Today is the birthday (1899) of Jorge Francisco Isidoro Luis Borges, Argentine short story writer, poet, essayist, and social activist. His most famous books, Ficciones (1944) and El Aleph (1949), are compilations of short stories interconnected by common themes such as dreams, labyrinths, libraries, mirrors, animals, fictional writers, philosophy, religion, and God.
A great deal of Borges’ writing plays with the nature of reality. Many of his earlier works were hoaxes, such as book reviews of non-existent books, or short stories he wrote supposedly as translations of foreign language originals, but where no original existed. The latter were often convincing frauds because he did actually do translations of foreign works. In the 1930’s he began working in a genre which some credit him with inventing, sometimes known as “magical reality,” or “irreality,” influenced by philosophers of phenomenology and existentialism. One of his most influential short stories was “El jardín de senderos que se bifurcan” (“The Garden of Forking Paths”), published in 1941, in which he proposes that time is not linear but a is constructed out of a series of decisions we make, each of which is possible, with distinct outcomes, but, more importantly, with all the choices and their outcomes existing simultaneously somehow. Thus, the world consists of an infinite set of forked paths stretching ever outward, or, perhaps, forked paths that fold back in on themselves. Not easy to explain; go and read the story.
This notion of time and reality as non-linear is reflected in such later novels as The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles (1969) and Alain Robbe-Grillet’s 1953 murder mystery Les Gommes (The Erasers). It is even reasonable to assert that Borges invented the basic concept of the modern hypertext novel in which the reader, using a computerized text, follows the story to certain nodes and then, via a hypertext link, chooses where to go from there. The story unfolds according to the whim of the reader, and when done, the reader can return to the beginning and start again making different choices at each node.
Borges was deeply Argentine in his sensibilities, yet also addressed ideas that cut across cultures. He played with such reflexive puzzles as whether an author creates the story, or whether the story creates the author (sometimes called the “Borgesian Conundrum”). This is a phenomenon well known to writers (myself included), who often feel that a story is writing itself through them, and in the process changing them. Borges was also fascinated by the idea that words and stories can create a reality that has no link to the physical world, yet is real. Nowhere is this better exemplified than in his short story “Emma Zunz.”
The story is set in Buenos Aires and the locations are unmistakable. But the setting is just a convenience, and not germane to the story. At the opening, Emma Zunz has received news that her father, Manuel Maier, has committed suicide. Emma knows that his suicide was prompted by his disgrace and ruin when he was accused of embezzlement, an act actually perpetrated by his business partner, Loewenthal, who not only took the money but framed her father. Emma, who is an 18 year old virgin, foments a plan. First she visits a few sleazy bars pretending to be a prostitute and chooses a man who disgusts her to solicit. The deed is appalling to her, but she distances herself from it. Next she goes to Loewenthal’s office where she shoots him dead with a revolver. After it is over she disarranges the office, unbuttons Loewenthal’s clothing, and then calls the police. The story she tells is simple – she tells the police that something incredible has happened. Lowenthal had asked her to come to his office on a pretext, he had raped her so she had killed him. Borges ends the tale as follows:
“La historia era increíble, en efecto, pero se impuso a todos, porque sustancialmente era cierta. Verdadero era el tono de Emma Zunz, verdadero el pudor, verdadero el odio. Verdadero también era el ultraje que había padecido; sólo eran falsas las circunstancias, la hora y uno o dos nombres propios.”
(“In fact the story was incredible, but it impressed everyone because it was substantially true. True was Emma Zunz’s tone, true was her shame, true was her hate. True also was the outrage she had suffered; only the circumstances were false, the time, and one or two proper names.”)
Classic Borges. What is truth? What is a story? What is meaning? What is real?
Which Argentine recipe can I pull from my arsenal to honor Borges? Arroz con pollo argentino fits the bill, I think (just be sure to pronounce “pollo” as we do: the “ll” sounds like the “s” in “measure”). In the same way that Borges’ writing is Spanish with an Argentine twist, so our arroz con pollo is Spanish in origin, but done our way. The most important thing about the Argentine version is that it does not contain saffron or any other coloring/flavoring for the rice except the meat and vegetables. This is my version. If you want to be really Borgesian about it, make your own choices at every turn. You’ll get the idea from my ingredient list. Makes me want to experiment with the notion of a hyper-recipe.
Arroz con Pollo Argentino
1 2 lb (1 kilo) chicken
1 onion, peeled and chopped coarsely, or 1 leek chopped (optional)
½ green bell pepper, chopped coarsely, seeds and ribs removed (optional)
½ red bell pepper, chopped coarsely, seeds and ribs removed (optional)
2 cups long grain white rice
4 cups chicken broth (or water, or vegetable stock, or veal broth)
1 cup fresh peas – or frozen (both optional)
parsley for garnish (optional)
4 tbsps olive oil
Cut the chicken into eight parts, (2 thighs, 2 drumsticks, 4 breast pieces).
Brown the chicken pieces in oil over medium-high heat in batches in a heavy pot. Set aside.
Sauté the chopped pepper and onion in the pot until the onion is translucent.
Add the rice, stirring until slightly transparent.
Add the chicken, peas, and broth.
Simmer uncovered for 20 minutes over medium heat, stirring occasionally.
Cover the pot, remove from the heat and let rest for 5 minutes.
Stir the mixture and serve the chicken and rice sprinkled with chopped parsley.