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A Road Trip With One of the 20th Century’s Greatest Writers


BORGES AND ME
An Encounter
By Jay Parini

This is a memoir about writers: a young poet, his middle-aged mentor and, at the story’s pale bright center, a 71-year-old wizard of language. Wishing to escape the draft and possible deployment to Vietnam (the year is 1970), as well as his suffocating family in Pennsylvania, the young narrator, Jay Parini, enrolls in a doctoral program at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.

He arrives in a funk, unsure of his direction and with his mother’s anxious voice of caution echoing unpleasantly in his mind. Good fortune strikes, however, in the form of a friendship with the writer Alastair Reid. Reid combines a Scot’s sternness with a beatnik’s anti-bourgeois cheer. He is an excellent host who regales his guests with hearty stews, wine and hash-laced brownies. He is also the translator of the Argentine poet, essayist and story writer Jorge Luis Borges, who, as it happens, will soon be coming to stay with him in St. Andrews.

When Borges appears, near blind and dressed in a lumpy brown suit and tie (the modest uniform of a middle-class librarian and writer, he once explained), the memoir takes flight. He happily devours Reid’s brownies and, under their intoxicating influence, swings his cane at the North Sea like a benign Arthurian sword that holds the key to life’s mysteries and riddles. In his presence, the mundane disappears and reality explodes with new meaning. Though Borges is at the height of his fame, Parini has never heard of him and is slow to succumb to the charm of his eccentricities.

When a family emergency summons Reid to London, he asks Parini to look after Borges until he returns. Brimming with energy, Borges proposes they take a road trip through the Highlands. Parini will supply transportation and play the part of his companion’s eyes, describing what he sees. Borges has never been to Scotland, but his knowledge of its history and literature is profound. “Just to read a map of the Highlands is to recite poetry,” he says. He has taught himself Anglo-Saxon and knows the ancient epics by heart. Their vocabulary of hard real things — “sword,” “seed,” “shield,” “wood” — entrances him, and he has spent a lifetime bending Spanish to that tactile linguistic ideal.

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