Exhibition on tour in Argentina takes literary look at Rising

Letter from Buenos Aires: Joyce and Borges at heart of double commemoration for Irish

 James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’:  Borges was an early fan of Ulysses –“A total reality teems vociferously in the pages”.

James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’: Borges was an early fan of Ulysses –“A total reality teems vociferously in the pages”.

 

Though he was only 16 when it happened and nowhere near it, writer Jorge Luis Borges is at the centre of an exhibition on the Easter Rising that recently left Buenos Aires to be brought to Argentina’s interior.

Mounted by Borges’s former workplace, Argentina’s national library, and the Irish Embassy in Buenos Aires, the exhibits include plenty of information on Patrick Pearse, James Connolly and the other personalities who took part in that extraordinary week a century ago.

However, its core is made up of a suggestive and eclectic collection of Irish and Argentinian books chosen to prod visitors into reflecting on the concept of independence during a year in which Argentina’s Irish community marks a double anniversary: along with the rest of the country it is celebrating the bicentenary of the Congress of Tucumán which formalised independence from Spain while also commemorating the Rising.

Among the display cases you can find collections by William Butler Yeats, translations of Pearse and Connolly as well as a 1972 Argentinian edition of Liam O ’Flaherty’s Easter Rising novel Insurrection, published during a dark period when political violence once again stalked both countries.

Literary figures

James Joyce

Borges’s classic 1944 short story collection Ficciones includes two stories which take Ireland’s struggle for independence as their setting. Georgie’s grasp of Irish history is a little shaky, though: in one tale he has the Black and Tans sacking an unnamed city in Connacht in 1922.

However, in both The Shape of the Sword and The Theme of the Traitor and the Hero (a new edition of which has been published to coincide with the exhibition, including a recently discovered alternative ending) he captures well – whether intentionally or otherwise – Irish revolutionaries’ eternal paranoia about informers.

As well as a major writer of fiction Borges was also a hugely influential critic and a deep admirer of Ireland’s literary tradition.

He was an early enthusiast of Flann O’Brien (“The magisterial influence of Joyce . . . is undeniable but not disproportionate”), loved Wilde (“I note a fact that his panegyrists seem not even to have suspected: the elementary and demonstrable fact that Wilde is nearly always right”) and Swift and Shaw as well who, along with Wilde, were included in a personal library of 75 books Borges drew up towards the end of his life.

For Borges, this Irish tradition provided a solution for South American writers confronted with the challenge of creating their own tradition in a new continent without being intimidated or consumed by the old continent’s vast canon.

As he put it in his seminal 1951 lecture The Argentine Writer and Tradition, it was the fact that Irish writers, even those descended from English colonists, felt themselves to be different “was enough to enable them to make innovations in English culture. I believe that Argentines, and South Americans in general, are in an analogous situation.”

And for Borges Joyce was the supreme Irish innovator, “less a man of letters than a literature”.

‘Unfathomable’

Ulysses

But as that “unfathomable” hints at, after being an early advocate of Joyce in Argentina, a country whose intelligentsia is still deeply engaged with him, Borges later went off the celebrated Dublin writer. By 1977 he was calling Ulysses “unreadable”, though he was still able to acknowledge that Joyce “brought a new music to English”.

The motive for this change of heart seems to have been the publication of Finnegans Wake. For the great creator of labyrinths, Joyce’s final novel was a literary maze too far: “I have examined it with some bewilderment.”

In that at least Borges is far from alone, though he was still able to acknowledge that in both Ulysses and Finnegans Wake this Irishman had taken on “the almost infinite English language”.

The centrepiece of the exhibition is Borges’s own annotated copy of a book that even the guardians of his infinite Library of Babel would have struggled to categorise.

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