Reviewed by Antonella Townsend
“How on earth had I landed in bed with an elderly, loquacious blind man in a remote village in the Scottish Highlands?”
A famous blind Argentinean writer, an American student, driving an old Morris Minor, touring the Scottish Highlands. Interesting plot. But this narrative is more biography than fiction. The student is Jay Parini, who, in 1970, at the behest of Jorge Luis Borges, no less, circumnavigates the Highlands in a car that has a connection to the road that seems more spiritual than rubber on tarmac. What could go wrong?
The Vietnam draft is hanging over Parini like the proverbial dagger so he leaves America to enroll at St. Andrews, Scotland. The idea is to complete a Ph.D. thesis on the poetry of Mackay Brown, under the supervision of Professor Alec Falconer. He is introduced to, and becomes friends with, Alastair Reid, his son Jasper and their lodger Jeff. Reid, as many will know, is a poet of some note and also a translator of Borges’ poems. Borges visits Reid and, of course, Jay is introduced. A hilarious dinner party, where, under the influence of Reid’s dope-infused brownies, blind Borges takes off at speed across a beachside golf course, using crashing waves and the noise of screeching gulls as a guide, with the intent of chanting out The Seafarer on the edge of the North Sea.
It was too wonderful, unlikely, and satisfying: a blind old poet beside a putting green. Alastair, Jeff, Jasper, and I gathered before him, listening to the odd recitation, the cries of gulls overhead and the nearby surf nearly drowning him out.
When Reid and Jasper must go to London for a few days, he asks Jay to help with Borges. ‘Helping’ turns into a road trip at the behest of Borges who maps out their travels – Perth, Aviemore, Inverness, Loch Ness and its monster, and Grendel, battle of Culloden. To Borges, these names are akin to a Highland poem.
Borges will pay for the trip but Jay is tasked with describing all he sees for the blind Borges, instructing Jay – be specific, use metaphor, images – description is revelation! Understandably, Jay feels he might buckle under the pressure.
As they set off, Borges names the rickety old car Rocinante after Don Quixote’s lazy horse, the first of many literary references that besets a bemused Jay. He is inundated by Borges’ stream of conscious brain-bustle, speaking with impressionistic bullet points, circumnavigations and associations: a wild disjunctive manner. … daring mental leaps sometimes doubling back on themselves to clarify and reinforce earlier lines of argument. Jay knew he had a long exhausting week ahead of him, but also knew that he will be given a literary education courtesy of Borges’ encyclopedic knowledge. And, of course, as per the above escapade, there are numerous Borges style romps. He licked the spine of a Walter Scott novel in a library to the horror of the attending librarian. During a raging thunderstorm, he slipped down a slope in the Cairngorm Mountains all the while screaming out lines from King Lear. He fell out of a boat on Loch Ness while reciting Beowulf. Reduces a priest to tears by reciting a Latin blessing. And so it goes on. And, of course, the car dies.
There are several layers of narrative other than keeping up with the antics of Borges. While coping with the famous blind man, Parini is coping with being in love. At this stage of his life he is not confident, beset by doubts about everything! And his love interest is not an easy conquest. Then there are multiple envelopes from the American draft board, none of which Parini opens, but they harangue him from the edges, and are never far from his mind. Also weighing heavily is his Ph.D. topic, the poetry of Mackay Brown. Brown lives on Orkney and Jay is trying to manoeuvre Borges into extending their tour to include taking the ferry to Orkney. Then Parini has to deal with his best friend being blown-up in Vietnam.
Parini refers to Borges and Me as a novelized memoir or auto-fiction. Call it what you may – it is most entertaining; readers will be leaning in to glean as much about Jorge Luis Borges as possible. Jay Parini provides readers with a very personal encounter.
By Jay Parini
Allen & Unwin