Jorge Luis Borges, Ireland, and Historical Fiction by Séamus Sweeney

This is a blog post written for Alt Hist by Séamus Sweeney about the writer Jorge Luis Borges and Historical Fiction, with particular focus on Ireland. Séamus is the author of Dublin Can Be Heaven from Alt Hist 3.

Jorge Luis Borges, Ireland, and Historical Fiction

Jorge Luís Borges 1951
Jorge Luís Borges 1951 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Argentinean writer Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986) was one of the key figures in world literature during the twentieth century. Among his favourite themes was the recurrence of tales in different forms over the centuries, the strange way our present modifies and is modified by the past (“Kafka and His Precursors” is probably the best-known example of this), the recurrence of tropes and tales in different forms over the centuries, and how literature, history and life intersect each other. Borges also pioneered what is now a familiar postmodern literary strategy; the use of fictional scholarly apparatus such as footnotes referring to invented sources.

Much of Borges’ writing is, broadly speaking, “historical” in setting. One of the last things he could be described as being was a naturalist realist. He often expressed a certain contempt for “local colour” and the ostentatious use of purportedly local slang terms. He was thinking particular of tendencies in Argentinian writing; in the story “Streetcorner Man”, essentially a tale of the Buenos Aires underworld, one of the criminal characters declares that he and his associates were always too busy for the affectation of street slang.

Both “Theme of the Traitor and The Hero” and “The Shape of the Scar” utilise framing devices in which a narrator – anonymous in the former story, addressed as “Borges” at one point in the latter – introduces the story. The main narrative in both cases is set against the backdrop of the Irish struggle for Independence. “The Shape of the Scar” takes place in 1922, and while (as discussed below), details of the story do not correspond with that date, they do relate to the War of Independence-Civil War era of 1919-22.

“Theme of the Traitor and the Hero” is, at first glance, a much more explicitly anachronistic story than “The Shape of the Scar”. Here the events described take place in 1824, and end with a successful Irish rebellion against British rule. This is obviously more or less a century out of date – but the reader is well prepared for a story in which fidelity to the historical record is not a priority by the introduction to the second paragraph:

“The action takes place in an oppressed and tenacious country: Poland, Ireland, the Venetian Republic, some South American or Balkan state…. Or rather it has taken place, since the narrator is contemporary. Let us say (for narrative convenience) Ireland; let us say in 1824.”

The framing device further distances the reader from the expectations of strict realism, and moors the story in a literary-philosophical context.  The story begins:

 “under the notable influence of Chesterton (contriver and embellisher of elegant mysteries) and the palace counsellor Leibniz (inventor of the pre-established harmony), in my idle afternoons I have imagined this story plot which I shall perhaps write some day and which already justifies me somehow.”

Ryan, the protagonist of this “story plot”, is:

“the great-grandson of the young, the heroic, the beautiful, the assassinated Fergus Kilpatrick, whose grave was mysteriously violated, whose name illustrated the verses of Browning and Hugo, whose statue presides over a grey hill amid red marshes.”

Kilpatrick, “a secret and glorious captain of conspirators”, was the Moses of the 1824 Irish rebellion, glimpsing but not reaching the promised land. Assassinated on the eve of the victorious revolt, “the British police never found the killer; the historians maintain that this scarcely soils their good reputation, since it was probably the police themselves who had him killed.” Kilpatrick’s martyrdom helped ensure the success of the revolt; an echo, perhaps, of the executed leaders of the 1916 Rising whose killings turned the Irish populace, who had jeered the rebels as they were led off to prison, decisively in favour of the so called “Sinn Fein Rebellion” (a misnomer since the Sinn Fein party had nothing to do with the Rising whatsoever)

The centenary of Kilpatrick’s death approaches; Ryan is working on his now-venerated ancestor’s biography. The murder is still unsolved; but more than this “other facers of the enigma disturb Ryan. They are of a cyclic nature: they seem to repeat or combine events of remote regions, of remote regions.” Like Julius Caesar (in Plutarch and thereby Shakespeare’s account) Kilpatrick received a note en route to the place of assassination warning him of the plot against him. Stranger still, certain words spoken to Kilpatrick echo Macbeth; Ryan thinks of Spengler, of various cosmological theories, of universal histories.  The narrative continues, and like other Borges stories (particularly “Death and The Compass”), and in what was a familiar technique of Chesterton, the seemingly mystical turns out to have an all too human explanation. The conspirators became aware of a traitor amongst them (a familiar occurrence in Irish history) Kilpatrick orders Nolan, a trusted lieutenant, to investigate; Nolan conclusively proves Kilpatrick himself is the traitor.

The revolutionary committee decides, on discovering Kilpatrick’s perfidy, that to reveal the betrayal would be a scandal the movement might not survive; better to try and ensure that the traitor’s death serve the cause by creating a martyr. In this story, the theme of recurrence, of life imitating literature, is explicit.  Nolan was also author of a paper on the Swiss tradition of Festspiele (massive theatrical re-enactments with a cast of entire towns and valleys, and a setting exactly corresponding to where the action occurred) and also translated Shakespeare into Gaelic (an unlikely venture in the 1820s; much more likely during the Gaelic Revival later in the 19th Century)

Nolan tries to develop a drama that will cement Kilpatrick in the public mind as a martyr; working under pressure, he is forced to incorporate elements of Shakespeare. The narrator observes that “the passages imitated from Shakespeare are the least dramatic; Ryan suspects that the author interpolated them so that in the future someone might hit upon the truth.” And there is another characteristic Borgesian note struck when we read that “on the 6th of August, 1824, in a theatre box with funereal curtains prefiguring Lincoln’s, a long-desired bullet entered the breast of the traitor and hero, who, amid two effusions of sudden blood, was scarcely able to articulate a few foreseen words.” The fictional literary past echoes not only a further-back fictional literary past but also presages the history of our own past.

Illustrating the flexibility of the story’s structure, it was adapted by Bernardo Bertolucci into “The Spider’s Stratagem”, with the “hero” an anti-Mussolini luminary rather than an Irish nationalist. It is also interesting to note how precise Borges’ literary references (Browning, Hugo, Condorcet, Spengler, Hesiod) are, by contrast with the flouting of conventional chronology.

The Shape of the Sword (also translated as “The Form of The Sword”) is at first glance a more “historical” story. Here, the framing device is the narrator’s description of an encounter with an “Englishman” who farms some land in La Cordoba (one of the ironies of Borges’ work is that, for all the contempt for local colour, he could be exactingly specific in the settings of his stories.) This Englishman has a crescent-shape scar; with his employees he is “severe to the point of cruelty, but scrupulously just.” Every so often he confines himself to his own quarters for alcoholic sprees that last some days, from which he emerges shaken.

The narrator tries to ingratiate himself with his host by declaring that the spirit of England was incomparable; the response is one of agreement, but a wry admission that he is not an Englishman but an Irishman. The narrator later asks how this Irishman got his scar; the story which follows is the real narrative of the story.

The Irishman recounts his involvement with a band of rebels during the Irish War of Independence-Civil War years. Fighting in “one of the cities of Connacht”, the band is joined by “an affiliate from Munster … John Vincent Moon”

“He was scarcely twenty years old. He was slender and flaccid at the same time; he gave the uncomfortable impression of being invertebrate. He had studied with fervour and with vanity nearly every page of Lord knows what Communist manual; he made use of dialectical materialism to put an end to any discussion whatever. The reasons one can have for hating another man, or for loving him, are infinite: Moon reduced the history of the universe to a sordid economic conflict.  He affirmed that the revolution was predestined to succeed. I told him that for a gentleman only lost causes should be attractive.”

A contrast is quickly established between Moon’s arrogant Marxist certainty and his cowardice:

“We moved into an unpaved street; a soldier, huge in the firelight, came out of a burning hut. Crying out, he ordered us to stop. I quickened my pace; my companion did not follow. I turned around: John Vincent Moon was motionless, fascinated, as if energized by fear. I then ran back and knocked the soldier to the ground with one blow, shook Vincent Moon, insulted him and ordered him to follow. I had to take him by the arm; the passion of fear had rendered him helpless. We fled into the night pierced by flames. A rifle volley reached out for us, and a bullet nicked Moon’s right shoulder; as we were fleeing amid pines, he broke out in weak sobbing … Moon, trembling, his mouth parched, murmured that the events of the night were interesting.   I dressed his wound and brought him a cup of tea; I was able to determine that his ‘wound’ was superficial.”

Indeed, Moon’s dogmatism seems to be, in part, a defence against this cowardice;

“By the following day Moon had recovered his poise. He accepted a cigarette and subjected me to a severe interrogation on the ‘economic resources of our revolutionary party.’ His questions were very lucid; I told him (truthfully) that the situation was serious. Deep bursts of rifle fire agitated the south. I told Moon our comrades were waiting for us. My overcoat and my revolver were in my room; when I returned, I found Moon stretched out on the sofa, his eyes closed. He imagined he had a fever; he invoked a painful spasm in his shoulder. At that moment I understood that his cowardice was irreparable.”

Once again, the themes of betrayal and the role of the informer are to the fore. The hitherto unnamed Irishman recounts returning to the commandeered house the rebels have occupied, only to overhear Moon selling them and in particular him out to the authorities.

“Here my story is confused and becomes lost. I know that I pursued the informer along the black, nightmarish halls and along deep stairways of dizziness. Moon knew the house very well, much better than I. One or two times I lost him. I cornered him before the soldiers stopped me. From one of the general’s collections of arms I tore a cutlass with that half moon I carved into his face forever a half moon of blood. Borges, to you, a stranger I have made this confession. Your contempt does not grieve me so much.”

The reason this contempt is expected is then revealed: the storyteller and John Vincent Moon are one and the same: “Don’t you see that I carry written on my face the mark of my infamy? I have told you the story thus so that you would hear me to the end. I denounced the man who protected me. I am Vincent Moon. Now despise me.” Earlier, on learning of Moon’s cowardice, the storyteller reflects that:

“This frightened man mortified me, as if I were the coward, not Vincent Moon. Whatever one man does, it is as if all men did it. For that reason it is not unfair that one disobedience in a garden should contaminate all humanity; for that reason it is not unjust that the crucifixion of a single Jew should be sufficient to save it. Perhaps Schopenhauer was right. I am all other men, any man is all men, Shakespeare is in some manner the miserable John Vincent Moon.”

These words, which reflect a recurring preoccupation of Borges with the common identity of all men, take on a further irony with the final revelation. Perhaps, too, Borges has identified a subtler reason for the obloquy in which informers are held, and a reason why they are almost universally regarded as contemptible. Certainly the informer remained (and remains) a homo sacer in Irish republican circles – the reader can be referred to the fate of Denis Donaldson if they doubt that this persists in the age of the Stormont Assembly and an established Peace Process.

The chronological deviations here are subtler; the action, we are told, takes place in 1922 and “the fall of 1923”, at which point the Irish War of Independence has ended and the Civil War had begun. The story ends with “the Black and Tans” sacking the city; again this is anachronistic as the Black and Tans’ deployment would have ended with the War of Independence.

Born in 1899, Borges’ youth and young manhood coincided with those years from 1916 to 1923 which saw the modern Irish state’s birth. This, notwithstanding various complications, was the first successful anti-colonial struggle of the Twentieth Century; one which caught the imagination of publics worldwide. The two stories discussed above illustrate, perhaps, the extent to which Borges’ imagination was captured by the struggle for Irish freedom. They also illustrate how he used the raw material of such historical events in radically transformative ways. Joyce famously said that “in the particular is the universal”; Borges upended that credo so the universality of his fabulism became particular to many settings in many lands.

Borges pioneered a certain technique common in alternative history; that of the pseudo-footnote, the fictional piece of academic arcana, which can anchor a text as “historical” by use of the trappings of professional historians. He also represents a certain approach to historical fiction which could be termed anti-realist realism; by avoiding local colour, by avoiding an excess of detail, by avoiding evidence of hours of factual research, one actually achieves a more authentic depiction of a thought-world foreign to our own selves. And that is surely one plausible definition of historical fiction, and one plausible definition of alternate historical fiction also.

Text of Theme of The Traitor and The Hero available here:

Text of The Shape of the Sword available here:

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