The theme of the assassin and hero


I always have a copy of Borges’ Labyrinths by my bedside; it’s a book that I dip into again and again. I’m not a collector, though I must own a thousand books, but if I were, the one book that I would collect would be Labyrinths. In miniature, it is a library in itself, almost as though, Aleph-like, it contains infinitude within finite space; for me, Labyrinths contains all other books, or pathways through them. I recently re-read Sterne’s Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, which draws directly on Cervantes; the Quixote is crucial to Borges’ ‘Pierre Menard’ and many other fabulations/ ficciones; the circulation Tristram Shandy > Don Quixote > Pierre Menard sends me back, as always, to Borges. I was interested to note that reference to Sterne’s work in Borges is fleeting; the online Borges Center website has only one passing reference to offer, in a short piece by Borges on Joyce’s Ulysses. The spirit of Sterne, albeit contra ‘gravity’ in a way that the poker-faced Borges rarely countenances, can be found in the Argentinian’s work, in its bibliophilia, its labyrinthine textures, its logomachia; also in its direct address to the reader, sleights of hand made possible by the first person.

I sometimes desire to know Spanish in order to read Borges without the lenses of translation, but then understand that to read Borges in translation is, paradoxically, to read him in the original. I compare the translations of ‘The Garden of Forking Paths’ in the Penguin Labyrinths, and the Grove Press Ficciones (I prefer the former, a preference almost entirely located in the phrase ‘hateful and odd’ that appears in the footnote on the first page of the story), a pleasure which would take on the colours of authenticity or faithfulness which do not, to me, seem appropriate. Borges was also an Anglophile, so to read his texts in the language of Chesterton, enmeshed in the recursive, deferring structures of another’s language, seems right. His Anglophilia points at the interesting relation between Argentina and Britain; as I live in Wales, the Patagonian Welsh community, Y Wladfa Gymreig, is of particular interest and indicates the strong cultural and familial connections that still exist (Scots, Irish as well as English settlement was very important); indeed, Borges, while not strictly an ‘Anglo-Argentine’, had an English grandmother. In this hagiographic week of Baroness Thatcher’s death, in a period when the fate of the Malvinas/Falklands has once again become a visible controversy, Borges’s magnificently deflationary description of the 1982 war as ‘two bald men fighting over a comb’ comes, once again, to mind. I imagine a bathetic version of Goya’s Duelo a garrotazos / 'Fight with cudgels', one of the Black Paintings, with bald Thatcher and bald Galtieri up to their knees in mire, squabbling over the comb, which probably lies, largely unnoticed, in the muck.  

This morning I turned to Borges’ ‘The Theme of the Traitor and the Hero’, and realised the extent to which my own fascination with the figure of the assassin in the 20th century is mirrored in Borges’s work. In ‘The Theme of the Traitor and the Hero’, Borges imagines a story in which the ‘narrator’ Ryan, writing a biography of his great-grandfather Kilpatrick, a hero of a presumed ‘Irish’ revolution in 1824 (the story itself insists that these national details are entirely arbitrary), discovers that Kilpatrick was a traitor as well as a hero, and his mysterious death, an assassination, was produced under his own orders, and the circumstances obscured to preserve the revolution itself. Ryan, in discovering this, perpetuates the myth, and buries ‘history’. The story has typical Borgesian themes – the interpenetration of texts and the ‘real’, history as repetition of mythic or archetypal scenes, time and things foretold. It is also a political fable, where the traitorous Kilpatrick becomes a hero of the revolution by an act of assassination/ sacrifice, the revolution burying the ‘truth’ of events to preserve the ideological fabric of the new polis. (John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance offers a similar narrative resolution in the Western genre.) Assassination also features centrally in my favourite Borges story, ‘The Garden of Forking Paths’, where the death of a man called Albert is meant to indicate the place of an Allied attack against German forces in WW1, but this is often critically occluded by an emphasis on the labyrinth as figure for the text itself. 

I realised that my own recurrent interest in the assassinations of the 1960s, and particularly an article I published in Foundation last year called ‘The Assassination Report’, is deeply indebted to a Borgesian conception of the act, a mythical transaction which intervenes in space and time. In trying to conceive of what might have informed the actions of Oswald or Charles Whitman, the sniper in the tower at the University of Texas at Austin in 1966, I returned to a kind of apocalypticism: that the assassination is only partly political, and that the smaller part; the assassin attempts to transform the universe, and achieve transcendence (or transcendent power). This can be traced back, of course, to Christ, and I am reminded of the brilliant scenes in Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita where Pilate interviews Jesus of Nazareth, and realises that Christ is exactly who he says he is: but cannot stop the crucifixion. As is often the way with me, it is only now, as I write, that these connections become clear (connections to another experimental piece called ‘One plus One plus One’, in the journal E.R.O.S., about the death of Brian Jones, too).  I realise that it isn’t the devil that has been haunting me, but Christ, Christ as assassin, all this time.

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