A Universal History of Infamy by Jorge Luis Borges (1935, revd. 1954)

The book is no more than appearance, than a surface of images; for that very reason, it may prove enjoyable.
(Borges’s 1954 preface to A Universal History of Infamy)

Long ago

One thinks of Borges as a modern classic so it comes as a bit of a surprise to learn just how long ago he was writing. Born in 1899, Borges published his first book in 1923 and wrote steadily for the next 60 years (he died in 1986). In his long life he published an enormous number of volumes (‘In addition to short stories for which he is most noted, Borges also wrote poetry, essays, screenplays, literary criticism, and edited numerous anthologies’) and the Wikipedia bibliography lists 66 volumes of prose, poetry and essays, in total.

Which makes it all the more odd or unfair that he is still best known in the English-speaking world for more or less one volume, Labyrinths, and a handful of lesser works. Borges had published the following before we get to the book under review:

  • Fervor de Buenos Aires (1923) poetry
  • Inquisiciones (1925) essays
  • Luna de Enfrente (1925) poetry
  • El tamaño de mi esperanza (1925) essays
  • El idioma de los argentinos (1928) essays
  • Cuaderno San Martín (1929) poetry
  • Evaristo Carriego (1930) essays
  • Discusión (1932) essays

You’d expect poetry from a starter author, but it’s notable that so many of these early volumes contain essays, in other words short prose explorations of ideas – about other authors, historical events or topics etc. It was for his short essays on imaginary or fantastical subjects that he was to become famous and A Universal History of Infamy, more or less the earliest work by Borges you can read in English translation, gives an indication why.

A Universal History of Infamy

A Universal History of Infamy is not, in fact, a universal history of infamy or anything like that ambitious. In reality it is much smaller in scope, and consists of:

  • seven ‘biographical essays’ – witty, ironic accounts of legendary bad guys and women from history who Borges ha cherry picked from his highly eclectic reading
  • one relatively straightforward short piece of fiction
  • eight summaries of stories or anecdotes he had come across in arcane sources and which attracted Borges for their fantastical or humorous aspects

Most of the essays had been published individually in the Argentine newspaper Crítica between 1933 and 1934. The 1934 collection was revised and three new stories added in the 1954 edition. There are two English translations of the book. The one I own dates from 1972 and was translated by Borges’s long-standing English translator, Norman Thomas di Giovanni. The 2004 English edition gives the stories slightly different titles.

The title A Universal History of Infamy derives from the fact that the seven biographical essays are fictionalised accounts of real-life criminals. The textual sources for each biography are listed at the end of the book: for example, the essay about the Widow Ching cites a 1932 History of Piracy as its source,  the essay on Monk Eastman cites Herbert Asbury’s 1928 history of The Gangs of New York, the essay about Lazarus Morell cites Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi, the one about Tom Castro cites the Encyclopedia Britannica as its source, and so on.

So the sources are a) not particularly recondite and b) they were often fairly recent to Borges’s time of writing, in some cases published only a year or so before Borges wrote his potted summaries.

That said, Borges treats his sources very freely, changing dates, incidents and even names as he fancied to make his fantasy biographies deliberately fanciful and untrustworthy.

Part 1. Seven infamy stories

So these are stories Borges found in other books during his wide and eclectic reading and which attracted him for their elements of the macabre or gruesome, and which he chose to retell, dropping or adding details as he saw fit.

The Dread Redeemer

Lazarus Morell is poor white trash who grew up on the banks of the Mississippi and as an adult comes to be a leader of crooks who devise the following scam: they persuade gullible black slaves to run away from their owners and allow themselves to be sold on by the Morell gang who promise to liberate them and share the proceeds of this sale. But they don’t. They have ‘liberated’ some 70 slaves in this manner until the gang is joined by Virgil Stewart, famous for his cruelty, who promptly betrays them to the authorities. Morell goes into hiding in a boarding house, then, after 5 days, shaves off his beard and makes an escape to round up what remains of his gang and try to create a mass uprising of the southern slaves and lead a takeover of the city of New Orleans. Instead he dies of a lung ailment in Natchez hospital in January 1835 under an assumed name.

This story is quite florid enough to satisfy anyone’s taste for the lurid and melodramatic. What tames and raises it from being a shilling shocker is Borges’s dry wit and irony.

Morell leading rebellions of blacks who dreamed of lynching him; Morell lynched by armies of blacks he dreamed of leading – it hurts me to confess that Mississippi history took advantage of neither of these splendid opportunities. Nor, contrary to all poetic justice (or poetic symmetry), did the river of his crimes become his grave.

We expected a grand finale? Sorry folks.

If Borges’s narrative ends playfully, it opens even more so, with Borges referencing Spanish missionary Bartolomé de las Casas. Why? Because it was de las Casas who (apparently) had the bright idea of importing African slaves to work the silver mines of the newly discovered New World. Borges phrases this with characteristic irony (or is it facetiousness?)

In 1517, the Spanish missionary Bartolomé de las Casas, taking great pity on the Indians who were languishing in the hellish workpits of Antillean gold mines, suggested to Charles V, king of Spain, a scheme for importing blacks, so that they might languish in the hellish workpits of Antillean gold mines.

That is an example of what you could call literal facetiousness, the repetition of the initial heartless description being so unexpected as to be funny. But it expands into a more grandiose type of joke as Borges does on to deliver an unexpected perspective on the results of de las Casas’ brainwave i.e. the vast and numerous consequences of the invention of African slavery, and proceeds to a mock encyclopedic list of some of its untold consequences, namely:

W. C. Handy’s blues; the Parisian success of the Uruguayan lawyer and painter of Negro genre, don Pedro Figari; the solid native prose of another Uruguayan, don Vicente Rossi, who traced the origin of the tango to Negroes; the mythological dimensions of Abraham Lincoln; the five hundred thousand dead of the Civil War and its three thousand three hundred millions spent in military pensions; the entrance of the verb ‘to lynch’ into the thirteenth edition of the dictionary of the Spanish Academy; King Vidor’s impetuous film Hallelujah; the lusty bayonet charge led by the Argentine captain Miguel Soler, at the head of his famous regiment of ‘Mulattoes and Blacks’, in the Uruguayan battle of Cerrito; the Negro killed by Martín Fierro; the deplorable Cuban rumba ‘The Peanut Vender’; the arrested, dungeon-ridden Napoleonism of Toussaint L’Ouverture; the cross and the snake of Haitian voodoo rites and the blood of goats whose throats were slit by the papaloi’s machete; the habanera, mother of the tango; another old Negro dance, of Buenos Aires and Montevideo, the candombe.

The intellectual pleasure derives from the combination of mock scholarliness with the pleasing randomness of the examples selected. And not only surreal but – and this is an important part of Borges’s appeal – conveying an enormous sense of spaciousness; the sense of an enormously well-read mind, overflowing with wonderful facts and references, from the obvious to the fantastically recondite and abstruse. And that by reading along with Borges, we too, become as fantastically learned and knowledgeable as him.

If you like this kind of subject matter, and the dry ironical tone, then the world of unexpected and outré references is like a door opening in your mind, hundreds of doors, revealing all kinds of wonderful, mind and spirit enhancing vistas and possibilities.

Tom Castro, the Implausible Imposter

Arthur Orton was born in Wapping in 1834. He ran away to sea and resurfaced decades later in Sydney Australia where he had taken the name Tom Castro. Here he became friendly with a stately, clever black man, Ebenezer Bogle and the two set up as con-men. In 1854 a British steamer sank in the Atlantic and one of the passengers lost was slender, elegant Roger Charles Tichborne, heir to one of the greatest Roman Catholic families in England. His mother, Lady Tichborne, refused to believe he was dead and advertised widely throughout the colonies for his return. With wild and hilarious improbability Orton and Bogle decide to reply to her and claim that obese illiterate Tom Castro is in fact her slender, elegant aristocratic son…after some years of living in Australia!

Most of this is comic but Borges milks it for further comic ideas, such as the notion that it was the very outrageousness of the entire idea which gave Bogle and Orton confidence; the more ridiculous it seemed, the more emboldened they were to tough it out in the light of lawyers and Lady Tichborne’s heirs who violently rejected their claim. Very funny is the notion that so mad is Lady Tichborne to have her son restored that she will accept anything Orton says and so when he completely invents some tender childhood memories, Lady T immediately accepts them and makes them her own.

Finally, the relatives bring a trial where all is going well until Bogle meets his death at the hands of a passing hansom cab and Orton loses all his confidence. He is sentenced to 14 years in prison but, here again Borges emphasises the humour, pointing out that Orton so charmed his imprisoners that he was let off for good behaviour and then took to touring theatres giving a one-man show retelling his story.

It is typically Borgesian that, at each venue, Orton is described as starting out maintaining his innocence but often ends up pleading guilty depending on the mood of the audience.

A story, any story, about anything, is infinitely malleable.

The Widow Ching, Lady Pirate

China at the turn of the 18th century and the story of a redoubtable woman pirate who, when her husband Ching is killed in battle, takes over his pirate crew and leads them in 13 years of ‘systematic adventure’. The emperor sends one admiral against her, Admiral Kwo-lang, who she comprehensively defeats, and then leads her ‘six hundred war junks and forty thousand victorious pirates’ on devastating attacks on China’s seaboards. A second expedition is sent under one Ting-kwei. This one defeats Madame Ching who, on the night after a huge and bloody battle, has herself rowed over to the admiral’s ship, boards it and presents herself with the appropriately flowery oriental rhetoric: ‘the fox seeks the dragon’s wing.’ She was allowed to live and devoted her later years to the opium trade.

There is something immensely satisfying in the way Borges creates a scene, a historical period, its key characters and conveys a series of big events in just nine pages. More than that, the first page is devoted to two women pirates of the Western tradition, Mary Read and Anne Bonney, before we even get round to China.

Their speed and brevity, their exotic setting and subject matter, the tremendous confidence with which Borges cuts from scene to scene, zeroing in on key moments and one line of dialogue, and all told in a wonderfully humorous, often tongue-in-cheek style, make these bonne bouches immensely appetising and pleasurable.

Monk Eastman, Purveyor of Iniquities

Borges freely acknowledges his source for this narrative as Herbert Asbury’s 1928 volume The Gangs of New York, and gives a 2-page summary of some of the most notable hoodlums from New York’s Victorian underworld described in that book, before arriving at his potted biography of ‘Monk’ Eastman who is the subject of this narrative..

Born Edward Osterman, he was Jewish but grew into a ‘colossal’ and violent killer who lorded it over the goy underworld. He hired himself out as a hitman and led a violent gang. They were involved in a shootout so epic it became known as The Battle of Rivington Street, then a two-hour fistfight with the leader of the main rival gang, Paul Kelly, watched by a shouting crowd. He was repeatedly arrested and, after the final time, in 1917, decided to enlist in the US Army which had joined the war in Europe. This, like everything else in the story, is told with detached facetiousness:

We know that he violently disapproved of taking prisoners and that he once (with just his rifle butt) interfered with that deplorable practice…

On his return Monk quipped that ‘a number of little dance halls around the Bowery were a lot tougher than the war in Europe.’ He was found dead in an alley with five bullets in him. These throwaway endings, without any Victorian moralising, give them a Modernist, ‘so what’ aspect, a throwaway bluntness which contrasts vividly with the extreme scholarly punctiliousness about the sources.

The Disinterested Killer Bill Harrigan

Scenes from the life of William Harrigan aka Billy the Kid. For a start, it’s factually interesting to learn that Billy was a street hoodlum born in the very tough slums of New York before he headed out West. Borges amuses himself by assigning Billy’s life to different stages, namely:

  • The larval stage
  • Go West!
  • The Demolition of a Mexican
  • Deaths for Deaths’ Sake

He killed his first man aged 14. There’s a running joke that whenever Billy boasted about the number of men he killed he always added ‘not counting Mexicans’ who he held in utter contempt.

Borges’s wonderful fantasy-mindedness, the way he can introduce a mind-teasing idea into even the most obviously material occurs when he casually mentions that, despite his best efforts to turn himself into a hard-riding cowboy, Billy:

never completely matched his legend, but he kept getting closer and closer to it.

This implication that the legend of Billy the Kid existed before he began enacting it, and that he was fated to aspire to match his own legend… there is something wonderfully dizzying about this metaphysical-magical perspective, a dizzying magic metaphysical worldview which was to emerge more powerfully in his famous mid-career stories and excerpts.

The Insulting Master of Etiquette Kôtsuké no Suké

To be honest I didn’t understand this one, even after reading it twice. It’s set in Japan in 1702. An imperial envoy comes to stay with Asano Takumi no Kami who has been ‘trained’ by a rude and dismissive master of etiquette, Kira Kôtsuké no Suké. Asano was rude to the imperial envoy who, as a result, had him executed. Asano’s other retainers came to Kira Kôtsuké no Suké and told him, that since the error stemmed from his poor training of Asano, he should commit hara-kiri, but he refused and ran away and barricaded himself into a palace. Asano’s 47 retainers laid siege to the palace, broke in, discovered he had hidden, found him and killed him. That is why the story is sometimes called ‘The Learned History of the Forty-seven Retainers.

The Masked Dyer, Hakim of Merv

The story of Hakim, born in 736, who grows up to assume the identity of the Prophet of the Veil and establish a religion to rival Mohammed’s, by telling the impressionable that a messenger from God had come down from heaven, cut off his head and carried it up to heaven to receive a divine mission from Allah. He crystallises his position when, amid a crowded caravan, someone releases a leopard which Hakim appears to quell with the power of his eyes alone. He becomes the Veiled Prophet or Masked One and leads his followers to military victory, taking cities. He keeps a harem of one hundred and fourteen blind women.

He promulgated a belief system derived from the Christian Gnostics, namely that the world is a parody of Divine Reality, created by nine emanations from the original.

The world we live in is a mistake, a clumsy parody. Mirrors and fatherhood, because they multiply and confirm the parody, are abominations.

Five years into his rule, Hakim and his followers are besieged by the army of the Caliph when a rumour goes round from one of the women of his harem that his body has various imperfections. He is praying at a high altar when two of his captains tear away his permanent veil to reveal that Hakim bears the revolting disfigurements of the leper, and they promptly run him through with spears.

Part 2. A short story

Man on Pink Corner

This is a surprisingly poor short story and a good explanation of why Borges focused on writing his metaphysical-brainteasing essays rather than trying any attempt at conventional fiction. It’s the account of a street hoodlum, a junior member of a gang in the unfashionable poor north side of Buenos Aires, and a supposedly fateful night when he and his gang are at a dance hall when in crashes a massive hard man, Francisco Real, who muscles his way through the crowd to confront the head of the local gang, Rosendo Juárez, at which point, inexplicably, Rosendo backs down and Real takes his place as head honcho and steals his woman, La Lujanera.

I found a lot of this inconsequential, silly and hard to follow because nobody seemed to be obeying any rules of human nature I’m familiar with, Rosendo disappears, and Real takes La Lujanera outside, presumably to copulate with her in a ‘ditch’:

By then they were probably going at it in some ditch.

Our narrator wanders out to take the air then returns to the dance where old gang members and new gang members seem to be dancing happily. Then there’s a banging on the door, and in stumbles the huge bruiser Real with a big gash in his chest, collapses on the floor and bleeds to death. The hoodlums of both gangs strip him of his clothes, possibly rip open his guts and put out his intestines, cut off his finger to steal his ring, then chuck him out the window into the river Maldonado which flowed just outside.

In the final paragraph, the narrator mentions Borges’s own name as if he is recounting this story directly to him:

Then, Borges, I put my hand inside my vest – here by the left armpit, where I always carry it – and took my knife out again…

And in the last sentence implies that it was he, the narrator who, when he slipped out, managed to fatally stab Real – in which case why wasn’t there a description of this presumably fairly melodramatic scene, how did he manage to do it if Real was shagging La Lujanera in a ditch? How come La Lunajera didn’t point out our narrator to everyone in the hall as the murderer?

It seemed to me a collection of 1930s noir crime, lowlife clichés thrown together with no plausibility and no account of human psychology. Borges himself seemed bemused by the story’s popularity. Thank God he abandoned this mode of writing altogether in favour of his ‘baroque’ and mind-bending essays.

Part 3. Etcetera Etcetera

Being short 2 or 3-page excerpts from scholarly books which presumably struck Borges because of the surrealism or bizarreness or humour of their content. The excerpts are interesting or amusing or ghoulish in their own right, but what really impresses is the arcane nature of their sources, and the range of reading and learning they imply.

A Theologian in Death

From the Arcana Coelestis by Emanuel Swedenborg (1749 to 1756).

The Protestant theologian Philip Melancthon (1497 to 1560) dies and goes to heaven but doesn’t realise it because the angels recreate his worldly house and study, but pester him to write about charity. But Melancthon obstinately persists in writing that charity is unnecessary because, like a zealous Protestant, he believes we are justified by faith alone, with the result that the angels slowly degrade his house and even his own body, day by day he awakes in a further degenerated condition, till the last that’s heard of him he is ‘a kind of servant to demons.’

The Chamber of Statues

From The Thousand and One Nights numbers 271 and 272.

In the Andalucian city of Ceuta was a citadel with a door to which each successive king by tradition added a lock until a wicked man usurped the throne and, against the advice of holy men, insisted on ripping out the locks and opening the door to find what was inside and discovered a series of rooms containing wonders, the last of which contained an inscription saying whoever opened the door would be overthrown and, indeed, within a twelvemonth, the Arab leader Tariq ibn-Ziyad overthrew the usurper and sold his women and children into slavery.

Tale of the Two Dreamers

From The Thousand and One Nights number 351.

A merchant in Cairo falls asleep in his garden with a fountain and a fig tree and has a dream in which angels tell him to seek his fortune in Isfahan in Persia, so he sets off and after a gruelling journey facing numerous threats and natural disasters, finally arrives and falls asleep by a mosque, but that night a house next to the mosque is robbed, the owners raise the alarm, the stranger is apprehended thrown into prison and tortured before being brought before the captain who asks who he is and why he’s here. The merchant tells the story of his dream, and the captain laughs and says he also has a dream of a garden of a house in Cairo with a fig tree and treasure under the fountain but he knows it’s just a dream and has never acted on it. He lets the whipped merchant go, who returns to his house, digs under the fountain, and discovers a vast treasure.

The Wizard Postponed

From the Libro delos enxiemplos del Conde Lucanor at de Patronio (1335) by Juan Manuel.

A beguiling story in which a dean from Santiago, wanting to learn about magic, visits the noted magician Don Illán of Toledo and promises him anything if he will teach him magic so the Don takes him down into a cellar deep underground and submits him to a test, namely telescoping the next thirty years of their lives together, in which the Dean is blessed with a series of promotions within the Catholic church, ending up being elected Pope, and at each step of the way the newly promoted Dean puts him off until he tells the Don to stop bothering him or he’ll have him thrown in prison. At which point the entire future they’ve lived through disappears in a puff of smoke and the Dean finds himself standing in the deep cellar with Don Illán who says ‘told you so’, escorts him to the door and wishes him a pleasant journey home.

The Mirror of Ink

From The Lake Regions of Central Africa (1860) by Richard Burton.

How the wizard Abd-er-Rahman al-Masmudi threw himself on the mercy of the tyrant of Sudan Yaqub the Ailing, who orders him every morning to show him visions and wonders, until one day al-Masmudi shows him a figure being dragged for execution. When Yaqub demands that the figure’s veil be taken off, it reveals his own face and he watches the executioner raise his great sword and, when it falls and severs the neck of the man in the vision, Yaqub the Ailing himself falls dead.

A Double for Mohammed

From Vera Cristiana Religio (1771) by Emmanuel Swedenborg.

Since the idea of Mohammed is so closely linked to religion in the minds of Muslims, Allah ensures that heaven is overseen by a kind of deputy or second Mohammed, whose identity actually varies. A community of Muslims was once incited by evil spirits to acclaim Mohammed as their God, so Allah brought the spirit of the actual Mohammed up from under the earth to instruct them.

The Generous Enemy

From the Anhang zur Heimskringla (1893) by H. Gering

In 1102 Magnus Barfod undertook to conquer Ireland. Muirchertach, King of Dublin, sends him a nine-line curse which, by roundabout means, ends up coming true.

On Exactitude in Science

From Travels of Praiseworthy Men (1658) by J.A. Suárez Miranda.

A fragment which tells of a magical empire where the geographers at first essayed maps so huge that the map of a single province covered the space of an entire city, and the map of the Empire itself an entire Province. These were eventually replaced by the ultimate map of the empire which was the same size as the Empire itself, and coincided with it point for point. Over the years it fell into neglect and now only a few tattered fragments survive in the Western Deserts, sheltering an occasional beast or beggar.


Borges’ approach

Bookish

The content of the seven infamy tales is lurid and melodramatic, with plenty of murders, assassinations, beheadings, shootouts and suicides. But they are all refracted through a highly bookish, ironic sensibility which does at least two things: 1. is careful to cite the sources of the story, in a parody of a learned or scholarly article, and 2. mocks the content of his own story with irony and knowing humour.

The first quality (showy concern with indicating sources) is most evident in the opening of The Masked Dyer, Hakim of Merv:

If I am not mistaken the chief sources of information concerning Mokanna, the Veiled (or, literally, Masked) Prophet of Khurasan, are only four in number: a) those passages from The History of the Caliphs culled by Baladhuri; b) The Giant’s Handbook, or Book of Precision and Revision, by the official historian of the Abbasids, Ibn abi Tahir Taifur; c) the Arabic codex entitled The Annihilation of the Rose, wherein we find a refutation of the abominable heresies of the Dark Rose, or Hidden Rose, which was the Prophet’s Holy Book; and d) some barely legible coins unearthed by the engineer Andrusov during excavations for the Trans-Caspian railway. (p.77)

‘If I am not mistaken’, that’s a nice touch. The effect of these kinds of learnèd references is to give the very pleasurable sense that you are entering the magical realm of books and stories. Not the everyday books we encounter in our lives or local bookshops, glossy gardening books or biographies of celebrity chefs or tedious accounts of adulteries in North London – but that we have been transported to the realm of old-fashioned stories, stories of extreme actions and derring-do and marvellous deeds in exotic settings.

Stories from our remembered childhood which fired our imaginations before we were forced to grow up and become sensible. It is a very old-fashioned tone and it’s no surprise that Borges, throughout his career, said he was early on inspired by the yarns of Robert Louis Stevenson and Arthur Conan Doyle.

Exotic

This old-fashioned, bookish tone overlaps with the wonderfully exotic settings of many of the narratives: slave plantations of the Deep South; Australia; the China seas; 18th century Japan; the Wild West; 12th century Ireland; medieval Spain; medieval Persia.

In the first preface he mentions Robert Louis Stevenson as a source and you can feel Stevenson’s restless quest for exotic locations shared by Borges.

Intellectual themes

I hate to say it but probably one of the recurring tropes of the stories is (the currently modish theme of) ‘identity’. The seven historical characters freely change their names or have names assigned them by contemporaries or historians. Writing of Monk Eastman, he says:

These shifts of identity (as distressing as a masquerade, in which one is not quite certain who is who) omit his real name – presuming there is such a thing as a real name.

Aha. The most flagrant example is Tom Castro who has already changed his name once before he embarks on the criminal project of impersonating Roger Charles Tichborne, which leads to the sensational trial in which the nature of ‘identity’ is central.

Two prefaces

After the fact, Borges commented on his own stories in two prefaces, one written for the 1934 edition, one for 1954.

1934 preface

It’s only one page long and Borges admits that the stories stem, in part, from:

my rereadings of Stevenson and Chesterton, and also from Sternberg’s early films, and perhaps from a certain biography of Evaristo Carriego

combined with the over-use certain tricks:

random enumerations, sudden shifts of continuity, and the paring down of a man’s whole life to two or three scenes

I found it very interesting indeed that he casually says:

They are not, they do not try to be, psychological.

Traditional literature, and many short stories, focus on a psychological crux, a decisive moment in someone’s life, and investigate the ‘moral’ and psychological aspects of it. Borges consciously turns his back on that tradition and exploits his sources to create pen portraits which are not at all concerned with anyone’s inner life, but use the content as 1. entertainment, creating striking scenarios and tableaux, as if in paintings or – as he frequently remarks – like scenes from movies. In the 1954 preface he elaborates that:

The book is no more than appearance, than a surface of images; for that very reason, it may prove enjoyable

They are intended to be all surface. That partly explains why they end so abruptly and with no moralising whatsoever: to emphasise their shiny metallic surfaceness.

2. What Borges doesn’t mention is that the stories are also quite clearly used as starting points for ironic and amused meditations on ideas, the more metaphysical and paradoxical the better. And that this was a harbinger of the work which was to come later.

1954 preface

The 1954 preface is twice as long as the 1934 one, being an extravagant 2 pages in length. Borges immediately launches into a consideration of ‘the baroque’, claiming it is a style:

which deliberately exhausts (or tries to exhaust) all its possibilities and which borders on its own parody… [that] only too obviously exhibits or overdoes its own tricks.

He goes on to link this to a fundamentally comic worldview:

The baroque is intellectual, and Bernard Shaw has stated that all intellectual labour is essentially humorous.

I disagree. Having attended a big London exhibition about The Baroque I took away the strong conviction that the Baroque is about Power, the Complete Power of supreme monarchs and/or the Counter-Reformation Catholic Church in Italy. Apart from anything else, Baroque works of art and churches are massive and imposing whereas, if Borges is anything, he is a precise miniaturist. He is more like a Swiss watchmaker than a Baroque architect.

But we are not reading Borges for accurate scholarship, in fact the precise opposite, we are reading him for his whimsical playing fast and loose with facts and figures and ideas for our amusement, an attitude he makes explicit when he writes that the stories are:

the irresponsible sport of a shy sort of man who could not bring himself to write short stories, and so amused himself by changing and distorting (sometimes without aesthetic justification) the stories of others.

He may be accurate in invoking the idea of the Baroque to indicate an interest in following every detail or narrative possibility to its logical conclusion, in the compulsive inclusion of every finial and architectural flourish possible. But his work is at the opposite end of the scale from the Baroque. And the Baroque is deadly serious, whereas Borges’s work is informed above all by a dry, metaphysical humour, that comes from somewhere else. That is Borges’s invention, filtered through the gentlemanly, bookish, ironic tone of the late Victorian British authors he loved.

Literary influence

Apparently (or, as Borges might write, ‘If I am not mistaken’) the Puerto Rican critic Angel Flores (1900 to 1994) was the first person to use the term ‘magical realism’ and dated the start of the Magical Realist movement from this book.

This is echoed by the blurb on the back of the Penguin edition which claims that Borges intended the stories simply to be light entertainments, newspaper squibs:

‘yet after its appearance in 1935 its influence on the fiction of Latin America was so profound that its publication date became a landmark in the history of Latin American literature.’


Related links

Borges reviews

The Penguin History of Latin America by Edwin Williamson (revised edition 2009) (1)

Because it comes with the bright orange and white spine of the new-style Penguin histories, and because it said ‘New Edition’ on the front cover, I hadn’t quite grasped that the main body of this hefty 700-page history of Latin America was completed by 1990. The new edition is ‘new’ because it tacks a 40-page chapter at the end, summarising events in Latin America between 1990 and 2008. Obviously quite a lot of water under the bridge since 2008, so probably need to supplement this with a modern modern history of LA.

The text is divided into three big parts:

  • The Age of Empire, pages 3 to 192 (189 pages)
  • The Challenge of the Modern World, pages 195 to 310 (115 pages)
  • The Twentieth Century, pages 313 to 566 (253 pages)

Note how the section on the 20th century, plus the forty pages of the ‘new’ chapter, is as long as the first two parts put together. Here, as everywhere, the more recent the history, the more of it there is, the more people there have been (the higher the population) and the more records have been kept, until we reach the present age where every phone call, every text and every photograph anyone in the world takes is being recorded and stored. Soon we will drown in data.

The conquest of the Aztecs and Incas

Williamson dives right in with the early, legendary history of the Aztecs, when they were a group of nomads traipsing round central Mexico, before they established the largest empire in pre-Colombian America around 1400. Their only rival was the Inca Empire, down in modern-day Peru.

There is, of course, a lot to say about both, but the thing that struck me was the way both of them were empires carved out by one particular tribe or ethnic group which subjugated all their neighbours, and demanded tribute in food, precious metals and slaves (some devoted to grisly human sacrifices).

Both generated complex religious ideologies accompanied by fascinating and complex theories of time – that it moved in cycles and was marked by moments of great significance – but the bottom line was that both the Aztec ruler and the Inca emperor believed they derived their authority from the gods, and were backed up in this conviction by the class of priests and the warrior castes which surrounded and defended them.

Of course the vast majority of the population was peasants, mostly living in abject serfhood, who slaved away for their entire short, unhealthy lives, producing the surpluses which paid for the elaborate costumes and rituals and treasures passed up to their rulers. And the entire populations of conquered tribes, for both the Aztecs and Incas lived by war, and by conquering, subjugating and exploiting neighbouring peoples.

The other striking thing was their backwardness. Both Aztecs and Incas, and all the hundreds of other tribes scattered across central and south America, were illiterate. The Aztecs and Incas had no written language, just a primitive system of markers, and so the important knowledge about the stars and the gods was handed down by word of mouth, and hence the semi-divine regard for the caste of priests who, alone, knew this vital celestial information.

They didn’t have the wheel, nor beasts of burden – no horses or donkeys or camels or bullocks. Therefore they had to carry everything by hand. It is staggering to realise that the awesome Inca city of Machu Picchu was built by massive stones, carried 2,430 metres above sea level, by human power alone.

All this was doomed to come crashing to an end when the Europeans arrived. Williamson describes in detail the four successive voyages of Christopher Columbus, his first landfall in 1492, the chaotic mismanagement of the first islands he and his men settled – Hispaniola – the slow, establishment of colonies and extension of Spanish rule onto neighbouring island, and then, 27 years later, Cortez’s expedition to the mainland against the Aztecs (1519-21).

The eeriest thing about Cortes’s conquest of the Aztec Empire, and then Francisco Pizarro’s conquest of Peru in 1532, is the theory that the rulers of both empires were too puzzled and confused by the invaders to respond adequately. They couldn’t believe these little gangs of a few hundred men were serious about planning to overthrow their empires of tens of thousands of warriors – but they couldn’t figure out what it was they really wanted. Williamson attributes the conquistadors’ success partly to guns and horses but shows that in both cases, the conquerors really had very few – when Pizarro finally met with the Inca emperor Atahualpa, in nothern Peru, he had a force of just 110-foot soldiers, 67 cavalry, three arquebuses and two falconets.

More decisive was the Europeans’ superior grasp of strategy, in particular realising that the empires they were encountering were themselves highly stressed, riven by faction fights or stretched by the continual need to control their subject peoples. The Spanish made alliances with enemies and groups wishing to be liberated. They were good at building coalitions.

He doesn’t say it in so many words, but the idea emerges that the Europeans triumphed because they were just more intelligent about strategy and warcraft.

The role of European diseases

Then there’s our old friend disease. As explained at length in Jared Diamond’s classic 1997 study Guns, Germs and Steel, wherever European explorers went they took with them the infectious diseases which, over thousands of years, we had built up immunity to – but which ravaged native populations which had no immunity to them.

This view is reinforced by the revisionist history of America told by Alan Taylor in American Colonies: The Settling of North America (2001). In this Taylor explains how the entire native civilisation of the Mississippi valley was wiped out by diseases, most probably smallpox, brought by a few shipwrecked Spanish sailors to the mouth of the Mississippi delta but which then spread catastrophically so that when, a century later, the first Anglo-Saxon explorers entered the region, they discovered entire cities with complex layouts, large palaces and temples and canals… all abandoned and overgrown by forest.

Indeed, Pizzaro’s job of conquering the Incas was made easier because the Incas were themselves in the middle of a bloody civil war, which was complicated by the fact that not one but two rival claimants to the throne had died from smallpox. Over the decades after the Spanish arrived, there was a catastrophic collapse in native populations caused by the invaders’ diseases. Some experts estimate as much as 90% of the native population of Mexico was killed by European disease within fifty years.

Still, Williamson is always at hand to say that in this, as in everything else, the reality on the ground, and across such vast areas as all of Mexico, Central America and Peru, were far more complex and uneven that contemporaries and many historians realise. Many many other areas of the continent remained relatively untouched and life went on in the same old way, only now you had to pay a tribute of your produce to a new boss, who wore armour and rode a horse.

The geographic limits of Spanish settlement

The book is packed with thought-provoking ideas and insights. I was fascinated to understand more about the geographic limits to the spread of Spanish rule.

When the Anglo settlers arrived in North America in the 1600s they found it relatively easy to spread out into New England and all along the Atlantic coast. But the Spanish, having established their key centres of administration in Mexico City and Lima a century earlier, with waystations and ports in the Caribbean, found it difficult to expand beyond them. Why?

North of Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital which the invaders had renamed Mexico City, lies a vast area of arid desert – the territory which centuries later would become Arizona and New Mexico – where the Spanish explorers discovered nothing but impoverished villages of Indians surviving on subsistence agriculture.

Over to the east there were repeated attempts to explore the peninsula they named ‘Florida’, but the Spanish found it consisted of endless everglades with few settlements and nothing to plunder.

Heading south, the Spanish took over the coastal strip west of the Andes, conquering the Inca empire, but found the Andes mountains themselves too high to settle. Only a handful of expeditions went over the Andes to explore east. Williamson describes these expeditions, which got lost in the vast Amazon rainforests, and encountered only the most primitive tribespeople, if, indeed, they lived to tell the tale.

So, in a nutshell, central and south America were more difficult for the Spanish to settle than North America would turn out to be for the Anglos. And this explains the quite startling fact that some parts of South America – Williamson singles much of the interior of what is now called Argentina – weren’t really settled at all until the 20th century.

The other factor which limited the area of settlement was the Spaniards’ motivation. The conquistadors were adventurers, often from the very lowest parts of society. No nobles or aristocrats ventured their lives in the New World. Poor youngest sons of noble families led gangs of criminals and proles. None of them were the type of people who wanted to stake a claim and build a farmhouse and work the land – as the Anglo settlers were to do up north a hundred years later.

Instead, the Spanish wanted to exploit and loot as much wealth as they could from the New World before returning home and buying land, a house and a title. They came to loot. And here’s the important thing – you can only loot people who are already rich. The Spanish took over the two big empires, the Aztec in Mexico and the Inca in Peru, because an infrastructure was already in place whereby the native emperors and the upper class exploited large numbers of peasants in a well-organised system. The Spaniards simply took over the system, co-opting the best of the agricultural produce and all the treasure and artefacts for themselves.

It is this factor – the Spanish approach to colonisation – which explains the limited and very patchy nature of Spanish settlement. In the deserts of north Mexico, and in the south of the area they named California, were only desert dwellers, scraping a subsistence living from the soil by dint of elaborate water works. Nothing to steal. In Florida, endless swamps inhabited by scattered villagers. Nothing to steal, and no ‘society’ worth taking over. Ditto the Amazon rainforests. Nothing like an organised society whose power structures and tributes they could simply appropriate.

The Spanish only settled where there were established and relatively advanced societies which they could parasite onto.

How Spain applied the Reconquista to the New World

Williamson lays out with beautiful logic and clarity just how that imperialist approach to colonisation had arisen in Spain.

It is an enormous historical coincidence that the year that Columbus made landfall in the Bahamas, 1492, just happened to be the very same year that – after nearly 800 years of war and crusade – the Spanish finally kicked the very last Muslim Moorish presence out of the south of Spain. (Muslim forces had crossed the Straits of Gibraltar to seize Spanish territory way back in 711 – the fightback is traditionally dated to their first defeat by Christian forces, in 718 – and it took nearly another 800 years, of slow painstaking battles and piecemeal conquest, for native Christians, sometimes fighting alongside Christian warriors from the rest of Europe attracted by the periodic ‘crusades’ against the Muslim –  to finally expel all the Muslim chiefs, emirs and so on from the final southern enclaves.

The point of this historical background is that expelling the Muslims from Spain wasn’t achieved by a modern-style mass army, and in a few years of continuous campaigning – but by ad hoc campaigns led by local Spanish warriors and adventuring knights, which liberated bits and pieces of territory, over a very long period of time.

As and when they seized territory from the Muslims, they applied to the king to rule it. (Spain itself was a very fractured entity, with a number of different kingdoms. It was only as the Reconquista reached its conclusion that the marriage of King Ferdinand of Aragon with Queen Isabella of Castile united most of Spain’s territory to form the basis of one unified Spanish monarchy.)

Sometimes large areas of land would be conquered and the new lords were granted what were known as latifundia, originally a Roman word describing a vast agricultural estate. The new owners co-opted the existing inhabitants as serfs to work the land, but often much of the original or Muslim population had fled and so the lords had difficulty filling them with workers and had to advertise for new workers to come in.

The point is that the Reconquista established a model for settling new lands, freshly conquered from the infidel, which was then applied wholesale to the new territory discovered by Columbus and his Viceroys across the ocean, and by the conquistadors and adventurers who followed them.

The Reconquista established the pattern of the monarch granting complete control over large swathes of territory, and all the people on it to, the conqueror or adelantado who had seized it. This resulted in a handful of rich swaggering lords riding among the large population of impoverished peasants working vast areas of land. In the New World it became known as the encomienda system and the grant holders encomenderos.

In fact it was a bit more complicated than that: the native Indians remained, nominally, free subjects of the Crown, which awarded encomenderos the right to enforce labour from the natives, but not complete power of life and death over them. That was the theory, anyway.

Williamson – once he has reported the main military and political events of the conquest – moves briskly on to discuss in considerable detail, this and all the other legal and administrative measures which the Spanish implemented in their new lands.

In fact, the ‘excitement’ of the narrative of Columbus’s voyages and the initial conquests of the Aztecs and the Incas which open the text, might give the reader quite a misleading impression of the book. Williamson is much more a historian of constitutional and administrative systems than he is a chronicler of exciting battles and against-the-odds expeditions. A lot of this book is quite dry. But he develops the constitutional and legal aspects of the conquest in such detail that, to my surprise, the conflicts between the settlers, and in particular between the Viceroys appointed to govern the new provinces and the monarchy back in Spain – and between both of them and Catholic church – at moments become quite gripping.

The Crown protects the Indians 

One counter-intuitive learning is that the Spanish crown, right from the start, was concerned about protecting the rights of the native Indians, indeed became their chief protector.

As Spanish adventurers opened up new territory and conquered more and more native peoples, the monarchs became concerned to make sure they were not simply enslaved. Queen Isabella personally forbade the enslavement of the natives, and a series of ‘Laws of the Indies’ tried to stem abuses wherever they were found. Encomenderos may have enjoyed almost complete power over the populations of their vast estates, but Spanish laws commanded them to also set up schools and hospitals, to educate the Indians, protect them from wars and raids, and to enact justice. This effort continued for the rest of the 16th century, for example with the ‘New Laws of the Indies for the Good Treatment and Preservation of the Indians’ of 1547, which explicitly forbade all forms of enslaving the native population. The New Laws prompted violent opposition among the oligarchies of Spanish settlers.

The Church takes the Indians’ side

It’s also surprising to read about the broadly sympathetic line taken by the Catholic Church. The Pope and the Catholic organisations which sent cohorts of missionaries out to the New World took the line that these were people made in God’s image, like us, with souls that needed saving. Certainly, some of the first cohort of priests accompanying the conquistadors helped in the wholesale destruction of priceless documents and artefacts which they considered pagan and devilish. But within a generation, a new wave of clerics began for all kinds of reasons to take the native Indians’ side, deploring their brutal exploitation by amoral Spanish lords.

On a pragmatic note, they also realised they couldn’t convert the natives by preaching at them in Latin or Spanish, and undertaking ‘mass baptisms’ where the Indians didn’t have a clue what was going on. So a whole project was undertaken to learn more about the natives’ languages, which quickly extended into documenting their histories and beliefs. Most of what we know about native Indian religion and history derives from these records taken down by Christian missionaries.

The classic figure of this type was Bartolomé de las Casas, initially a coloniser himself, who became a Dominican friar and spent the last 50 years of his life fighting slavery and the colonial abuse of indigenous peoples. He was appointed by the Spanish crown the first ‘Protector of the Indians’, an administrative office responsible for attending to the wellbeing of the native populations, a function he enthusiastically carried out and which included speaking on their behalf in law courts and even reporting back to the King of Spain in person.

In 1550, Bartolomé participated in the Valladolid debate, in which Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda (the noted Spanish Renaissance “humanist”, philosopher, theologian, and… er… proponent of colonial slavery) argued that the Indians were less than human and required Spanish masters in order to become civilized. Las Casas maintained that the Indians were fully human and that forcefully subjugating them was morally, legally, and theologically, unjustifiable. Las Casas is a hero (not a perfect hero, but by the standards of his own time a d brave and determined protector of the people.)

Williamson gives a long and detailed account of the numerous legal initiatives launched by the Crown to try and protect the Indians from exploitation, but in the end they all failed. No amount of legal or theological argumentation could avoid the fact that the Spanish remained the ruling caste with one law for them, while the Indians remained a separate caste, subject to completely different laws. Williamson calls them the Republic of the Spaniards and the Republic of the Indians.

And nothing could alter the simple fact that, on the ground, most of the laws designed to protect the Indians were ignored by the settlers, who looked after each other’s interests.

Theories of conquest and bureaucratic structures

I could have done with more about where the silver was discovered in the New World, and the technology of how it is mined and purified. We are told that mercury was vital to the purification process, but not really how or why. I had to google it to find out. He does eventually have three pages on the silver mines (two on gold-mining), but in general Williamson is light on that kind of thing, on technology, and on the diverse resources of the region.

Instead, as the book settles into its stride, you realise that Williamson is going to devote most of his energy to the legal and theological justifications of Spanish rule along with detailed descriptions of the bureaucratic structures the Spanish set up.

Thus there is a long passage explaining how the theory of monarchy evolved in Spain from its late-medieval form to the theory which underpinned the role of Philip II as head of an empire which stretched from California to Sicily. He explains the role of the Catholic Church as a vital prop to royal authority, and gives long explanations of the laws and the administrative structures set up to run the colonies.

He explains the main theories by which the Spanish justified their conquests, both to themselves and to the rest of the world (especially to their critical opponents in the Protestant world). There were two main ones:

  1. The well-established Law of Conquest, by which one ruler conquers another and is allowed to seize his land and titles, which had been worked out over long centuries of theological and legal debate during the Middle Ages.
  2. The more modern notion that the Crown of Spain had a ‘right’ to rule the Indians because the Europeans would convert the natives to Christianity and so save their souls. This was accompanied by a kind of sub-argument, which many missionaries put forward: that the New World represented an opportunity for Christianity – which had, by the early 1500s become widely associated with corruption and worldly ambition – to start again. Here, in the Garden of Eden, were a new kind of Adam and Eve, a First People uncorrupted by the Old World, and one thread of early colonisation is the devout wishes of the early missionaries to create a Christian Paradise on earth. Of course it was not to turn out that way; the secular settlers – and the terrible European diseases – made sure of that.

How the silver was squandered

Williamson does, however, clarify something which has always puzzled me, which is – if the Spanish monarchy began receiving ever-increasing amounts of silver from the New World (as the result of great silver strikes in North Mexico and Peru in the 1540s), how come Spain steadily declined in power and influence in the century and a half after the conquest?

Indeed, Williamson points out that by the death of Philip II in 1598, Spain was technically bankrupt and had experienced state bankruptcies (i.e been unable to repay its debts) in 1557, 1560, 1569, 1575, and 1596!

Where did the Spanish silver go? The answer turns out to be simple: Paying for Spain’s wars.

Even though it never accounted for more than 20 per cent of imperial revenues, silver was the fuel that drove the Spanish war machine. (p.106)

Philip II’s father had been Holy Roman Emperor and when Philip came to the throne in 1556, he inherited responsibility for territory in every continent known to Europeans – from the extensive empire in Central and South America to the newly conquered territory of the Phillippines, from the kingdom of Naples and Sicily in Italy, to the Seventeen Provinces of the Netherlands which began a protracted war of independence against Spanish rule in 1568. Not only this, but Philip saw himself as the defender of all Christendom in its wars against the Ottoman Turks in the East. He it was who organised ‘the Holy League’, bringing together ships from Spain, the Republic of Venice, the Republic of Genoa, the Papal States, the Duchy of Savoy and the Knights of Malta, to inflict a decisive defeat on the Ottomans at the naval Battle of Lepanto in 1567.

Philip also saw himself as the defender of Catholic orthodoxy against the shocking new Protestant heresy. Thus Philip gave large financial support to the Catholic League fighting the Protestants in France, and then went directly to war with the French King Henry IV, an intervention which secured the future of France as a Catholic country.

Last but not least, as we Brits know, Philip II built, armed, provisioned and manned an enormous armada which was designed, with the blessing of the pope, to conquer England, overthrow the Tudor dynasty and the Church of England, and impose Philip as the Catholic ruler of a Catholic Britain.

So that’s where the silver, hacked out of dangerous and unhealthy mines in the New World by Indian slaves and serfs, ended up being spent. Funding the impossible ambitions of the over-extended Spanish monarchy.

Spain went into decline because of proliferating military commitments for which it could not pay. (p.116)


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