According to our contributor, this is a translation from the Spanish
of a previously unknown manuscript recently discovered among the
papers in the Jorge Luis Borges collection of the Fundación
San Telmo in Buenos Aires. We believe this piece is apocryphal,
however. While the content is based on historical fact and could
be argued to have some stylistic affinities with Borges's published
works, the manuscript is signed "J.L.B., Buenos Aires, 1992."
Borges died in 1986, in Geneva, Switzerland, of course. A call
to the Fundación San Telmo to confirm the existence of
a manuscript in their collection entitled "Piazzolla y yo"
was not returned.
He died this summer, on July 4th, just six short years after I,
Borges, left Geneva to return to the place where I started. When
I learned of his passing, a flood of aural memories filled my
head. I never knew his face, since when we first met person to
person, my sight had departed. But I had long known his music
its passionate intensity, its baroque extravagance, its
refinement, its violence, its longing. I adored his tangos the
way I cherished my sister, the way I would have loved a brother.
I remember our first conversations in my office
in the National Library. He told me he wanted to record an album
of music he had written, with lyrics and texts taken from my poetry
and fiction. I was flattered by his selections from my poetry,
especially "Tango," from The Self and the Other,
and the three milongas from For Six Strings. But I was
most touched by his choice of "Man on Pink Corner,"
the story that some thirty years earlier had established my name.
I started to tell him how much of myself I heard in his music,
but he interrupted, laughing, and said he wanted to tell me how
of much of himself he had discovered in my words in my
stories and poems of barrios with names from the past, with blue-washed
walls, broken concrete sidewalks, and withered roses, where the
sound of a tango strummed on a guitar could instantly become the
harsh breathing of two men fighting with knives to the death.
Later, when I first heard El Tango, the
album he recorded, I was transported back to the Buenos Aires
I knew after the turn of the century, to Palermo with its cabarets
and brothels, its tangos and milongas, and its compadritos
with their black clothes and black high-heeled shoes, their pride
and courage, their flashing knives. Once again, I saw my family
in that neighborhood. I heard the voice of my father, who spoke
and read English, talked philosophy, and explained Xeno's paradox
to me over the chessboard. I saw the proud, erect carriage of
my mother, descended from soldiers and freedom fighters. Again,
my sister Norah and I played with imaginary playmates while we
wandered through the library and the vast garden. I marveled at
how evocatively that lost time and place had been captured in
Hombre de la esquina rosada, the suite of tangos and milongas
he composed for my story.
In what has become one of my best-known pieces,
I wrote that I moved on from creating mythologies of the slums
and outskirts of the city to playing games with time and infinity.
As I listened to his El Tango that day, the memory of something
he once told me made me realize I had merely traveled in a circle.
He was explaining how he had started playing tangos as a child,
performed with Carlos Gardel, played bandoneón and arranged
for Anibal Troilo. All the while, he was teaching himself how
to compose in the classical European style. He told me how he
had shown some of his compositions to Arthur Rubenstein, then
living in Buenos Aires, and how Rubenstein introduced him to Alberto
Ginastera, who became his first teacher and taught him the music
of the twentieth-century masters.
enough, he told me, the pivotal event in his artistic development
occurred in France. I remember his laugh when he said, "Yes,
I had to go to Paris to learn from a French woman who I was."
He had won an international competition and received a grant to
study with Nadia Boulanger. At their first meeting, he showed
her some of his compositions, which she started to read. But suddenly
she stopped and said something that stunned him. "These are
very well written," she said. That's all, nothing more. After
an interminable silence, she finished her thought. "But I
can't find you in any of this," she said. She then asked
him about his personal life: was he married, what composers did
he admire, what was his instrument? Was it piano? With great shame,
he admitted, No, it was the bandoneón, this concertina-like
thing, and he played tangos in nightclubs. Cabarets, you mean?
she asked. Yes, cabarets, he said. The next time, she told him,
he would bring his bandoneón and play tangos for her. This
he did, with great anxiety, but when he finished his performance,
he saw her eyes moist and sparkling, and she took his hand in
hers and said, "This is who you are. This is the music you
And I thought about how alike we two porteños
were me with my love of Stevenson, Hölderlin, Spinoza;
him with his love of Stravinksy, Bartok, Ravel; and for both of
us, underneath those obsessions, the sound of a tango summoning
memories of a barrio with a pink corner store, the face of a young
woman who does not want to be remembered, the closeness of death,
the inevitability of loss.
Not long before he recorded The Rough Dancer
and the Cyclical Night, a second album inspired by my texts,
an interviewer asked me for my thoughts on the tango, this music
that originated in the bordellos of our city at the turn of the
century. I concluded my little dissertation by saying, "All
the hustle and bustle of the city, all the emotions that move
men anger, fear, desire, sexual pleasure become
central motifs for the authors of tangos. I don't think it is
absurd to consider the tango as a vast expression of the incoherent
comédie humaine of the life of Buenos Aires."
Now, that unfortunate statement seems to me to
be evidence of what I once characterized as a certain vanity that
turns personal preference into theatrical props. No, I would much
prefer that my reader look for my thoughts on tango in the story
I wrote that he set to music. Everything I feel is there in that
tale, which tells how Francisco Real, the cuchillero from
the north, came to Maldonado to challenge Rosendo Juárez,
the fiercest man with a knife in the barrio; how Rosendo refused
to fight and walked away, never to return; how Real then called
for tango music and danced with Rosendo's woman, La Lujanera,
and how she went out the door with Real, still in his arms, still
dancing; how Real returned alone later, bleeding from a knife
wound delivered by an unnamed assailant, and died on that same
dance floor; how La Lujanera went home with the man who told me
this story, the man who said he barely knew of Real and had only
crossed paths with him three times, all on the same night.
And thinking back to the hot, humid evening when
I wrote the final sentence of that story so many years ago, I
wonder why I am so certain that the tango I imagined then is the
same tango he, Piazzolla, composed for Hombre de la esquina
rosada so many years later.
J.L.B.,Buenos Aires, 1992
ALBUMS DRAWN ON FOR THIS ESSAY
El Tango: Astor Piazzolla y su Orquestra Canta Edmundo
Rivero, textos de Jorge Luis Borges, Polygram, 1965, Argentina.
Music by Astor Piazzolla. Out of print.
Borges and Piazzolla, Milan Entertainment,
1997, USA. Performance of the music by Astor Piazzolla, with lyrics
by Jorge Luis Borges, originally recorded on El Tango.
Daniel Binelli, arranger and bandoneón, Jairo, vocalist,
Lito Cruz, narrator.
The Rough Dancer and the Cyclical Night (Tango
Apasionado), Nonesuch, 1987, USA. Music by Astor Piazzolla,
performed by Astor Piazzolla's sextet.
BOOKS DRAWN ON
Borges, Jorge Luis. A Personal Anthology, ed. Anthony Kerrigan.
Grove, New York, 1967.
Borges, Jorge Luis. Collected Fictions,
trans. Andrew Hurley. Penguin, New York, 1998.
Borges, Jorge Luis. El hacedor. Emecé
Editores, Buenos Aires, 1960.
Borges, Jorge Luis. El otro, el mismo.
Emecé Editores, Buenos Aires, 1969.
Borges, Jorge Luis. Historia universal de la
infama. Emecé Editores, Buenos Aires, 1935.
Borges, Jorge Luis. Selected Poems, trans.
Alexander Coleman. Penguin, New York, 1999.
Borges, Jorge Luis. Twenty-four Conversations
with Borges, interviews by Roberto Alifano, trans. Nicomedes
Suárez Araúz, Willis Barnstone and Moemí
Escandell. Lascaux Publishing, Housatonic, 1984.
RELATED WEB SITES
"Astor Piazzolla: A sad, current and conscious tango,"
interview by Gonzalo Saavedra, Barcelona, 1989, www.piazzolla.org.
Pearlberg, Gerry Gomez, "A
Conversation with Guillermo Castro," Frigate: The
Transverse Review of Books, Vol. 1, No. 2, November 2000 -