Borges and the Eternal Orang-Utans
by Luis Fernando Verissimo (2000),
translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jill Costa.
The Harvill Press, 2004.
Edgar Allan Poe. Howard Phillips Lovecraft. Dr John Dee. Jorge Luis Borges. The King of Bohemia. How exactly are they and others linked? What does the angel Israfel’s lyre signify? And what precisely happened in Buenos Aires early in 1985 when a victim was found stabbed in a locked hotel room?
Brazilian author Verissimo (the surname translates as “very true”) has concocted a metafictional crime novel in which he – or rather his literary alter ego – conducts conversations with his idol Borges before the latter’s death in 1986, with a view to solving the riddle of how and why a certain Joachim Rotkopf was murdered.
As the novel abounds in literary and historical references, the fact that the murder happens at an Edgar Allan Poe conference naturally leads to discussions about Poe’s The Gold-Bug and The Murders in the Rue Morgue in Borges’s own library. Curiously, and perhaps notably, the Argentine’s own writings, particularly Death and the Compass, are rarely specified.
Borges and the Eternal Orang-Utans is at once a tribute to the late Argentinian author, a celebration of locked-room mysteries, an object lesson in how to plant red herrings and MacGuffins, a wry salute to conspiracy theories about the occult, and a humorous tale stuffed with puns and witty dialogue. It’s also as entertaining as a stage conjurer’s act, in which the reader tries to spot the sleight of hand, the distraction techniques and the misdirection, usually to no avail.
Verissimo also seems to be drawing on the fact that he was born exactly fifty years before Borges’s demise in 1986 to insert aspects of his own chronology into this fiction, thus cleverly muddying our perceptions of when to suspend disbelief. The fact that I correctly guessed the identity of the murderer a little over halfway through is no real credit to me because I still had no idea of the how and the why until the coda revealed all. Yet the brilliance of the telling meant I had no genuine sense of being cheated.
The murder happens at the 1985 Israfel Society Conference dedicated to all things Poe. The Society takes its name from a poem by the American writer in which we’re told
None sing so wildly well
As the angel Israfel,
And the giddy stars (so legends tell),
Ceasing their hymns, attend the spell
Of his voice, all mute.
And they say (the starry choirEdgar Allan Poe, Israfel
And the other listening things)
That Israfeli’s fire
Is owing to that lyre
By which he sits and sings—
The trembling living wire
Of those unusual strings.
The angel Israfel sings to his lyre, the strings of which are his own heartstrings. Verissimo is well aware of the English homophone of “lyre”, so we would be well advised to remember this as we pore over the pages of this intriguing, delightful novel and “attend the spell of his voice”. You don’t have to be a fan or even a reader of Borges, Poe, Lovecraft et al to enjoy this clever literary whodunit, but it certainly helps.
And then there are those infernal Orang-utans…