The Missing Borges
April 21, 2014 8:27 PM   Subscribe

The Missing Borges "Seven years ago, a stolen first edition of Borges’s early poems was returned to Argentina’s National Library. But was it the right copy?"
posted by dhruva (29 comments total) 28 users marked this as a favorite

It was the right copy, but the wrong Borges.
posted by phooky at 9:03 PM on April 21 [7 favorites]

hard to imagine Borges would have been other than extremely pleased at the recursive and apparently irresolvable ambiguities of the current impasse.
posted by jamjam at 9:20 PM on April 21 [13 favorites]

I don't know if this is more Borgean or Kafka-esque.
posted by empath at 9:31 PM on April 21

A completely Borgesian story - a rare and valuable book, a library so large nobody really knows what's in it and a bunch of shadowy characters, some of them already having taken their secrets to the grave.
posted by Dr Dracator at 9:49 PM on April 21 [4 favorites]

The last poem in the stolen book begins; "En una biblioteca de libros robados, este libro se encontrará .. "
posted by Mei's lost sandal at 10:20 PM on April 21

Clearly we're dealing with hronir.

Borges' early poems by Borges are good, but Borges' early poems by Pierre Menard are far more remarkable.
posted by Segundus at 1:42 AM on April 22 [3 favorites]

This Man Went To The Library To Get A Book Out - You'll Be Entangled In The Incalculable Values Of The Nature Of Culture, Artifact And Poetry By What May Or May Not Have Happened Next, And What May Still Be Happening Or Never Destined To Happen In The First Place.
posted by Devonian at 4:34 AM on April 22 [14 favorites]

Perhaps this is an intrusion into this world from another, better Borges.
posted by GenjiandProust at 5:22 AM on April 22 [2 favorites]

Now that we've got the witty references to the Borgesian nature of this story out of the way, can I just say that the National Library of Argentina seems to be a really shit library? I mean, what the hell?
That’s right: no one knows how many books there are, or should be, in Argentina’s National Library. Horacio González, its current director, told me that the library “has approximately a million books and some four million other pieces (newspapers, music sheets, records, photographs, etc.). I don’t have exact numbers and at this point it is very difficult to have them.”
This has apparently been the case for the past century at least; the article notes that thefts have been happening for a long time. So this is apparently the state in which Jorge Luis “I can’t tell whether books are being stolen, because I’m blind” Borges left it?

I love the guy's writing, but he did the world, and in particular his nation, a vast disservice.
posted by koeselitz at 6:38 AM on April 22

(And as someone who's had some experience with libraries, let me note in passing that five million pieces is not an unarchivable amount. It simply isn't. Most major US universities have at least that many pieces, if not many more, and while it takes some work obviously they were managing to catalog their collections well before the computer era. Now that we have computers, it's flat-out inexcusable.)
posted by koeselitz at 6:41 AM on April 22 [2 favorites]

Yeah, you have to admit Borges was no Philip Larkin.
posted by Segundus at 6:47 AM on April 22

So this is apparently the state in which Jorge Luis “I can’t tell whether books are being stolen, because I’m blind” Borges left it?

I'm pretty sure even national library directors with 20/20 vision do not personally patrol the halls and count the books. He may very well have been negligent in his duties, but do you have any reason to think his poor eyesight was the cause?
posted by Dr Dracator at 7:25 AM on April 22 [1 favorite]

DrD, you know that's a direct quote from the article, right?
No one seemed to care about the civic aspect of the matter, either. The National Library is as old as Argentina: it was created in 1810, together with the first national government, and its first director was Mariano Moreno, one of the greatest national heroes and the founder of the country’s first newspaper. The library was, at one point, something to be proud of, and Borges’s name is inextricably linked to its history; he was its director for eighteen years, between 1955 and 1973. By then, books were already disappearing from its shelves. When asked whether this was true, he replied, in typical fashion, “I can’t tell whether books are being stolen, because I’m blind.”
posted by zamboni at 7:34 AM on April 22

Argentina has gone through some rough spots so I'm not surprised that the library is as disorganized as many other social institutions there (my friends who went to university there said that it was a similarly chaotic place), considering Borges took over running it in between various coups, dictatorships, and mass executions he did pretty good. Nobody burned it down on his watch,a majority of his staff didn't get disappeared, and there were more books in it when he left than when he started. There was a very ingrained culture of institutionalized neglect in place long before he ever started working there. It definitely sucks that the library is in the state it is in, but from most accounts it got better under Borges (and his successors) than it was before.

The first time I was in Buenos Aires I decided I wanted to track down the old library to see the place Borges actually worked (not like he would have actually ever seen the new brutalist fortress of a library they now have, it took them 30 years to finally finish it. I doubt it was really his style either, but it was a modernist monolith plopped on top of the Peron's former residence in an act of architectural revenge so he might have at least appreciated that part) so I set out with not particularly good directions and was worried I wouldn't be able to identify the building. Fortunately they left the 'Biblioteca Nacional' sign on it from decades ago because who wants to get out a ladder and change it? And I'm not just talking about the letters across the top of the building, there was a sign left at street level with several letters missing that would have taken a ladder and twenty minutes to pry off. They had a similar 'aww fuck it' approach to security since I was able to wander around inside of it gawking for a long time before someone politely asked me to get the hell out of there when they realized I wasn't going to buy a ticket for a concert that was happening. Sadly I was not able to sneak my way into his former office and take a dump in the cavernous en suite bathroom that he wrote about with such amazement, so that is one life goal that still remains unfulfilled.
posted by Perfectibilist at 7:39 AM on April 22 [3 favorites]

the new brutalist fortress of a library they now have

that is a really shockingly ugly building, isn't it?
posted by thelonius at 8:13 AM on April 22 [1 favorite]

....and now I am going to spend the day here
posted by thelonius at 8:15 AM on April 22 [1 favorite]

By a coincidence - well, who can really say - Radio 4's Great Lives programme today is about Borges. It's live as I type this, but will be available, I think, universally and for evermore from that link, for seven days from iPlayer and thence as a download.
posted by Devonian at 8:41 AM on April 22 [1 favorite]

For those with a New Yorker subscription, see Nicholas Schmidle's article from the 12/16/13 issue, which deals with a peculiar forgery of a work by Galileo Galilei, and which features some of the same characters (Daniel Pastore and Massimo De Caro), although Schmidle's article focuses more on De Caro than this piece does.

Unfortunately, the full text of the New Yorker piece doesn't seem to be online.
posted by McCoy Pauley at 8:46 AM on April 22 [1 favorite]

koeselitz : (And as someone who's had some experience with libraries, let me note in passing that five million pieces is not an unarchivable amount. It simply isn't. Most major US universities have at least that many pieces, if not many more, and while it takes some work obviously they were managing to catalog their collections well before the computer era. Now that we have computers, it's flat-out inexcusable.)

And may I just say, as a white man sitting in the United States, that if every single library doesn't perform to the same level as my local library, the librarians of that country are complete shit?
posted by IAmBroom at 8:51 AM on April 22 [1 favorite]

let me note in passing that five million pieces is not an unarchivable amount. It simply isn't.

You don't know what you are talking about. People cost money. Archiving requires people, professional level people who are not cheap. The Library of Congress has a ton of materials that aren't cataloged and a backlog that some people say is measured in years and probably decades. This is not something that is specific to Argentina, they are just possibly not as good at PR.

I'm sure engineers can develop a perfect system for getting four million items cataloged and archived but that system will cost money, money that a lot of libraries, national libraries, simply don't have. Implying that this is somehow because the National Library is "shit" is a really weird way to go with this.

At some level, by your standards, all libraries are shit. And they're all being second guessed by a bunch of armchair "Oh I read books so I totally understand how to run a giant library on very little money" internet people. Most major libraries have huge amounts of unarchived content. They're terribly underfunded. They're often poorly staffed. That sort of thing only comes to light when things like this happen. And anyone who thinks "computers" solve this problem just gets my Dr. Hibbert laugh.
posted by jessamyn at 9:21 AM on April 22 [11 favorites]

Disregarding the cataloging issue, you might say that the National Library is shit because 20% of its collection has been stolen and sold on the black market:

According to Horacio Salas, another director, the library lost some two hundred thousand books in the last few decades.
posted by echo target at 9:25 AM on April 22

It was unfair of me to cast aspersions on the National Library of Argentina, and I withdraw my silly criticism of their archiving techniques. I just - isn't there some way to make sure this doesn't happen? Locking books in the back until they're archived, holding the rarer manuscripts in a single secure location, something? What do libraries do in these kinds of cases? And yes, it still annoys me a little that Borges makes it sound as though he's literally turning a blind eye to something terrible - though in fairness on consideration that probably wasn't a public comment, so I'm sure he wasn't advertising it.

This just seems like a monumental tragedy and I'd really want to fix it. And I guess a much better thing to do, rather than rant about it stupidly as I did, is to ask: what can libraries possibly do in such situations?
posted by koeselitz at 10:49 AM on April 22

Maybe could they just, er, count the books and see how many there are? Like as a start?
posted by koeselitz at 11:09 AM on April 22

Maybe you could try not being so patronizing?

See? It's easy to make suggestions from the internet and a lot more difficult to get people to actually reprioritize the things they're doing make them happen. If you have a country that isn't investing in its cultural institutions (the US is "eh" at some of this but okay in other ways and we have a lot of private institutions that pick up some of the slack) you really have institutions that operate at basically a triage level which is keeping the doors open and keeping the collections at least borderline available and usable to scholars.

I'm not saying that mistakes haven't been made and that this article isn't pretty damning about the state of the State Library of Argentina, just that public institutions suffer from a lot of people who are like "I can count to a million, what is wrong with these people?" because we come from a background where having accurate records and assessments of cultural content is a valued and necessary part of even having those collections in the first place. This is not a universally held value and for a country where librarianship was only really professionalized in the last 50-75 years there are going to be some growing pains as they wind up having to be answerable to this stuff on a global scale.

Put another way, it's not that they don't have a general count of this stuff, most likely, it's that they probably have a lot of not-exactly-book stuff (sheet music, letters, bulk collections that came wholesale from elsewhere) that can be challenging to quantify in the first place. Presuming that they just didn't count it, again, sounds sort of rude.
posted by jessamyn at 11:28 AM on April 22 [4 favorites]

... and if an interviewer doing an article for some international magazine came asking about an exact number, a director of the National Library would probably be best served by saying something to the effect of, "no, we don't have an exact count, and really it would be nice if the library were better-funded so that we could actually do such things," in the hopes that saying that would encourage people to sit up and do something about it. Which, understandably, is exactly what this particular director of the National Library said.

"Shit library" is certainly a hideously patronizing term.

To anyone who happens to work at the National Library of Argentina – and in particular Mr Horacio González, if you ever happen to read this page: my sincere apologies. Book theft offends the sensibilities; certainly the thieves deserve all the ire, not the people slaving away at the endless task of cataloging millions and millions of objects in the hopes that they won't get stolen first. You deserve my respect, not my obscenely silly condescension. May your fortunes improve.
posted by koeselitz at 1:20 PM on April 22

I once catalogued a school library that had ~7,000 books in it by hand, counting every book, labeling each one with a barcode and entering them all, volume by volume, into a computer system. I had a couple of volunteers to help me out here and there, but most days it was me by myself.

It took . . . a long time. A really long time. Like hundreds of hours. I cannot imagine how long it would take to do millions of books.
posted by BlueJae at 4:52 PM on April 22 [2 favorites]

Turns out the poems are not only Borgesian, but Borgesian, and should only be read using phonetic punctuation, adding to the confusion over authenticity, when the poems were read out loud.

Had the poem been read out loud, in the Borgesian style, to the blind museum guy, they would have verified the authenticity immediately.
posted by vitabellosi at 5:09 AM on April 23

Locking books in the back until they're archived,

Locks, spare rooms... requires money.

holding the rarer manuscripts in a single secure location, something?

Identifying which manuscripts qualify, building a secure location, staffing access to it... requires money.

koeselitz, until you come up with a 100% free, simple way to protect library assets - aside from just shutting the whole fucking library down - you are still just armchair-criticizing a gigantic institution you have no experience with whatsoever.

The implication that Jorge Fucking Luis Borges didn't have respect for books in his library... I'm going to choose to believe you meant that as some sort of great, ironic jest. Or perhaps you have no idea at all who he is.
posted by IAmBroom at 2:00 PM on April 28

Borges & I
posted by homunculus at 1:19 PM on May 8

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