A brilliantly unlikely travel caper lovingly recalls a road trip with a literary giant in yellow satin pyjamas
Jorge Luis Borges’s short story “Borges and I” is typical of the writer. Erudite and elliptical, succinct and self-referential, passionate and puzzling. In just a few closely packed pages, the Argentinian essayist and master storyteller links the prose of Robert Louis Stevenson with the soul of Julius Caesar, via London brothels and arched entrance halls, past strumming guitars and sword-slain kings, before ending at the feet of God himself. “I have dreamt the world as you dreamt your work, my Shakespeare, and among the forms in my dream are you, who like myself are many and no one.” So speaks the Lord from a whirlwind. Or is it Borges from his desk? Either way, “discuss”.
In this endearing, joyous, sharply written book, Jay Parini sets out to do precisely that: to take up his pen and discuss Borges, a winner of the Nobel prize and a Latin American literary giant. Despite its deceptively simple prose, Borges’s work defies ready explanation or – at times – even ready understanding. He took pleasure in flummoxing. Mercifully and rather marvellously, Parini embarks on his task not as a critic but as an actor. In classic Borgesian style, he opts to write himself into his own drama. Borges and Parini, master and student, driving around the Highlands of Scotland in a battered candy-red Morris Minor, the one blind, the other “shy and often terrified”, both lost in their own mazes, both open to the world.
Parini, a US novelist, academic and literary biographer, is not writing from a blank page. Fifty years ago, as a draft-dodging doctoral student in St Andrews, he met Borges in the flesh. The writer was briefly visiting the UK to collect a prize and give various lectures. He came to Scotland, in small part, to meet a certain Mr Singleton, a specialist in Anglo-Saxon riddles from Inverness. When Borges’s host was called away at short notice, Parini bravely stepped into his shoes as guide and aide. Thus began the start of a riotous, week-long jaunt through the Scottish hinterland.