7 Min read
Book rec, three Borges stories
Argentine composer and guitarist Carlos Pavan
Literature: song and story
Music in Prose
Probably you were expecting a young and handsome Argentine, but then here I am, the musician said as he stepped onto the stage.
Bald and middle-aged, Carlos Pavan wore a black oxford with black pants as performers do. He looked a bit like a monk with shaved head, the shadow of growth at the temples. His lean frame fell away and, to me, he was a music guru of the southern reaches: all hands and guitar and song.
Literature–he explains to the audience– informs and inspires us Argentines. He speaks with a Spanish accent, each word articulated. Song for Pavan is story. He cradles the guitar in his lap, his left leg high, with foot on a stool. The guitar is a rich golden hue, its head pointed towards the ceiling like a cello, nearly vertical. His wrist wraps around the neck, slender fingers on the strings.
The first suite is named for stories from Jorge Luis Borges’s Ficciones: El Sur and El Fin and Funes, el Memorioso.* The South (El Sur) is a tale of a man leaving the sanitorium and his former life in Buenos Aires. Pavan composes a traditional folk melody in three quarter time. He hopes to return to the rural home of his childhood. The opening chords lift into the air, then a sweet melody; it is nostalgic, lyrical.
This second story, The End (El Fin), is a tale spun from myth; two men sit in a bar as a third approaches from far far away, the gaucho Martin Fierro. Fate awaits them. The interlude opens with nimble, quick fingering in the upper register then slows. Into chords, resonance. The waiting.
The third song is about Ireneo Funes’s extraordinary memory. In the story, Funes is a human chronometer and can tell the exact time on demand, until the accident. A few years later, Funes is in the dark on a cot and Borges visits to retreive the books he lent to him.
Borges ask readers “to try to hear in their imagination the broken and staccato periods that astounded [him] that night.”
Ireneo began by enumerating, in Latin and Spanish, the cases of prodigious memory cited in the Historia Naturalis: Cyrus, king of the Persians, who could call every soldier in his armies by name; Mithridates Eupator, who administered justice in the twenty-two languages of his empire; Simonides, inventory of mnemotechny; Metrodorus, who practised the art of repeating faithfully what he heard once. With evident good faith Funes marvelled that such things should be considered marvellous. He told me that previous to the rainy afternoon when the blue-tinted horse threw him, he had been – like any Christian – blind, deaf-mute, somnambulistic, memoryless. (I tried to remind him of his precise perception of time, his memory for proper names; he paid no attention to me.) For nineteen years, he said, he had lived like a person in a dream: he looked without seeing, heard without hearing, forgot everything – almost everything. On falling from the horse, he lost consciousness; when he recovered it, the present was almost intolerable it was so rich and bright; the same was true of the most ancient and most trivial memories. A little later he realized that he was crippled. This fact scarcely interested him. He reasoned (or felt) that immobility was a minimum price to pay. And now, his perception and his memory were infallible.Funes el memorioso, Ficciones. Roughly halfway into the story.
Borges and the 19-year old Funes talk until, “The leery light of dawn entered the patio of packed earth.” Funes is a man with perfect memory who discusses memory in two languages, quoting from a volume of Pliny the Elder’s enyclopedic work which he received from Borges days before: of the king who knew the name of every soldier in all his armies; of the man who meted out justice in 22 languages; of Metrodorus who could repeat perfectly what he heard once.
These are awe-inspiring mental feats, but Funes was in awe for another reason: that such things should be considered marvelous. Before his fall from the horse, he felt that he had been blind, deaf-mute, and WAIT-FOR-IT, somnambulistic.
Gorgeous. The mot juste! the crescendo in syntax, that he had been walking while sleeping, memory-less. And get ready, all this in 19 years and with little interest that he was now crippled.
What happens to a man with perfect and infallible memory? No spoilers here!
When dawn breaks, Borges sees the face that belonged to that voice. Pavan plays this story as a milonga, a faster dance than tango in 2/4 time. It is also a candombe, a folk tune of the region where they meet. The story is on the edge, ongoing and fascinating. Borges, the author, notes in his foreward that The South is a ‘long metaphor for insomnia” and maybe so. It is an example of his genius. Borges was a polymath and polyglot, a founder of postmodernist literature. In some ways, Funes is a mirror to himself, to his extraordinary mind.
Borges is the narrator of Ficciones, or at least a version of Borges. And Pavan performed to a full auditorium in my town’s new library, the ideal venue to bring together music and literature. At home, I pull my two translations of Borges Ficciones from the TreeHouse shelf to read and reread these stories. The music gives them life as the story gives Pavan’s music life. I listen to Pavan on Spotify, to Spanish guitar, to instrumental guitar.
Song is story. Pavan strikes the opening chord, develops melody, point and counterpoint. His hands tap around the body of the guitar, a soft drum. At times he hums the melody as fingers of one hand work the strings and the other, the frets. Conflict builds into discord, complexity in layers of notes and meaning. The song resolves and returns to the opening chord.
I love acoustic, Pavan says, just a man and his guitar. And song. I tell students to take time, to create something of value. Debussy has so much going on, way ahead of us! Chinese and Japanese influences. Bartok! Wow, amazing. Pavan studied with the greats in Argentina, in New York. With pianist Pablo Ziegler.
When I play the opening lines from Pavan’s first composition on the piano, I feel The South, this melody, a calling to home.
*Carlos Pavan. From his site; Argentina born/Brooklyn based composer Carlos Pavan arrived to New York in 2000 to pursue musical studies with maestros Jorge Morel, Dave Smey (Brooklyn Conservatory) and Pablo Ziegler (A. Piazzolla’s pianist).
*Jorge Luis Borges. (Born August 24, 1899, Buenos Aires — died June 14, 1986, Geneva, Switzerland), Argentine poet, essayist, and short-story writer whose works became classics of 20th-century literature. Ficciones or The Fictions may be his most notable work and these three particular stories are mere pages in length. El Fin is three pages long. You can read the full stories in English at the links below. You may wish to read slowly and you may need to read more than once. Summaries and analyses abound online.
(1) The South
(2) The End
*For the curious, a bit more on JLB from Poetry Foundation: “Argentine author Jorge Luis Borges exerted a strong influence on the direction of literary fiction through his genre-bending metafictions, essays, and poetry. Borges was a founder, and principal practitioner, of postmodernist literature, a movement in which literature distances itself from life situations in favor of reflection on the creative process and critical self-examination. Widely read and profoundly erudite, Borges was a polymath who could discourse on the great literature of Europe and America and who assisted his translators as they brought his work into different languages. He was influenced by the work of such fantasists as Edgar Allan Poe and Franz Kafka, but his own fiction “combines literary and extraliterary genres in order to create a dynamic, electric genre,” to quote Alberto Julián Pérez in the Dictionary of Literary Biography. Pérez also noted that Borges’s work “constitutes, through his extreme linguistic conscience and a formal synthesis capable of representing the most varied ideas, an instance of supreme development in and renovation of narrative techniques. With his exemplary literary advances and the reflective sharpness of his metaliterature, he has effectively influenced the destiny of literature.“