This book, admittedly, was something thrust upon me by my husband. After all the wretchedly depressing books I’ve read lately I had remarked I needed something fun and entertaining but not insipid, nor sugary sweet. And so I got this 136 page book tossed at me with nothing more of an explanation than, “It’s fun, witty, intelligent and a very quick read.” Master salesman that he is I took it to heart and finished it in a matter of days.
Borges and the Eternal Orangutans by Luis Fernando Verissimo is a short and intriguing little book that begins with a story of a man and his hero. Our narrator is the fictional character called Vogelstein and he takes us on a journey from Porto Alegre to Buenos Aires. He is traveling, not solely to meet up with the Israfel Society to discuss Poe, but in the vain hope of seeing his hero- Borges.
The tale begins innocently enough as, I suppose, many murder mysteries do. We learn of Vogelstein’s life, beginning with the memories of his mother giving him into the care of his aunt so she might stay in Germany in the care and protection of her lover, an officer of the Reich. Unfortunately she wound up abandoned by the officer and so met her demise thus leaving our story teller without birth parents. The beauty of this particular book is in the genius of its craftsmanship. It continuously feels as though it’s all happening in the now but it is, in actuality, being relayed through a letter to Borges reconstructing the whole affair from the conference.
The murder is of a catankerous old man named Rotkopf who fails to endear himself to everyone at the conference. Although I must admit the character hardly seems like the type to have even endeavored to do such a thing as he quite intentionally set out to discredit at least one of the attendees in quite a public fashion. Vogelstein then brings us through that fateful evening of accompanying the man to his hotel room, having drinks together and then, subsequently, finding the man dead a few hours later after a cryptic phone call.
While that is of course the event the entire plot rests upon the investigation made by the intellectuals, in this case Vogelstein and Borges, is what pulls the reader in. Take this passage for example (and, please, bear with me- it’s a bit longer of a passage than I normally include in reviews):
“…Apparently there’s a double of myself loose in Buenos Aires. It’s one of the myths people have invented about me. The last time I could see myself clearly in the mirror, my image had fled, in order to save itself from my decline. Friends tell me that they sometimes see my double in the street, and that he has very acute eyesight, so acute that he can see the craters on the Moon without the aid of a telescope, but that he lacks imagination. It must be some kind of standard compensation awarded only to authors, imagination instead of sight. Think of Joyce.” (Borges)
“And Homer.” (Vogelstein)
“Was Akhenaten blind?”
“He ended up blind. They say he mutiliated himself after some tale of incest and guilt, like Oedipus. It seems the Egyptians were in the habit of being Greeks before their time, especially the pharaohs.”
“But Akhenaten wasn’t a writer.”
“He was the one who thought up monotheism and invented God. He might not have been a writer, but he had a gift for creating good characters…”
The whole book is written with dialogue of this style. It isn’t all about religion, deities or other such controversial subject matters but it is unexpectedly existential in scope with amazing literary references about Poe, Lovecraft and the Necronomicon. How that all relates to solving the murder I’ll leave up to you to ascertain when you read the book but, suffice it to say, all of these conversations matter.
I can’t recommend the book enough. It was not emotionally moving, or even gripping in the traditional sense, but it was brilliantly clever and a very fun read.