The professor recommended that I read a short story by Jorge Luis Borges, titled Death and the Compass. Around that time, I began writing a novel that to this day remains with me, unpublished. I, like many other authors to be, recognized that the likelihood of making a living as a writer, certainly would be extremely difficult, if at all practical. This realization made it easier for me to choose a much more reliable means of sustenance and so, while working full time as a probation officer, I subsequently, pursued and received a doctorate in psychology.
Be that as it may, my reading Death and the Compass turned out to be an eye-opening experience. This was a detective story never encountered by me before. I discovered that Borges had been a fan of Edgar Allan Poe, regarded by many as the founder of the mystery story. The plot in Poe’s narratives is structured around the detective who, through penetrating analysis, successfully traces the clues of the murder to the killer. Insofar as Borges was an avid reader, he may have seen Eric Ambler’s novel, A Coffin for Dimitrius, that was published in 1939, three years before Death and the Compass appeared. Whereas in Ambler’s novel, the protagonist is a writer who is pursuing clues in better understanding the character of the evil Dimitrius, Borges’ story focuses on the detective, Erik Lonrot. Lonrot’s modus operandi is similar to that of Poe’s Auguste Dupin, who was Poe’s master at solving esoteric clues left by the villain at the scene of the crimes committed.
Borges invites me as the reader along with Lonrot who, with his sleuthing skills, perseveres in uncovering the riddles awaiting him at each crime site. What appears to be inscrutable to his subordinates at the local police department, only stimulates Lonrot to more assiduously study the bizarre manner by which the killer thinks. As he goes about dissecting so thoroughly the clues at each murder scene, I visualized him as a modern-day Sherlock, attending to his everyday business of solving crimes. I am entranced by his great analytical mind and, with each page read, I feel myself becoming more and more a part of the chase. My emotional attachment to Lonrot and his search for the bad guy brought me a sense of pleasure that, ironically, became that much greater when, both Lonrot and I, surprisingly stumbled over the story’s denouement. The unexpected and the unfamiliar ending made this story that much more pleasurable to me.
Although I have enjoyed many other stories by Borges, I will limit my comments to one other favorite story of mine: The Aleph. As I read this story, I sensed that I was stepping into two parallel universes: the classic and the contemporary. The story begins with the narrator, Borges himself, declaring that Beatriz Viterbo, a woman he respected and viewed with great awe, had suddenly passed away. Because her birthday was on April 30th, he vowed to visit her home on that date every year and meet with her first cousin, Carlos Argentino Daneri.
I was immediately taken by the name Daneri and his cousin Beatriz. Was this a story of Dante, and his unquenchable love for the beautiful Beatrice Portinari? But Carlos was such a mundane character and in Borges’ eyes a dilettante “whose ideas seemed inept to me, their exposition so pompous and vast.” The magic and beauty of the diaphanous Beatriz in contrast to the vain glory of her cousin Carlos gave the story a comically absurd effect.
Danieri boasts to Borges about his writing skills. After looking at his poetry, Borges refrains from judgment and hopes not to hear from Daneri any time too soon. But a few weeks later Daneri calls Borges, and in an agitated voice, tells him that his house will be razed to make room for the expansion of a confectionary owed by two powerful men of the town. When Borges visits Danieri, he studies the portrait of Beatriz in wonderment and is told by Danieri that the ineffable Aleph is in the wine cellar. I descended with Borges into the cellar thinking like him that this may be a trap as it is dark, dank and eerie, a place that Edgar Allan Poe would so often visit in his brutal tales: I immediately thought of the Pit and the Pendulum.
Borges discovers the Aleph when the world opens up to him in all directions as he sees “the earth in the Aleph and in the earth the Aleph” and so much more. In fact, it has been conjectured by some that the infinite vastness of the Aleph is Dante himself. But Borges, in a playful manner, refuses to allow us to believe that he would write in such an abstruse way when he says: “Critics have detected Beatrice Portinari in Beatriz Viterbo, Dante in Daneri, and the descent into hell in the descent into the cellar. I am, of course, duly grateful for these unlooked-for gifts.”
In spite of the fact that I never became a writer, I am most thankful that my professor opened my mind to the many labyrinths so well imagined by Mr. Borges. I recommend that those of you, who have seen this essay, treat yourself and read Borges’ perhaps, like I, starting off with the Death and the Compass.