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Microscopic Borges

Black and white photograph of wine and drinking
  • By Álvaro Enrigue
  • Issue 4
  • Essential

Paul told me about Borges’ glass the night I arrived in Chicago. He had translated a story of mine for a magazine and I was there for the launch of the issue. We were in his apartment in Logan Square, just one floor below the one the publishers had found for my three-night stay in the city. His words were, more or less: “A friend of mine has a glass from which Borges drank; he gave it to me, but I haven’t picked it up.” It was late October, 2012.

Even though Paul translates literature from time to time, he makes his living rendering technical materials from Spanish into English. This means he relates to Latin-American writing with enviable hedonism, free of the neuroses that suffocate all of us who profit from it. He speaks English with the gentle cadence of a Midwesterner, and Spanish with the very strong intonation of a person raised in Buenos Aires—where he learned it. That night we were drinking rye bourbon, then new to me. “Let’s go get that glass this very second,” I told him. “Mirá,” he answered with an accent that didn’t fit at all with his Slavic saint’s transparent eyes and blond beard. “It’s midnight!”

The next day I got a text message in Spanish from Paul, inviting me for a smoke on the balcony. (Only he could have used the most Argentine “pucho” for “cigarette” in Chicago.) Later, over a lunch of eggs, pancakes, and sausages large enough to feed a whole family, I asked him about Borges’ glass. His friend had been doing a Ph.D. at Northwestern University, he said, when Borges gave a lecture there. When the faculty took the writer to dinner, Paul’s friend picked up the glass from which the master had been drinking water at the podium.

“Can you call him?” I asked of this friend, wanting to visit the glass. “He’s teaching,” Paul said.

That evening my wife and daughter arrived. Theirs was one of the last airplanes to leave La Guardia: Hurricane Sandy was about to hit New York. We didn’t see Paul that night, but the next day, at the launch party, I asked again after Borges’ glass. “Don’t worry, I’ll get it in time for you to see it,” he told me. “We leave tomorrow,” I urged him. “You won’t. All the New York airports are a mess.”

By Monday all the invited writers had left but we were still stuck in Chicago, so Paul drove us to some of the city’s industrial zones—tourism becomes very specific when involuntary. We were cruising through Ukrainian Village when he pointed to a house and said: “There is Borges’ glass.”

“Let’s knock!” I said. “No,” he replied. “My friend isn’t expecting us.”

As the week moved on, our presence as victims of the hurricane produced a solidarity with our new neighbors that we neither deserved nor rejected. A distinguished city historian took us for a walking tour of turn-of-the-century skyscraper lobbies; a kindergarten teacher offered to baby-sit our daughter so we could go listen to music at the Hideout; one editor took us to eat at supposedly the best Thai restaurant in the United States and another to a pair of legendary record stores. I told all of them about Borges’ glass, maybe complaining a little about Paul’s reluctance to pick it up. Almost every night he would come up to our apartment to share conversation and some new kind of bourbon. I asked about Borges’ glass one more time. “I won’t make it tomorrow,” he told me. “I’ll be too nervous before my dentist appointment.”

We got a return flight for Saturday—six days after our schedule. On Friday night, Paul threw a dinner party for us at his apartment, inviting some of the people who had made our days stranded in Chicago a splendid family vacation. We waited for the baby to fall asleep so we could take her downstairs. When we entered the living room for a pre-dinner drink, there was an electric expectation. “What’s wrong?” I asked—and then I saw it.

“Is it the Holy Grail?” my wife asked Paul. “It is,” he said ceremoniously. I took a napkin in my hand, like a TV detective confronting evidence, to pick up the solitary wine glass in the center of the living-room table. Paul gestured to stop me and uncorked a bottle of rare bourbon. I started. “What are you doing?” As far as I was concerned we were losing precious microscopic information from the glass Borges himself had touched. “My friend had already washed it for us when I told him I was going to pick it up,” Paul explained. He served himself a shot and raised the glass. “Salud!

Álvaro Enrigue is the author of seven books of fiction. His short-story collection Hypothermia, which won the Ciutat de Barcelona prize, is available in English translation from Dalkey Archive Press. His latest novel, Muerte súbita, will be published in English by Riverhead in 2015 as Sudden Death.

"Glasses" © Brian W. Ferry