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Jorge Luis Borges : 'Traveling not only in space, but in time'

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina -- Twenty people clutching scrawled poems and flowers huddle together against the winter chill and wait patiently for an old, blind man to finish his nap and acknowledge their presence.

A tear slides down the cheek of a middle-aged woman when a perplexed, blinking Jorge Luis Borges emerges on the arm of a friend to thank the crowd of would-be poets and admirers for this greeting on his 85th birthday.

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'I have loved you for 34 years,' the woman tells Borges, arguably the best Spanish-language author alive.

In his modest downtown apartment a few days later, soaked in an afternoon sun that the long-blind writer cannot see but can feel on his shoulders, the author of 'The Aleph' and 'The Book of Sands' reflects on the sidewalk homage.

'I was taken aback. I was duly thankful, but at the same time rather amazed. Maybe on the next birthday they will have to meet in a church or in the cemetery, no?'

He tilts his head to sense whether his listener is shocked at his talk of death.

Borges has spent a lifetime trying to shock or at least unsettle his readers and listeners. He is also a word junkie -- a man who consults a half-dozen etymological dictionaries before settling on the precise word he wants to use.

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'Have you ever tried cocaine or marijuana? Tell me, did it do anything to you? Did you have any hallucinations?' Borges peppers a visitor with questions, bursting with curiosity. 'I tried marijuana and cocaine here and in Mexico some 30 years ago. I felt nothing whatsoever,' he says with unconcealed disappointment. 'I had a cold feeling in my nostrils and that was that.

'I was rather garrulous, though. I went on talking and talking. What I said was very trivial.

'In all, the drugs were nothing to write home about -- I decided to stick to mints.' Later he says, 'I tried whiskey once or twice and thought it was awful.

'I would like to try opium sometime, though, at least to honor De Quincy.'

Borges' curiosity is unflagging, whether it concerns drugs, spiritual experiences or life after death. A close friend calls him 'a hippie in a suit,' a 'tireless experimenter.'

On a visit to California a few years ago, Borges, then in his early 80s, took a ride in a hot air balloon and called it an 'unforgettable experience.'

'Up above we saw the sun rise over Napa Valley, we felt the winds in our faces,' he recalled afterwards. 'The wind carried us and did what it wanted with us. It was a sensation of traveling not only in space, but in time -- it felt like the 19th century.'

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Time. The concept appears whenever Borges speaks or writes.

Literature students the world over use the term 'Borgean' to describe a literary device using many sub-plots. Interaction of the sub-plots is possible only if time is circular, continuous. The 'circularity of time,' it is called.

In 'The Garden of the Forking Paths,' one of Borges' most celebrated short stories, two men who share a solid friendship suddenly become enemies and one must kill the other. Why? Because, as the victim tells his remorseful friend-turned-killer, 'time forks perpetually toward innumerable futures. In one of them I am your enemy.'

Borges' complex works are not for everyone, and he does not know himself for whom he writes.

'I never thought about that. Maybe I write for some of my personal friends.' He has only a handful of friends left.

His hands pass lovingly over the spines of valuable first editions and a 1911 set of Encyclopedia Brittanica. Borges looks more like an aging aristocrat than a writer of strange tales who is plagued by violent, recurring nightmares.

His everyday uniform is a crisp blue shirt, a navy blue suit and a sober blue-print tie, all laid out for him in the morning by his housekeeper, Fanny. She is the guardian of his privacy and has worked for the family for 29 years.

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Borges always carries a silver pocket watch with Roman numerals he cannot see. In more youthful days, he teased his failing sight by wearing neckties of bright yellow. 'But now I don't bother wearing the yellow ties because even that color has been denied me.'

Now, he sees colors only when he dreams.

'When I dream, the colors are bright, vivid, strong and sometimes intolerable -- rather brash colors.'

He suffers nightmares, some of them recurring relentlessly since childhood.

'I have a nightmare twice a week. They tend to be about being lost, frequently in a labyrinth. Or a dream I've often had is one in which I'm attacked by children or by dwarfs which are quite tiny but very strong, and although I try to beat them away, I'm very feeble and can't do anything about it.'

He shudders at the repeated visions in which he stares into a mirror and sees himself reflected as a terrifying Carnival mask. He wants to rip the mask off but is afraid that if he does, there will be a horrible, leprosy-defigured face underneath.

His nightmare images -- labyrinths, mirrors, flashing knives and ferocious tigers -- all are repeated in his literature.

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'Nightmares are a bad habit, eh? But a good creative force, I suppose,' he muses. ---

With works published in 23 languages, Borges rivals James Joyce and Franz Kafka as one of the most-translated authors in contemporary literature. Most literary awards have found their way into his hands, save the elusive Nobel Prize for Literature. He has, however, been a perennial candidate for that award since 1964.

Devoted to literature since the age of four, Borges was equally devoted to his mother, his constant companion and collaborator, until her death nine years ago. Her room is maintained just as it was when she died.

He is more comfortable around leather-bound volumes than around people and happier having classics re-read to him than tolerating the brash style of contemporary writers. Athough he has never read a newspaper and refuses to listen to the radio or television, Borges is remarkably in touch with the modern world and never hesitates to use his gift for language to aim a pointed barb at injustice or at crooked politicians -- a habit that makes him loved, hated and relevant.

Every day but Sunday, following a ritual breakfast of dry cornflakes, coffee with milk and tap water (in a land devoted to meat, he dislikes beef), Borges grabs his Irish blackthorn cane from Dublin and maneuvers himself to the well-worn sofa where he holds court until lunch time. An endless stream of journalists, aspiring writers, professors and diplomats badger him with questions and praise.

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'They always ask the same questions and I keep giving the same answers, but they don't seem to mind,' Borges notes. 'I keep repeating myself -- an old man can hardly be inventive, can he?'

But Borges is far from boring. He astonishes listeners by quoting dozens of writers in English, French, German, Italian, Old English, Japanese, Icelandic and Spanish. He is always ready to embark on a discussion of time, dreams, drugs, God, death, gangsters, and New Orleans jazz.

His love for literature is matched only by his compulsion toward outrageous political commentaries.

Long a believer that 'Argentina is unfit for democracy,' Borges had predicted that the powerful union-backed Peronist party, which he calls 'a bunch of gangsters,' would win last October's elections. When the rival party led by now-President Raul Alfonsin won an overwhelming victory, Borges was pleasantly shocked.

'I always believed what Carlyle said: that democracy was a kind of chaos born of ballot boxes,' Borges says. 'But now the Argentina of today is a miracle; we are permitted to have some hope.'

His commitment to democracy has not always been so convincing.

'I am in complete agreement with the current Chilean government,' Borges said after he was awarded an honorary doctorate in Chile in 1976. He had just paid a courtesy call on military president Augusto Pinochet.

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Biting the tip of his right index finger thoughtfully, Borges looks back on the incident. 'I was told later that the meeting was a mistake. Somebody from Stockholm with friends at the Academy told me that I was about to get the prize, but that when they got the news of my meeting with Pinochet, they thought I was a fascist, and that was that. I never thought the (Nobel) Committee would interpret that politically.'

He harbors few hopes of still winning the Nobel. 'There's a kind of tradition now, that I shouldn't be given the prize. I'm not expecting anything.'

The Pinochet affair is just one of Borges' many controversial forays into political commentary.

After the 1976 military coup that ousted President Isabel Peron from her chaotic, short-lived presidency, Borges pronounced: 'Finally, we have a government of gentlemen.'

Like many Argentines, Borges spent years unaware that thousands of people were kidnapped, tortured and killed as part of the military regime's campaign to wipe out leftist opposition. But one day in 1980, two women whose teenage children had disappeared came to see him, urging him to take a public stand.

'After hearing their story, I had no choice but to sign the petition. I could do it without running any real risk because I am more or less known. My conscience is clear.'

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In a dart aimed at the army only months before the Falkland Islands conflict, Borges said, 'the military men of Argentina today have never heard a rifle shot in their lives.' Months later, the ill-trained armed forces lost the 1982 war against Britain.

The Falklands war profoundly affected Borges, whose love for English literature and all things European had always caused people to question his loyalty to Argentina.

His characterization of the conflict as 'a war between two bald men fighting over a comb' delighted lovers of metaphor but outraged fellow citizens, who said he did not care about his own country.

Not true. 'I felt very sad about the whole thing,' Borges said after Argentina's surrender. 'Many Argentines viewed the war as a soccer game -- we were playing, and we would win. They did not even think of the war in terms of death, of the wounded, of the people being mutilated, until it was all over,' he recalls.

He wrote a poem called 'Juan Lopez and Juan Ward,' about two soldiers, one British and one Argentine. The British boy had studied Spanish in order to read Don Quixote the Argentine boy loved Joseph Conrad.

'They lived in a strange time,' Borges wrote. 'They could have been friends, but they saw each other only one time, face to face, on some too-famous islands. And each of them was Cain, and each one was Abel.'

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When the poem was published in a Buenos Aires newspaper, clippings of it appeared on office bulletin boards and in the wallets of ex-combatants. ---

Born Jorge Francisco Isidoro Luis Borges on August 24, 1899, Borges was the eldest son of a family that valued books above all other possessions. His father, Jorge, was a psychology professor and writer. His mother, Leonor, encouraged 'Georgie' to devour the classics, usually in English, that crowded the family library.

By six, he was determined to become a writer, and by eight, he had read Don Quixote. Educated in Switzerland and Spain, Borges learned German to read Schopenhauer and was involved in the Spanish Ultraista literary group for three years before returning to Argentina in 1921.

In Buenos Aires he helped found a literary magazine, Proa, and his father -- convinced of his son's talent, lent him 300 pesos to publish his first book of poems, 'Fervor of Buenos Aires.' Buoyed by favorable reviews, he turned to writing essays and short stories and published the 'Universal History of Infamy and the History of Eternity.' In the years that followed, his short stories included the first of his 'fantastic' tales -- 'Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius' and 'Garden of the Forking Paths.'

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His father supported him until his death in 1938, when Borges, 39 years old, took his first job in the municipal library.

In the 1940s he published his first major collections of short stories -- 'Fictions' and ' The Aleph' -- which 20 years later would be translated into English and French to bring him worldwide fame.

At age 47, Borges signed an anti-Peron petition that prompted the new populist government to demote him from municipal librarian to poultry inspector -- a job he promptly quit.

He responded at a dinner party given by fellow writers in his honor.

'Dictatorships promote oppression ... servility ... cruelty; but more abominable is that they promote idiocy. To combat this unhappy monotony is one of the writer's many duties,' he said.

These words marked the beginning of a four-decade verbal war against the Peronists, long the country's most powerful political party. When Peron was overthrown in 1955, Borges was named director of the National Library and his writings began to earn international praise.

In a twist of fate, Borges started the job just as his eyesight, always poor, failed. He was 56 years old.

'I wrote a poem about the irony of being surrounded by 900,000 books and not being able to read them,' Borges recalls. 'The poem said: 'They gave me at the same time, the books and the night.''

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Enveloped in darkness by cataracts and retina deterioration, Borges tried to learn Braille but had little patience for it and failed.

'I always knew I was going to be blind,' Borges says. 'My father, my paternal grandmother and my great-grandfather all died blind, so I knew that would also be my destiny.'

'My life would be quite different if I had learned Braille. I would be reading and writing all the time.' Borges sighs. 'Oh well, what can you do about it? It's rather late in the day, no?'

Borges' world was transformed into a luminous gray haze punctuated by moving shadows. Where he once devoured hundreds of books, he was forced to rely completely on his doting mother, who tirelessly re-read classics to him and took dictation of his writing.

Blindness forced him to concentrate strictly on the literature that interested him most. A fan of Joseph Conrad's novels, Rudyard Kipling's short stories and the works of Emerson, De Quincy, Melville, Stevenson and Chesterton, Borges openly shuns contemporary authors.

Asked who his favorite contemporary author is, Borges responds: 'How should I know? I haven't read anything new since 1955, so how can I tell? I guess I have read some -- Gabriel Garcia Marquez wrote a very fine novel -- 'One Hundred Years of Solitude.' The one book of his that I read.' ---

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Four hundred spectators applaud as Borges slowly shuffles up the aisle of an auditorium for a talk on 'literary imagination and the fate of books in the technical era.'

'I personally owe a great deal to dreams,' Borges tells the crowd. 'Dreams are the first form of art -- dreams and life are so closely connected that they cannot be viewed separately. It's one of poetry's oldest concepts,' he says.

Listeners lean forward in their chairs to hear Borges, his speech broken occasionally by stammers and suspenseful pauses.

'All of a sudden, as I'm dreaming, I'm made to see the beginning and the end of the story, and then I have to invent what happens in between,' he tells them. 'Don't be afraid to imagine things, to daydream. After all, the whole universe is out there full of possible material.'

Reminded that the talk was supposed to deal with the fate of books in the technical era, Borges is asked if books will ever disappear.

'No-o-o,' he replies, raising his white eyebrows, shocked by the notion. 'Books can feel very secure -- they will never go out of style. The book is sacred, not because of its content but because it is read with reverence.'

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As the listeners file out, private smiles curve lips upward in the thoughtful silence. They have just shared an hour with a thinker who has given them a license to dream.

Borges always has been surprised by, and uncomfortable with, his fame. He writes because 'I feel happy when I am reading and writing, when I am ringed in by books -- I love the smell of them.'

That his writings can have a profound effect on his readers makes him wriggle in discomfort. In his parable 'Borges and I,' the author writes of his lifelong struggle to reconcile his private and public selves.

'The other one, the one called Borges, is the one things happen to,' the parable reads. 'I live, let myself go on living, so that Borges may contrive his literature, and this literature justifies me.' #When Borges walks through the street of Buenos Aires on his way to lunch or a lecture, many people approach the familiar figure and say, 'Are you Borges?' He replies, 'Sometimes.' ---

As translations of his work reached bookshelves in Europe and the United States, literary prizes and honors began to pour in, including the International Publishers prize of 1961 -- shared with Samuel Beckett - the French Legion of Honor and more than a dozen honorary doctorates.

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'The world has been generous with me,' he concludes.

The generosity has not extended to material wealth.

'I should be living in the lap of luxury, but Im not,' Borges says. His small apartment, where he has lived for 40 years, is sparsely furnished with the family's old mahogany pieces. His own room has only a wrought-iron single bed, a tall bookcase filled with English prose and a blue ceramic tiger, given to him by his close friend and fellow writer Maria Kodama when he was dictating a short story called Blue Tigers to her.

His constant companions are the maid, Fanny, and and old white cat named Beppo after a Victorian gentleman in a Lord Byron novel.

Borges receives two government pensions -- one for his years as a professor of English and North American literature at the Buenos Aires university, and another from the national library. Total: about $250 a month. Sometimes he is paid $25 or so for a local lecture 'if I'm lucky, but it's rather undignified to ask for it, you know?'

He has no agent, but relies on a lawyer and his Argentine publisher to make sure his royalties -- 'a meager 10 percent of each book's price' -- are paid to him. He suspects that he ought to get more. 'My publisher is robbing me blind,' he claims vaguely.

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'I wonder if Robert Frost was a very wealthy man? He was one of the finest poets in the language. Was Carl Sandburg very rich? Sinclair Lewis must have been -- he sold novels ... by the million. I wonder...' his voice drifts off.

For a man who frets so much about money, however, Borges seems completely uninterested in material posession. 'He's never cared about clothes, objects, anything -- he has only the indispensible,' says one intimate friend.

The only items for which Borges happily will shell out his earnings are first editions of favorite books and travel.

'I travel a lot because I like to feel the countries I see,' he says. 'If I stay in Buenos Aires, my life is not rich -- I constantly must be telling stories or giving speeches,' he said recently. 'In contrast, when I travel I receive new impressions and in the long run, they are converted into literature.'

Or into music. As the day turns into evening, the shadows darken in Borges' sixth-floor apartment, but his eyes sense no change. He begins to croon, in a soft, gravelly voice, a jazz tune he fell in love with on a trip to the American South.

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Grasping his cane with both hands, he leans very close.

'I went down to St. James infirmary, to see my baby there, stretched out on a long, white table, so sweet, so cold, so bare ... she can look the whole wide world over, she'll never find a sweet man like me.'

Delighted with his mock Southern accent, he chuckles in pleasure. ---

'I do my best not to be sentimental, especially when I write. But those who think I have never known love are wrong. I can affirm that I am continuously in love. The first love of my life was Ava Gardner -- I sometimes watched her movies twice a day, and then couldn't wait for the next day to see her again,' Borges has said.

He refuses to comment on his unhappy marriage to Elsa, a childhood sweetheart, whom he married when he was in his sixties and divorced three bitter years later. 'To an indiscreet question, you'll get discreet silence,' is his only comment. But in unguarded moments he will acknowledge that 'I was married and I am happily divorced.'

Friends say his wife was a social climber who didn't understand Borges' work. Borges prefers to forget about it.

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'I've lost count of all the times I've been in love, but I think at this age its almost an anachronistic subject.'

Pulling himself up to the dining room table, Borges borrows a pen and scrawls his illegible signature -- a few jagged lines -- on the title page of 10 copies of his 'Complete Works' as a favor for a bookseller friend.

'I'm happiest when I'm around books. I try to be happy but of course it is difficult,' he says.

It turns out that Borges, whose best friend and collaborator for years was his mother, feels guilty for not being kinder to her in her final years.

'When she asked me if my eyesight was better, I told her very selfishly that it wasn't. It would have been far kinder for me to say a white lie and tell her I was recovering my sight. I don't know why I acted that way if I knew she was dying.'

'I felt that very keenly after her death, and I wrote a quite bad sonnet about it, saying 'I have committed the worst sin I the sin of unhappiness.' I said that every man has to be happy -- not for himself but for the sake of the people we love.'

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He keeps his mother's room exactly as it was when she died -- a mahogany four-poster bed, a table covered with knick-knacks and a poster on the wall from his U.S. lecture series.

The agnostic Borges whispers the Lord's Prayer every night before retiring -- a deathbed promise to his mother.

'It's a simple enough promise, no? I say it in Spanish although God must know Old English. He may be a scholar for all I know, and of course he has written all the books that exist,' Borges says, clearly not believing a word of what he says.

Including Borges' books?

'Yes, I guess so, and He should be ashamed of himself. Maybe he's very sorry about it.' Borges smiles at the thought.

'I dont want to be remembered, I want to be forgotten. I'm not so talented. I'm merely a good reader of Stevenson, Chesterton, Emerson - but I'm not a good writer. People will forget about me very soon, at least I hope so. Maybe some of my lines will be quoted and nobody will know who wrote them.'

'That would be the best thing, eh? For some of my lines to become part of common speech. That's far more important than people knowing I was born in 1899 and that I died in -- who knows -- maybe in 1984 or 1985.

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'At any moment it may happen.'

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