The first time I read “Pierre Menard, author of the Quixote,” I was seventeen and in my freshman year in college in Lima. As anyone who reads Borges for the first time, I was dazzled by the story of a fictional French writer who, at the beginning of the twentieth century, wants to write once again, without plagiarizing or recovering it from memory, Cervantes’s Don Quixote. The most memorable passage of the story comes when the narrator, a friend of Menard’s, and very likely a French fascist, analyzes one paragraph from the novel in two different ways. First, assuming that Cervantes is the author, he concludes that the paragraph is rhetorical and verbose, when written by a seventeenth-century Spaniard. Later, assuming the author is Pierre Menard, a contemporary right-wing surrealist poet, he finds that the same words are fantastically counterintuitive and herald a new form of understanding the world. Since the narrator is a fascist, one suspects that his interpretation is an overinterpretation, the grotesque imposition of ideas that were not there in the original text.
Sometime later, I read two more stories by Borges. “Deutsches Requiem,” which is a confession written by a German officer in an extermination camp in Poland. His name is Otto Dietrich zur Linde and his tale serves as a justification of Nazism as an attempt to destroy all known forms of civilization to inaugurate a new era in the history of humanity. It is clear to the reader that the officer is possessed by a perverse notion of heroism. He is, of course, a fanatic. In Germany’s downfall he sees a sort of sacrifice that, in spite of the defeat, has served to instigate horror in the world and believes that this sacrifice, sooner or later, will contribute to the arrival of the monstrous paradise dreamt by the Nazis. When he tries to explain the sentiment of pleasure that this idea produces in him, he writes, “Let heaven exist, though my place be in hell.”
The other story, “The Library of Babel,” is an allegory of the universe as an infinite library that contains every book in the human language and, therefore, contains every answer for every question in the world. The narrator is a librarian who has spent his life searching for some of those answers. He has never found any of them or perhaps he has but has failed to recognize them. Still, he hopes someone, one day, will encounter those answers and will understand them. Then it is alright, he thinks. “Let heaven exist, though my place be in hell,” he says.
Although I read those short stories in that particular order, they were written by Borges in a different one. “Pierre Menard, author of the Quixote” is indeed the oldest, published in 1939. But “The Library of Babel” was written in 1941 and “Deutsches Requiem” in 1946. This means that the phrase about heaven and hell was put by Borges first in the mouth of the blind librarian from Babel, in 1941, and was monstrously repeated and perverted in the lips of the Nazi war criminal in 1946. The librarian’s hope that one day humanity will escape its dark labyrinth of unanswered questions can also be said by a Nazi to celebrate the imminent destruction of all cultures. Ideas are dangerous. History transforms everything and can deform and corrupt everything.
I bought those books by Borges during my first year in college, as I said. It was 1984. I had a friend, a couple of years older than me, a serious kid, badly dressed, with old shoes, the son of a Peruvian father and a Chinese mother. He had an omnivorous inclination for old books. In downtown Lima, in the old Colonial part of the city, there was a long avenue, la avenida Grau, where hundreds of antique book sellers had gathered. Carrying hundreds of thousands of second-hand books, they had invaded and taken over four blocks of the curbside. They had in stock everything from cheap popular editions to invaluable treasures that they, ignorant of what they had in their possession, would sell at laughable prices. Perfect for me, because I was always penniless but had the dream of building a good collection, and perfect for my friend, who was knowledgeable beyond his years in matters regarding manuscripts, incunabula, collectors’ items and bibliographic wonders that were impossible to find anywhere else. I, indeed, built my personal library there over the years, buying my first two or three thousand books in the middle of the street. My friend, who was much wiser, used to buy with an educated hunter’s eye, and the collection he assembled became, after only half a decade, the most marvelous private library in Peru. The jewel of his crown was a copy of the first edition of the second part of the Quixote, one of only two that exist in the world. The other one belongs to the Spanish crown and is, until today, at the National Library in Madrid.
I have lived in the United States for fourteen years. When I arrived, I brought with me only a handful of my books. The rest of them, the thousands I bought at those precarious little kiosks in Grau Avenue, I left behind in Lima. By that time, my friend had passed away. A passion crime, committed by him, followed by years in a mental asylum, had driven him first into a deep depression and then to his death. I never saw his library again. The antique booksellers of Grau Avenue were evicted in the late nineties by some mayor and they needed to reconstruct their moth and paper fair in some dangerous and far away neighborhood that I dared visit only twice. They are still there, on the Amazonas Avenue, weakly triumphing over the gray, sad and impoverished city, selling their books to a new generation of bibliophiles. The last time I saw them, they seemed to me the last defensive trench of a moribund but tenacious and brave culture, the culture of printed books.
During these years, in Ithaca, New York and Brunswick, Maine, where I live now, I have bought once again many of the books I bought in those remote years, in different versions and editions, books that arrive by mail from unknown bookstores that I suspect do not exist, in parts of the country I have never been to, with yellow “used” stickers, impersonal, books that no human hand puts in mine, books without a context, that seem to materialize at my door.
I read them and remember the first time I read them, how they impressed me, and I think of how, in my new copies, they seem to be different books, with different meanings. Now they tell me other things, or they do not tell me anything at all, certainly not what they told me then. The words seem weaker, immaterial, vague, powerless. What a contrast compared with the thrill they provoked in me when I saw those words in the yellow pages of the volumes I bought on Grau Avenue, in the second-hand copies I used to start reading while walking down the street or climbing on the bus, books that, later, when I placed them in my bookshelves at home, used to retain the smell of the street. It has happened to me that I have attempted to reread, in a new copy, a novel I originally read in a book bought on Grau Avenue, and the novel has left me unmoved, has not touched me in the same way. Later, in Lima, during a visit, I have reread the novel in my old copy and I have been able to feel it again, although not as vividly as the first time. Perhaps it is impossible to relive that impression. Time is like one of those fascists in Borges’s short stories: it insists on stealing meaning from us and from everything, in breaking down all sense, it insists on deforming what we would like to keep unchanged.
Years after my friend died, I wrote a novel, The Antiquarian, loosely based on his story. While I was writing it, I traveled to Lima and went to Grau Avenue. That was when I found out that the book vendors were no longer there. In my novel, perhaps because of that, the avenue feels ghostlike, a phantasm, the memory of something that will never be tangible again, a reflection, like an after-image. Around that time I found a photograph of my friend sitting on a sofa at his library, with that impossible copy of the Quixote in his hands. I remembered that, in the Quixote, at least in Cervantes’s Quixote, the narrator does not invent the story of the mad bibliophile. Instead, he reads it and transcribes it from an old manuscript he buys from a book vendor in a street market, an ancestor of the one on Grau Avenue that my friend and I used to visit and ransack together. I know there is a mystery in it that I should understand. At this time, that mystery has not been revealed to me. But someone—perhaps my friend?—knows it. And that is alright. Let heaven exist, though my place be in hell.
Faverón Patriau’s The Antiquarian is a new release from Black Cat (Grove Atlantic).
Gustavo Faverón Patriau is the director of the Latin American Studies Program and an associate professor of Romance languages at Bowdoin College. He is the author of two books of literary theory and has edited anthologies on Roberto Bolaño and Peruvian literature. As a journalist and a literary and social critic, his articles and essays have appeared around the world.