‘Convinced of decrepitude
By so many noble certainties of dust,
We linger and lower our voices
Among the long rows of mausoleums’
Buenos Aires is a hybrid sprawl, a city driven by the tension of its tripartite cultures, the European, American and indigenous. In Palermo all the young speak English with dislocating American accents, and the street art makes it feel like hipster Berlin. But out by the Retiro bus station, the slum sprawls in a jigsaw of breeze blocks, and the nearby vacant car park has been fenced off against a potential invasion. For all of its sophistication and charm, Buenos Aires is cemetery for some, in the way that all cities are cemeteries.
‘The tombs are beautiful,
The naked Latin and the engraved fatal dates,
The coming together of marble and flowers’
The Recoleta cemetery is the city’s Montparnasse, a bone labyrinth for the remains of generals and diplomats and statesman, the site of homages to Evita’s grave, and the subject of an early poem by Jorge Luis Borges. The piece follows a walk among the tombs by the narrator and an unnamed companion. Borges’s poetry is often described as baroque, but this poem reads more like a juvenile ‘Tintern Abbey’. Romanticism, maybe, but it’s clear that this isn’t a romantic relationship. Instead, the figures on this shared walk are companions in ideals, losing themselves in thoughts of being and non-being in the lanes of the dead.
As a scion of a military family, Borges would have expected the cemetery to see his end. It’s what drives the poem, gives it its thematic purpose. And, in the directory of the Recoleta, you can find the name of his friend, Adolpho Bioy Caceres, author of the The Invention of Morel, entombed within the family crypt. With a shared fascination for the fantastic literature of Edgar Allen Poe, the two would collaborate on detective fiction, and support one another through their writing lives. I like to think of them as the figures in the poem, stalking the grey dust of these paths, rehearsing exercises of the mind as a counterpoint to what lay waiting for them.
‘We mistake that peace for death
And believe we long for our end
When what we long for is sleep and indifference’
There’s a double edge to these lines. In part, they evoke the kind of naive assurances of a young poet, the almost kinky fascination with death. Life is poetry, and death the blank page which puts it in its most starkest definition. But the ‘mistake’ of the line makes it clear that Borges is wise beyond his years. He knows that no young poet can understand how he will feel when death calls upon him, what will lay waiting when we are all a little bit further on the path.
After his death, Borges would have a street named after him in the Palermo suburb of his youth. Despite his enduring legacy as a writer, he’s held with a certain indifference in the country of his birth, for his political incorrectness and refusal to denounce the Galtieri regime. ‘In my dreams, I never leave Buenos Aires,’ he once wrote. Bioy Caceres would take his place in the family crypt, but Borges would be buried in Geneva, slumbering forever in the long dream.
‘I thought these things in the Recoleta
in the place of my ashes.’
© Daniel Bennett