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By David Butler


The Montréal Review, November 2011


Jorge Luis Borges




On a hot summer day in 1967, the blind and infirm Jorge Luis Borges challenged his healthier and much younger protégé, Italo Calvino, to a one hundred meter foot race on the main thoroughfare in Buenos Aires, Calle 9 de Julio. The wager was for five kilos of the city's finest blood sausage. Borges asked only that Calvino give him a one second head start. With that slight advantage, the Argentinian was sure that the Italian would never be able to catch up to him. After years of exploring the shadowy boundaries between philosophy and mysticism, logical paradox and literary phantasy, Borges had fallen victim to an occupational hazard common among writers who construct alternative universes out of strange and disembodied ideas. He was convinced that the truths he invented and imagined was necessarily true. Therefore, Borges had to win the race because he was persuaded that Zeno's paradox -- "proving" the impossibility of time and motion, -- was truer than the physical laws of the universe. Any head start made his victory a logical necessity. No matter how fast Calvino could run, before he could make up the distance gained by Borges in that one second he would first have to make up half of that distance and before that half of half of that distance; and so on.

When Calvino's read the letter from Borges proposing the ludicrous challenge, he was sure his old friend was going mad. He knew Borges better than any writer of his generation and they shared a fascination and obsessions with alternative worlds based on ideas. Calvino's first inclination was to politely decline the challenge and make discreet inquiries among mutual friends in Buenos Aires to see if they could find some professional help for Borges.

But as Calvino thought about it he wondered whether he could be more helpful if he accepted the challenge, won the race and forced Borges, in a moment of traumatic public humiliation, to see that in the everyday world, Zeno's fancies did not rule over the laws of time and space. Besides, he dearly loved Argentine blood sausage, and would do almost anything to escape the American tourist infested Roman streets in August. And to be honest, he also had to admit that it would be satisfying to defeat Borges and even cause him some public embarrassment. Calvino was envious. He felt he was not getting the recognition he deserved, because Borges had stolen so much of the limelight. Lately, the Argentinian was even being compared favorably to the modern literary gods: Joyce, Kafka and Proust. Calvino considered those comparisons absurd. Borges was a very fine and important writer but he believed he was every bit the Argentine's equal. Yet Calvino was still treated by the major critics like a talented disciple or protégé, rather than a major innovator in his own right. Yes, he thought, the public humiliation of losing badly to a foreigner might teach the old man a lesson in humility. Since losing the race, would also help cure Borges madness, he had no reason to feel any guilt.

So, Calvino accepted the challenge, and in a gesture of only apparent generosity, he offered to extend the lead to five seconds; an offer he knew Borges would consider an insult. The proud Argentinian countered by proposing only a half a second head start and by raising the stakes to ten kilos of sausage and one thousand American dollars. Calvino agreed and they decided the race would take place on August 15. The contest was widely publicized by the Argentinian press and the wagering was heavy. Calvino was the overwhelming favorite even among the most patriotic and chauvinistically literary Buenos Aires residents.

On the morning of the race, Borges -- for reasons he could not explain -- bypassed his usual breakfast café and walked instead towards the disreputable San Telmo district, whose tango bars and whorehouses he still dreamt about but had not visited in over forty years.  But the route was still so familiar to Borges that without the aid of his cane he easily made his way through fetid, labyrinthine streets to an ancient sidewalk café occupied only by a swarm of hungry flies and a man whistling an ancient milonga that Borges recognized but could not name

"I salute you, Jorge Luis, it has been too many years, since we have had the pleasure." That voice had been acid etched in the writer's memory. It was his old nemesis, the tango singer and ladies man, Carlos Gardel. Gardel had died in a plane crash twenty years earlier; the two men had never met. Neither of these indisputable facts surprised or troubled Borges. The encounter was inevitable. It had repeated over and over in his imagination and was forever outside the influence of mere history. The same flies, this café, this street; Borges had dreamed them all a thousand times. And it was always that same insufferable dandy, sitting motionless, delicately holding an espresso cup between his thumb and forefinger. Gardel's image was refracted many times by the shards of broken glass on the café floor that had held the aguardiente Gardel had sipped only moments earlier. As he always did, Borges imagined the famous Tanguero wearing an impeccably pressed white, linen suit, a peacock blue silk shirt and a black fedora insouciantly tipped slightly to the left side. It not did matter that the real Gardel, even in summer, typically wore a worsted American style business suit, more appropriate for a September day in Cleveland.

"Borges, your race with the Italian is the talk of Buenos Aires. All the whores in town are betting against you. These putas say that if the blind librarian runs as badly as he screws, Calvino will be back in Rome napping before Borges can hobble ten meters."

It was early morning but the heat was already oppressive. Too hot even for the emaciated dog lying inside the café to give up the comfort of his cool stone floor and approach the two now occupied tables to beg for scraps.

The writer would not let such abuse go unchallenged. He stands up and reaches for the pistola hidden under his morning cloak. Gardel laughs:

"Should I cower from the bullet of an old and blind librarian who writes pretentious stories no one understands except Gringo professors? Waiter, bring me another Aguadiente; no need to hurry, the esteemed doctor will want more time to play the fool before he dies, unless he decides he values his life above a minor insult to his shriveled cojones." 

But Borges will not back off "Gardel you have lived and you will die as nothing more than a hack. Such a pity, that your tired cliché about my manhood will have to suffice to be your your epithet." Borges un-cocks the gun, "Tango minstrel, I need no eyes to aim true. My nose will guide my shot precisely to where the stink is most pungent. And as the arrow of the Trojan Paris struck sure the mortal heel of Achilles, my missile will pierce the inner chamber of your corrupted, putrefied heart."

The gun exploded; but alas for Borges, the cruel gods, so severe and unforgiving in their literary judgments, were most displeased. His Homeric references were considered forced and presumptuous. To cast the mincing, greasy Tango star in the role of the greatest Greek hero was an insult to Achilles revered memory. The allusion to Zeno's Paradox was oblique and mystifying. And why the use of the redundant "corrupted" and putrefied? These serious breaches of taste would not be tolerated. And so the gods will play their games and turn our own deluded fancies against us.

The bullet from Borges' pistola would never reach its destination. First, it needed to travel half the distance between the smoking gun and the tenor's vitally beating heart, and before that half the distance between the gun and the swarm of flies hovering at the midpoint between the ancient enemies; and before that, and so on.

Gardel, favored by the Gods on that day, would not be subject to the laws of Zeno's logical paradox, only those of nature. Before the flies could detect the new sweet scent, the singer had surgically sliced the poet completely down the middle. The blood spurted more copiously than if the knife had been taken to ten kilos of the best Argentine sausage.

"Adios muchacho, companero de mi vida," Gardel cried out to the dying Borges, quoting the tag line from his most famous song. He then tipped his hat and wiped his now slightly moistened brow, leaving some black hair dye residue on his handkerchief. The reactions of the audience -- the now alert, ravenous flies and the three emaciated dogs who were slowly approaching the café -- were not recorded. 

And what of Calvino? The more Italo thought about the race, the better he felt about the boost it would give to his literary reputation. Overconfident, he spent the last two days and nights before the contest consuming vast amounts of alcohol and drugs with an assortment of the Roman litterati and glitterati. Calvino's flight to Buenos Aires took off just as the unconscious novelist, sprawled on a couch in Fellini's apartment, dreamt he was crossing the victory line to tumultuous applause and could already smell the blood, meat and fat from the prize sausage.


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