Lima: Peisa, 2022. 333 pages.
In his reading of Borges’s famous story “The Aleph,” Gustavo Faverón Patriau lays out a Borgean labyrinth. His approach to the story overwhelms us with an erudition that is rare in contemporary literary criticism. However, his study is not an exercise in vanity, but rather a novel reading that proposes a new code as it deciphers Borges’s enigmas. Faverón tells us that “The Aleph” is about the end of World War II, particularly the threat that the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki meant for humankind. In a meticulous, seven-part journey, in an ascending or descending spiral depending on our vantage point, Faverón’s text convinces us that the story’s famous chaotic list is not what it appears. There is a syntax, an order that guides it and builds a pyramid, taking us from the Tower of Babel to a church in Querétaro, a mosque in Córdoba, the columns of Amr in Cairo. The very structure of Faverón’s seven-part text recalls Dante’s purgatory. In each part, he offers us an idea and leads us by the hand through his discussion of it, leaving us on the next step, correcting and enlarging the previous idea in a spiral.
Faverón opposes the chaotic list that fascinated so many postmodern theorists, a cosmic-chaotic list, or, in other words, an order built out of the experience of chaos. Faverón shows us that Borges carefully crafted the ordered list during the months in which he wrote the story, between February and August of 1945. He studies story manuscripts and past analyses of the text and demonstrates that the universe unfolding before Borges’ (the character’s) eyes, which he tries to reproduce in language, responds to the historic events that shook the world during those months: the liberation of Auschwitz, the bombing of Dresden, Mussolini’s execution, Hitler’s suicide, the atomic bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Faverón reminds us that a few weeks after that catastrophe, the story went to press.
El orden del Aleph dismantles the optical apparatus the story creates and shows us the mechanisms Borges took from baroque writers and artists who call into question our ability to see and understand the world, the systems of mirrors and mirages that make up culture, and the impossibility of seeing and representing that which is beyond us: god, the universe, the most abject truths. Many critics of Borges had already recognized the author’s reflections on the melancholy of modernity, on our own distant death and its links to an apocalyptic vision. But, to me, Faverón suggests a totally unknown and unexpected dimension; that is, the Aleph as reflection, allegory, impression, and illusion of the atomic bomb’s horror—the image that cannot be seen without destroying the eyes of those who see it, the image we have only seen in representations and simulations.
Other Borges stories contain clear denunciations of Nazism. Immediately we think of “Deutsches Requiem” and “The Secret Miracle,” for example. But in “The Aleph,” most of us saw Borges’s love of Jewish culture in the title of the story alone, the initial letter of the alphabet that holds within it all the letters following it, and therefore, the universe itself. And, in my memory of the works written about the story, which could be very faulty, no one has analyzed it as a denunciation of the Shoah, the Holocaust, much less as a reaction to the atomic bomb. Faverón meticulously and convincingly builds an impressive critical system demonstrating that what Borges sees in the story is not only the horror of the transformation of time in Beatriz, in her house, in her neighborhood, but rather humanity’s horror manifest in the “final solution” and the atomic bomb. Further still, Faverón suggests that the “ultimate aim of the story” was to say “something decisive and urgent about the upheavals of twentieth century history, an idea that, far from the melancholy dejection that seems to inundate every page of the story, is a humanist and pacifist and even hopeful dictum on the future of civilization” (19).
The syntax, the order Faverón discovers in the chaotic list is revealed in the elements of that famous passage in which the main character struggles to describe the indescribable revelation and says, “I saw…, I saw…, I saw…” Consequently, the story shows us that it is about a series of terms alluding to nature, civilization, war, the destruction of the self, and the destruction of the universe in order to then restart, with new terms, the same allusions in the same sequence. Faverón does not linger on the destruction at the end of each cycle, but rather precisely on the possibility of initiating a new one.
Faverón pays special attention to the strange postscript closing the story, in which Borges (the character) speaks skeptically about his experience of the Aleph. The narrator claims it must have been a false Aleph, like other Alephs mentioned throughout history. The story’s readers are left with a certain unease: why does the narrator deny having this revelation? Faverón finds the answer in Borges’s mention of the antisemite Richard Burton. In the apocryphal citation, Burton says that references to the mirror containing the universe are false, but that perhaps it lies in a column of the Amr Mosque. In a careful analysis that includes the night added to the Arabian Nights, which tells the story of Aladdin and the Magic Lamp, and references to a Jewish territory between China and the Soviet Union, Faverón suggests that Burton’s antisemitism seeks to deny a foundational space for the Jewish community, which Borges recovers in a postscript that we, as readers, reject.
El orden del Aleph not only offers fascinating arguments about Borgean writing, methods, and perspective; it does so in impeccable language and style that Faverón inherits from Borges and Bolaño. To make the analysis even more Borgean, Faverón ends his book the same way Borges ends his story, with a postscript dated May 31, 2021. Here the author says that the Amr Mosque met the same fate as Beatriz Viterbo’s house, and was demolished in an ambitious development project in the seventh century. Beyond the negation of the epiphany that the story seems to suggest, Faverón explains that “The Aleph” is about the salvation of the world through language. It is a tale that, paraphrasing the author, “loses faith in the fears and the apprehensions of the Borgean aesthetic, a story that doesn’t conform to the imminence of the revelation, but, on the contrary, reveals an encompassing form of love for humankind and the universe” (297).