Early Borges: leveling social criticism through satire; Six Problems for Don Isidro Parodi, by Jorge Luis Borges and Adolfo Bioy-Casares. New York: E. P. Dutton. $11.50.
Soon after the outbreak of World War II the Germans chose to sink one of their own maimed warships near Montevideo Harbor, Uruguay, rather than face the British fleet on the open ocean. Just across the riiver in Argentina they knew they had friends to whom they could flee. In late 1939 the Argentines, ruled by a military coalition, were distinctly pro-Nazi.
But a year later an arcane, though unreserved, attack on the pro-German nationalists appeared on the front page of a prominent Argentine magazine. Its author, Jorge Luis Borges -- who would first draw the eyes of international critics to Hispanic America after the fall of Peron and then inspire a second "bottom" generation of Latin writers in the 1960s -- had, up to that point, seemed utterly apolitical.
Borges asserted in El Hogar that these Nazi sympathizers had no love for German culture, but were merely borrowing influence and power to advance their own ends. He wryly suggested that the term "Germanophile" had been misapplied in Argentina. The fantasy on false etymologies he used to make this political statement is characteristically oblique, but effective.
Two years later Borges would again find a way to level sharp and effective social criticism from several steps removed. With friend and coauthor Adolfo Bioy-Casares, Borges was to write a satiric series of detective stories, "Six Problems for Don Isidro Parodi," being issued now for the first time in English. The pseudonym they chose for this extravagant publication was H. Bustos Domecq.
On the most superficial level, this highly charged collaboration -- far more arch than the work of either author -- appears devoid of political content. Its hero, private detective Don Isidro Parodi, practices his art from the least likely of places, a prison: the authors have made his work excruciatingly difficult to assure that the solutions will not reflect the banal stuff of everyday experience, but rather pure intellection and genius. His clients are caricatured, colorful Argentines and strange foreigners who parade through his chilly, slimy cell, one after another.
Gervasio Montenegro, for example, also the fictive author of the comically bombastic "Foreword" to the text, visits Parodi in "The Nights of Goliadkin." He tells a wild tale of a transcontinental train journey in which he is the uncomprehending dupe in an international drama involving a repentant criminal and a gang of diamond thieves. Only Parodi -- because of his judgments of his visitor's character -- can sort out the bewildering mass of details offered up to him.
Satire -- and political commentary -- however, are never far from the dazzling and highly stylized surfaces of these six stories. Less satisfying as mysteries than as works of verval gamesmanship, they treat the pretensions of the Argentine literary establishment, the gullibility of provincials in face of exploitive foreigners, the cruelty and pettiness of families taking revenge upon their own members, the falsity of class distinctions, and the insane dependence of Argentine citizens upon an untrustworthy, flabby government. And this list is not complete: Some of the satiric master strokes are keyed to uniquely local, contemporary events, not necessarily of interest to present-day readers.
Why is Parodi in jail? Fourteen years earlier, at the time of a low-life murder, he had unfortunately been landlord to a police clerk who owed him, a year's back rent: A clear case of police corruption, but the poor Parodi was defenseless.
His situation makes the perfect frame for these satiric stories, which exploit a tremendous range of comic, parodic, tragi-comic and melodramatic devices to effect their complicated ends.
The language of Parodi's desperate guests -- thick street slang or pompous Italianate jargon -- reflects the amusements the collaborators found in their inventions.
Borges and Bioy-Casares met in 1930 or '31 when Borges was 30 and his friend only 17. They immediately became close friends: Borges was best man at Bioy's wedding an, event they celebrated by composing a comic telegram of announcement in a language they invented together, made up of English, Italian, and Spanish words.
Their collaboration -- which produced several full-length satiric works published under pseudonyms, as well as poetry anthologies, articles, forewords and annotations, detective stories, and tales of the fantastic -- is truly unique in literary history. Somehow, as Borges explained in his "Autobiographical Essay" (included in "The Aleph and Other Stories, 1933-69"), the two friends were able to abandon both competition and self-consciousness to allow a third voice emerge, which "Took over and ruled, became unlike ourselves, with his own whims, his own puns, and elaborate style of writing."
Published in 1942, "Six Problems" appeared at the early stages of borges's experimentation with fiction. Up to the late 1930s, he had conceived of himself as a poet and an essayist. He credits Bioys-Casares, not with leading him into fiction, but with moderating his taste for the "pathetic, the sententious, and the baroque," and teaching him the virtues of quietness and restraint in tone.
Not that these qualities are predominant in "Six Problems." Coming at the beginning of one of Borges's most productive decades, these stories reflect the character of his structured narratives, works which subordinate character to dramatic rules and procedures. Borges's and Bioy-Casares's choice of a detective genre was not arbitrary. Don Isidro's logic, which cuts right through quotidian events, is a metaphor for intellectual and creative activity as a whole. While sometimes frustrating because of a babbling of voices, a confusion of types and characters, and impossible, involuted plots and inside allusions, these extravagant tales predict something about the nature of Borges's work through the 1940s.
The same imagination which later created what Bioy-Casares would call a new genre of short story somewhere between the essay and fiction is at work in these tales. They put mystery to the noble service of satire and parody.