Friday, March 13, 2009

The Mirror and the Mask

There's a story by Jorge Luis Borges called El Espejo y la Máscara in which a victorious Dark Age king gives a poet a one-year deadline to mint his deeds in words. After the resulting panegyric has been sung to much critical acclaim, the king makes the following observations:

"All that is well, and yet nothing has happened. In our veins the blood has beat no faster. Our hands have gone not for our bows. No one's cheeks have paled. No one has bellowed out a battle cry, no one has stood to meet the Viking attack. In one year, poet, we shall gather to apppalud another poem. As a sign of our thanks please take this mirror, which is of silver."

The next year the poet returns and gives a shakier performance, "visibly unsure, omitting certain passges as though he himself did not entirely understand them, or did not wish to profane them...The prepositions were foreign to common usage. Harsheness vied with sweetness. The metaphors were arbitrary, or so they seeemed."

The king however, is even more pleased with the piece:

"This poem surpasses all that has gone before and obliterates it. It holds one in thrall, it thrills, it dazzles. It will pass over the heads of the ignorant, and their praises will not be yours..."

Presenting the poet with a mask of gold in token of his gratitude, the king goes on to commission a third work, for "in fables the number three is first above all others."

Twelve months on and the wordsmith is back, visibly troubled. He tells the king that he has indeed composed the ode as requested, but wishes that Christ himself had forbidden it, and now feels that he dare not recite it before the court. Yet at his ruler's insistence the poet speaks a single line. Together they then mouth it several times more in a state of awe. The king then provides the following critical review:

"In the year's of my youth...I sailed towards the setting sun. On an island there, I saw silver greyhounds that hunted golden boars to their death. On another we were feted with the fragrance of magic apples. On yet another I saw walls of fire. On the most remote of all, there was a vaulted river that hung from the sky, and in its waters swam fish and sailing ships. Those were marvels but they do not compare with your poem, which somehow contains them all."

His final gift is a dagger.

For me, these three poems are representative of the three paradigmatic streams within modern Latin American Literature and one can amuse onself by attempting to locate each of the region's great authors in their proper place along this continuum.

García Márquez
, perhaps uniquely, has made a career from consciously straddling all three. Fuentes and Vargas Llosa are occasional experimenters bobbling on the second stream, though both periodically slip back towards the populism of the first.

himself, and Roberto Bolaño, strive beyond them towards the fateful third way. But no writer really belongs to the ultimate category of pure genius as securely as say Isabel Allende belongs to the first, happily commercial and unchallenging. Cortázar, Borges and Bolaño are linked by the use of a fragmentary and episodic literature to catch glimpses of forbidden wisdom. And every tale told by the wily old Argentine, this one included, is like a node in a network of literary transcendence.

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