Tuesday, November 15, 2011

A kind Brazilian wrote a mystery novel for me

The author is the Brazilian Luis Fernando Verissimo, the novel is Borges and the Eternal Orangutans (2000), the translator is the omnipresent Margaret Jull Costa, the page count is 129, the genre is ratiocinative mystery, the detective is Jorge Luis Borges, in the year before his death, and not Borges Luis Jorge or the poet Juan Carlos Borges, author of “botanical poems,” also characters in the novel.

That’s half of the title.  The orangutans invoke Edgar Allan Poe, and the novel is in fact a locked room mystery, like “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” except this time a famous Poe specialist is murdered in his hotel room at an international Poe conference in Buenos Aires.  Our narrator, Vogelstein, is a Brazilian translator who has been keen to meet Borges.  Because of the murder, he gets his wish.

“Borges will like the fact that there were three knives,” I said.

“Yes, Borges will,” sighed Cuervo, as if that were a further reason for his probable migraine. (78)

Verissimo was unable to squeeze a reference to H. P. Lovecraft into the title, even though Lovecraft plays a role in the novel, along with the magician John Dee and the usual esoteric nonsense associated with Borges: cryptography and the Kabbala and mirrors and such.

For some time now, Cuervo had been squirming in his armchair.

“Really, Jorge!” he said at last.  “Gozatoth, Soga-Tog…  You don’t believe in all that!”

“Don’t confuse the author with the characters,” you replied.  “I don’t believe in anything.  The important thing is that they do.”  (105)

“You” is Borges – the narrator actually addresses the novel to Borges, all of which is explained in the end when the “I” switches to Borges himself as he presents his ingenious and original solution to the crime, the clues to which have been slyly distributed through the novel.  The one truly ingenious thing about the book, actually, is that the complex solution perfectly coexists with a simple solution that is never mentioned.  Borges is surely aware of the easier answer, but rejects it as insufficiently interesting.  He also faults the entire novel, in its last line, for lacking “a minimum of verisimilitude,” where we find the actual author's actual name.

I have no clue what the reader unschooled in Borges and Lovecraft and Poe, the sane and settled reader who has of course read “The Gold-Bug” and “The Purloined Letter” but has not neurotically read through the Library of America Poe all the way to “’X-ing the Paragrab’” – which is obscure enough that Verissimo explains the reference – what this reader will get out of Borges and the Eternal Orangutans.   I fear it is a tad specialized.

For specialists, though, what fun.  Thanks, V!

Verissimo does not count for the Portuguese Reading Provocação.