Monday, 25 April 2011

The murders, the mirror and the serpentines

A detective called Erik Lönnrot is a man of prodigious intelligence; one of a type we love, and whom we imagine solving fiendish crosswords in minutes and secretly writing perfect sestinas and villanelles.
He believes the solution to a murder is hidden in the arcana of ancient Hebrew theology. Perhaps through vanity, he throws out clues to his theory and modus operandi in a newspaper interview and names an obscure volume which an opportunist bookseller immediately finds and prominently displays.
A second and a third murder (although the third in the series is perplexed by the absence of a corpse) seem to confirm his conjectures.
But the interview, clues and the book have furnished the assassin with the means to construct the otherwise absent mystery for himself, and thus conduct Lönnrot through the second and third murders to the fourth, where the assassin gets a revenge which has eluded and frustrated him for years by shooting the detective.
Lönnrot’s prosaic superior, Treviranus, has been right all along. The first murder was the accident of a bungled burglary. Some words on a sheet of paper in the victim’s room – words which set Lönnrot’s speculations in motion, “the first letter of the name has been uttered” – were written not by the assassin, but by the victim, a Jewish scholar, who was interrupted when an intruder broke in.
This summarises a short story by (I would say “of course”, but that sounds rather pretentious) the great Argentinean author Jorge Luis Borges. It is among my favourites and its title is Death and the Compass.
Over several decades, not because of amnesia, but because I have an insatiable appetite for Borges, I have acquired three English versions of the story in three books which offer different collections of his work. I picked up the most recent a little over a month ago.
On a hot afternoon this weekend I thought it a suitably Borgesian enterprise to take all three into a shady room and compare the translations.
Then I remembered that in the first two there was a place where my mind always got snagged and my suspended disbelief was temporarily – and irritably – de-suspended.
Here’s the passage, from the first translator, Anthony Kerrigan:
In the tortuous Rue de Toulon, as they stepped on the dead serpentines of the dawn, Treviranus said:
“And supposing the story of this night were a sham?”
Erik Lönnrot smiled...

And from the second translator, Donald Yates:
Out on the twisted rue de Toulon, as they were treading on the dead serpentines of the dawn, Treviranus said:
“And what if all this business tonight were just a mock rehearsal?”
Erik Lönnrot smiled...

The fact that this, the third “murder”, was indeed “a sham”, or, better, a “mock rehearsal” for the assassination of Lönnrot, passed me by as I wondered what on earth were these “dead serpentines of the dawn” that both translators had the two detectives stepping or treading on as the sun came up.
Neither the Oxford Dictionary, nor Webster’s, nor Chambers’ were any help. A “serpentine” is the name of an ancient gun – impossible; it is a form of dark green granite, veined with orangey-red – implausible that the pavements of a Buenos Aires suburb would be made out of such a rock, and even if they were, why “dead”? dust? the light? or, something “serpentine” is snake-like in form – so could the “dead serpentines” actually be little nocturnal snakes, regularly run over by the night traffic of the city? Or plants with snaking tendrils? But if so, why were they all dead at dawn?
You will have guessed that the latest translation, by Andrew Hurley, ended my confusion at last, some thirty years after it had begun:
Out in the twisting rue de Toulon, as they walked through the dawn’s dead streamers and confetti, Treviranus said...
Of course. The third “murder” takes place during the Buenos Aires carnival.
A little Google translation backwards and forwards between Spanish and English was instructive. The English word “streamers” translates into Spanish as “serpentas”, but the Spanish word “serpanta” translates into English as “serpentine.” Kerrigan and Yates, coming across the Spanish word “serpantas”, had gone to their dictionaries and looked up “serpanta”, and then, presumably, scratched their heads, went back from singular to plural, wrote down “serpentines” and hoped no-one would notice.
Hurley was more thorough, and having got “streamers” from “serpantas”, triumphantly wrote down the right word then added, with a flourish, “and confetti” in a Borgesian gesture pointing back to his predecessors (whom he will undoubtedly have consulted), and encouraging we Borgesians to observe the black hole of ignorance both had embedded in their translations.
Harold Bloom says (The Anxiety of Influence) that all artists struggle to overthrow their precursors. Here, perhaps, was an example in miniature.
Later that afternoon I was re-reading the foreword Borges wrote for his collection Artifices, where he writes: “Schopenhauer, de Quincy, Stevenson, Mauthner, Shaw, Chesteron, Léon Bloy – this is the heterogeneous list of authors I am continually re-reading.”
Mauthner? Bloy? Who were they? Wikipedia wasn’t much help with Mauthner: 1849-1923, German journalist and philosopher, published a critique of language, traces of influence on Wittgenstein; that’s about it.
The Bloy entry was more intriguing: 1846-1917, a French Catholic writer, zealot and bigot who fell out with almost everybody he knew by scrounging money from them and then insulting them in print. And with a pleasing Borgesian circularity, Wikipedia included this paragraph:
Bloy is quoted at the beginning of Graham Greene’s novel “The End of the Affair” and in the short story “The Mirrors of Enigma” by the Argentine writer, Jorge Luis Borges, who acknowledged his debt to him.
I checked out the short story. Only it wasn’t. It was an essay called not The Mirrors of Enigma but The Mirror of Enigmas (in which, gratifyingly, Borges also quotes De Quincy).
The Argentinean is fascinated by the way Bloy returns obsessively to a celebrated text by St Paul – 1 Corinthians 13:12, “for now we see in a mirror, in darkness; but later we shall see face to face” – six times alluding to it in writings between 1894 and 1912, worrying at what it means and implies. For example: “We see everything backwards. When we believe we give, we receive [1904]”; and: “a terrifying idea of Jeanne’s about the text per speculum. The pleasures of this world would be the torments of Hell, seen backwards, in a mirror [1908]; and: “History is an immense liturgical text where the iotas and dots are worth no less than the entire verses or chapters, but the importance of one and the other is indeterminable and profoundly hidden [1912].”
It is impossible to spend more than a little time with Borges without one’s own world becoming Borgesian (and without, you might add, beginning to write more than a little after his fashion). When I read further in The Mirror of Enigmas and found Borges suggesting that Bloy “did no more than apply to the whole of creation the method which the Jewish Cabalists applied to the scriptures,” embarking on analyses, and encryptions and decryptions and other “exegetical rigours which it is not difficult to ridicule” I suddenly found myself back at dawn on the twisting rue de Toulon, treading among the dead streamers and confetti, listening to the hubristic Erik Lönnrot as he reasons himself towards an ineluctable destruction via the enigma he is weaving for an assassin who is, in a sense, his mirror image.
“And what if all this business tonight were just a mock rehearsal?”
Erik Lönnrot smiled and, with all gravity, read a passage (which was underlined) from the thirty-third dissertation of the Philologus: ‘Dies Judacorum incipit ad soils occasit usque ad solis occasurn diei sequentis.’
“This means,” he added, “‘The Hebrew day begins at sundown and lasts until the following sundown.’”
The inspector attempted an irony.
“Is that fact the most valuable one you’ve come across tonight?”
“No. Even more valuable was a word that Ginzberg used.”
[Yates’ translation]
Ginzberg, though Lönnrot doesn’t know it, is an alias of his assassin. The word used in a brief telephone conversation was “sacrifice.” The sacrifice is to be Lönnrot, atoning with his death for the sufferings of the assassin’s brother, whom he once imprisoned.
Later, feeling rather like a medieval craftsman who has been allowed to bring in a few small coloured tiles for a mosaic in a minor chapel of a vast cathedral (whose origins are so ancient that they’ve become mythology and which will, perhaps, never be completed), I made my first Wikipedia edit:
Bloy is quoted in the epigraph at the beginning of Graham Green’s novel The End of the Affair, and in the essay, "The Mirror of Enigmas", by the Argentine writer, Jorge Luis Borges, who acknowledged his debt to him by naming him in the Foreword to his short story collection "Artifices" as one of seven authors who were in "the heterogeneous list of the writers I am continually re-reading".

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