Book review: Borges and Me by Jay Parini
Parini’s ‘novelised memoir’ is ‘joyous’ and ‘sharply written’
Daniel Garcia/AFP via Getty Images
Fifty years ago, when he was a “draft-dodging doctoral student at St Andrews”, the American writer Jay Parini found himself undertaking an improbable road trip, said Oliver Balch in The Observer. The great Argentinian novelist Jorge Luis Borges was on a visit to the UK, and had stopped off in Scotland to stay with the poet Alastair Reid. But Reid was then “called away at short notice”, so Parini “bravely stepped into his shoes” – and proceeded to chaperone the virtually blind writer on a “week-long jaunt through the Scottish hinterland”. In this “joyous, sharply written” memoir, he recounts their adventures. Disaster was never far away: on Loch Ness, their rowing boat overturned; in the Cairngorms, Borges slipped into a ditch. At one b&b, the pair were forced to share a “narrow double bed”: Borges, in his yellow satin pyjamas, smelt of sour sweat and “unfamiliar lotions”, and visited the toilet incessantly. By using the trip to animate Borges’ “literary spirit” – and reflect on the innocence of his own twentysomething self – Parini has created a work of “fantastical delight”.
How much of it, though, is really true, asked Abhrajyoti Chakraborty in The Guardian. Borges’ widow, María Kodama, has questioned the book’s veracity, and Parini himself calls it a “novelised memoir”. This wouldn’t much matter if it was written with “vitality”, but Parini’s writing is often sloppy, and his portrait of Borges rarely rises above caricature (he’s either the “madman artist type”, or the “erratic, cane-wielding uncle”). Parini’s own “backstory” is quite compelling – he offers powerful descriptions of friends and family, and of his ambivalence about his dodging of the draft – but as an act of literary homage, Borges and Me feels disappointingly thin.
Canongate 320pp £14.99; The Week Bookshop £11.99
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