Author Ilan Sta­vans has three new books out this year, and will be intro­duc­ing each one to Jew­ish Book Coun­cil read­ers as part of the Vis­it­ing Scribe series here on The ProsenPeo­ple.

Arguably the most accom­plished of all Jew­ish Latin Amer­i­can writ­ers — of all Latin Amer­i­can writ­ers, peri­od! — wasn’t Jew­ish: it was Jorge Luis Borges.

Read­ing Borges, teach­ing him, explor­ing the roots of his world­view, is one of my life’s joys. I have mem­o­rized entire pas­sages. Intro­duc­ing it to new read­ers brings me enor­mous joy. In essays, sto­ries, and poems, he dis­sect­ed the conun­drum of Jew­ish­ness through­out the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry. A hand­ful of those pieces — Emma Zunz,” The Secret Mir­a­cle,” Baruch Spin­oza,” The Golem,” Death and the Com­pass,” and Deutch­es Requiem,” among them — are superb. True, his view tends toward the alle­gor­i­cal. Jews, for Borges, are ves­sels of mem­o­ry. They are at once insid­ers and out­siders in cul­ture, at once wit­ness­es and par­tic­i­pants. Their devo­tion to lan­guages and the intel­lec­tu­al is the result of a tran­sient jour­ney through a labyrinthine diaspora.

He spoke against Nazism dur­ing the Sec­ond World War, when few in Argenti­na dared to; he vis­it­ed Israel and eulo­gized the small dessert nation; he was a friend of Alber­to Ger­chunoff and oth­er fig­ures in his country’s Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty; he was among the first in the Span­ish-speak­ing world to pro­mote Franz Kaf­ka; he pur­sued the study of Kab­bal­ah and was fas­ci­nat­ed with Has­sidic sto­ries; he befriend­ed Ger­shom Scholem and wrote about S. Y. Agnon; and he stood up to antisemitism.

In 1933, Borges was accused of lov­ing Jew­ish­ness too much, and of being Jew­ish him­self. He respond­ed swift­ly: Borges Aceve­do is my name. Ramos Mejía, in a note to the fifth chap­ter of Rosas and His time, lists the fam­i­ly names in Buenos Aires at that time in order to demon­strate that all, or almost all, come from Judeo-Por­tuguese stock.’ Aceve­do’ is includ­ed in the list.” He added: Scythi­ans, Baby­lo­ni­ans, Per­sians, Egyp­tians, Huns, Van­dals, Ostro­goths, Ethiopi­ans, Illyr­i­ans, Paphlag­o­ni­ans, Sar­ma­tians, Medes, Ottomans, Berbers, Britons, Libyians, Cyclopes, or Lap­iths. The nights of Alexan­dria, of Baby­lon, of Carthage, of Mem­phis, nev­er suc­ceed­ed in engen­der­ing a sin­gle grand­fa­ther; it was only to the tribes of the bitu­mi­nous Dead Sea that this gift was granted.”

The Tal­mud (Trac­tate Sotah, 44a) states that a man should built a house, plant a vine­yard, and mar­ry a wife. The order seems skewed. At any rate, at fifty-five I have done two of the three, and am hap­py. Plant­i­ng a vine­yard isn’t in my pre­vue. For years I dreamed of anoth­er option, or else two: write a book about Don Quixote and anoth­er on Borges.

My book Quixote: The Nov­el and the Worldappeared last year. Borges, the Jew (SUNY) is just out. I’m at peace. Well, with one excep­tion: I would love to edit a vol­ume of all, or almost all, his Phi­lo-Semit­ic writ­ing. That’s a bonus, though.

At the end of Borges, the Jew, I include a sec­tion called Borges y yo,” in which I com­pare var­i­ous trans­la­tions of his mini-essay Borges and I,” includ­ing one of my own. Then I quote a pas­sage of my auto­bi­og­ra­phy, On Bor­rowed Words: A Mem­oir of Lan­guage:

When I began to write, Borges had a deci­sive influ­ence. His pure, pre­cise, almost math­e­mat­i­cal style; his intel­li­gent plots; his abhor­rence of ver­bor­rea—the over­flow of words with­out end or rea­son, still a com­mon mal­a­dy in Span­ish lit­er­a­ture today. He, more than any­one before (includ­ing the mod­ernista poet from Nicaragua, Rubén Darío), had taught a les­son: lit­er­a­ture ought to be a con­duit for ideas. But his les­son was hard to absorb, if only because His­pan­ic civ­i­liza­tion is so uncon­cerned with ideas, so irri­ta­ble about debate, so dis­in­ter­est­ed in sys­tem­at­ic inquiry. Life is too rough, too unfin­ished to be wast­ed on philo­soph­i­cal dis­qui­si­tion. It is not by chance, of course, that Borges was an Argen­tine. It couldn’t have been oth­er­wise, for Argenti­na per­ceives itself — or rather, it used to per­ceive itself — as a Euro­pean enclave in the South­ern Hemi­sphere. Buenos Aires, its cit­i­zens would tell you in the 1940s, is the cap­i­tal of the world, with Paris as a provin­cial sec­ond best.

As soon as I dis­cov­ered Borges, I real­ized, much as oth­ers have, that I had to own him. I acquired every edi­tion I could put my hands on, not only in Span­ish but in their French, Eng­lish, Ital­ian, Ger­man, and Hebrew trans­la­tions, as well as copies of the Argen­tine month­ly Sur, were his best work was orig­i­nal­ly fea­tured, and inter­views in jour­nals. My col­lec­tion began to grow as I embarked on my own first expe­ri­ences in lit­er­a­ture: tight descrip­tions, brief sto­ries, pas­sion­less lit­er­ary essays. Rather quick­ly the influ­ence he exert­ed on me became obvi­ous. In con­so­la­tion, I would para­phrase for myself the famous line from Deca­logue of the Per­fect Sto­ry­teller” — in Span­ish its title is infi­nite­ly bet­ter: Decál­o­go del per­fec­to cuen­tista” — by Hora­cio Quiroga, a cel­e­brat­ed if trag­ic turn-of-the-cen­tu­ry Uruguayan author: to be born, a young writer should imi­tate his beloved mas­ters as much as pos­si­ble. The max­im, I real­ize today, is not with­out dan­ger­ous impli­ca­tions; it has encour­aged deriv­a­tive­ness and per­haps even pla­gia­rism in Latin Amer­i­can let­ters. But I was blind to such views. My only hope as a lit­ter­at­uer was not to be like Borges, but to be Borges. How absurd that sounds now!

Influ­ence turned into anx­i­ety, and anx­i­ety into dis­com­fort. Would I ever have my own voice? One des­per­ate after­noon, inca­pable of draft­ing a sin­gle line I could call my own, I brought down all the Borges titles I owned, piled them in the garage, poured gaso­line over them, and set them on fire. It was a form of revenge, a sacra­men­tal act of des­per­a­tion: the strug­gle to be born, to own a place of one’s own, to be like no one else — or, at least, unlike Borges. The flames shot up at first, and even­tu­al­ly, slow­ly, died down. I saw the vol­umes, between fifty and sev­en­ty in total, turn bright, then brown, then become ash. I smiled, think­ing, in embar­rass­ment, of Hitler’s Ger­many, Pinochet’s Chile, and Mao’s Chi­na. I thought of Elias Canetti’s Auto-da-Fé and Ray Bradbury’s Fahren­heit 451. I thought of scores of prayer books, Tal­muds, and oth­er rab­bini­cal works burnt by the Holy Inqui­si­tion in Spain and the New World, in places not far from my home. And I also invoked Borges’ own essay, The Wall and the Books,” about Shih Huang Ti, the first emper­or of Chi­na, a con­tem­po­rary of Han­ni­bal, whose reign was marked by the con­struc­tion of the Wall of Chi­na, and also by the cam­paign to urn all his­to­ry books. Shih Huang Ti saw him­self as a new begin­ning. His­to­ry need­ed to start over.

In Borges, the Jew, I con­clude by say­ing that it might be iron­ic that a non-Jew would teach a Jew to rec­og­nize his own her­itage. But isn’t that what we Jews have always done, shap­ing our sense of self accord­ing to the needs of the envi­ron­ment? (Jean-Paul Sartre’s slim book Anti-Semi­te and Jew comes to mind, in which the French philoso­pher argues, polem­i­cal­ly, that Jews need anti­semites to be them­selves and vice versa.)

Borges was my rab­bini­cal mas­ter in a yeshi­va the size of the globe, and I his ten­ta­tive pupil.

Ilan Sta­vans is a Lewis-Sebring Pro­fes­sor in Latin Amer­i­can and Lati­no Cul­ture at Amherst Col­lege and the author of many books of both Jew­ish and non­sec­tar­i­an interests.

Relat­ed Content:

Ilan Sta­vans is the pub­lish­er of Rest­less Books and a pas­sion­ate lover of dic­tio­nar­ies, with a col­lec­tion of over three hun­dred now housed in his per­son­al col­lec­tion at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Penn­syl­va­nia. He has pub­lished an assort­ment of books about lan­guage, includ­ing Spang­lish: The Mak­ing of a New Amer­i­can Lan­guage (2003), Dic­tio­nary Days: A Defin­ing Pas­sion (2005), Res­ur­rect­ing Hebrew (2008), and How Yid­dish Changed Amer­i­ca and How Amer­i­ca Changed Yid­dish (2020). He serves as a con­sul­tant to the Oxford Eng­lish Dic­tio­nary and lives in Amherst, Mass.