Sunday, May 04, 2008

Borges and the Eternal Orang-utans: Luis Fernando Verissimo

It breaks one of the cardinal rules of detective fiction, if such rules are indeed sacrosanct. (No, I’m not telling you which one it breaks, lest I be accused of a similar act.) The plot is almost entirely dependent on the misinterpretations of the narrator, and those are more than a touch amateurish. The style is epistolatory, which means there is a bit too much of the narrator in the narrative. Despite all that, Borges and the Eternal Orang-utans is a delightful read.

A simple linear locked-room murder mystery on the face of it, Borges is in the form of a series of letters from the narrator (identified just as Seňor Vogelstein) to Jorge Luis Borges, who also plays the “detective” and solves the mystery in the end and “writes” the last letter, the classical denouement. Edgar Allan Poe is an integral element of the book and forms the backdrop and “contributes” to the references.

The narrator, a wide-eyed admirer of both Borges and Poe (in that order), is a fifty-year old who has led a cloistered life, “without adventures or surprises”, who has had a “sheltered life spent among books.” He gets an invitation to attend the 1985 Israfel Society Conference, a meeting of Edgar Allan Poe specialists. There he bumps into, among others, Borges, and then, more significantly (at least as far the plot of this book is concerned), into the corpse of a murdered man. The deciphering of this murder forms the rest of the book.

So what makes Borges such a delightful read?

For one, there is the richness of the inter-textual references, dominated, surprise surprise, by Borges and Poe. Including the obvious ones of the orang-utan and the raven of Poe and the labyrinth, the mirrors and most significantly, the tail, of Borges, Verissimo goes deep, especially into Borges’ writings, making it clear what the objective of the book is: an unashamed tribute to the Argentinean great. These references, especially when they appear in the conversations, both about the murder and otherwise, form the backbone of the book and its raison d’être.

The light-hearted tone that prevails throughout is another reason that contributes to the success of Borges. Here, the narrative style adopted by Verissimo comes in handy. A letter lets you be personal, opinionated and expressive, and that is what Verissimo is in this book. The result: you get the feeling you’re listening to a fireside story. Of course, the tenseness of a murder investigation is missing, but then, this is not your typical murder mystery – the unravelling of the crime is almost incidental to the overall objective of the book.

A third, possibly related aspect of the book is the role of the narrator. Apart from being the reporter on the scene, he also is one of the main investigators (such as they are); he acts as Borges’ mouthpiece; and he is a bit more than all that.

Luis Fernando Verissimo is not exactly a household name whereabouts I live or come from. So why did I pick up Borges and the Eternal Orang-utans? Was Borges the attraction? Was it Poe? Or was it a wild hunch? Whatever it was, it was a worthy pick. Few things in life are more pleasurable than a chance pick turning out to be a riveting read. And Borges was precisely that. If only Verissimo had used a different technique than the narrator confusing the position of the dead body successively as X, O, W, M and ◊, Borges and the Eternal Orang-utans could well have become a real classic.

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