Novel, "Ego. Prose" series, Polirom, 2011, 224 pages
Translation rights sold to: All rights available
Disguised under one of Fernando Pessoa’s numerous heteronums, “Alexander Search,” Alex. Leo Serban constructs the fantastical and richly esoteric tale of the imaginary meeting between the Portuguese poet and another great writer of the twentieth century, Jorge Luis Borges. The pretext for this encounter, as well as the thread that binds together the narrative, is a mysterious letter discovered under the parquet of a flat in Buenos Aries, which magically brings all the characters together. For, besides Borges and Pessoa, there is also the spectacular and no less tangled tale of Franz Osberg, a forger of obscure origins who is wanted by Interpol. But above all else, this is a story of the magic of literature and writing, a text for connoisseurs, which foregrounds two of Leo Serban’s favourite authors, as well as two cities close to his heart: Buenos Aires and Lisbon. It is a book written with erudition and undeniable writerly talent.
I came to Buenos Aires looking for Borges and ended up falling in love with the city...
But I did meet Borges.
Leaning on his cane, he was standing in an antique shop on Paseo Arroyo, fatefully peering out of the display window into which I myself was peering. I entered the shop and enquired about him. The young man within indolently obliged. But I could see he was irritated. Obviously, he had other things to do. Or not to do.
The story of that particular Borges was nothing out of the ordinary. A wealthy family who were moving to New York went to the antique shop on Paseo Arroyo one day and offered the wooden statue to the owner. The owner didn’t like it very much – the carved Borges seemed more like a caricature – but he purchased it nonetheless: it might attract business.
He set it up in front of the window, as if Borges had just emerged from the bagno in the back and was about to leave. It somehow made sense to have Borges in the neighbourhood: he was born on Tucuman Street, between Esmeralda and Suipacha, and Arroyo is also situated between Suipacha and Esmeralda. But what is more striking, for lovers of parallels and symmetries, is the strange coincidence that right there on Paseo Arroyo, not far from the antique shop, stands the building where Borges (the real Borges!) met Mr. Franz Osberg.
1. Mr Franz
Franz Osberg had made a considerable fortune selling forgeries. Born in Graz at the turn of the century (although some claim his birthplace was in fact Göteborg), he came to Buenos Aires at the beginning of the 60s in order to escape the growing interest that Interpol was taking in his wrongdoings. His name was not “Osberg” at the time; he changed it after he met Borges.
But “Franz” was, apparently, his real first name. So, Franz was a sturdy, ruddy man in his 60s, with a limpid eye and military demeanour. He spoke Spanish with a heavy accent, which might be construed as Dutch or Deutsch, depending on one’s temperament. When he moved into a vast apartment in the Paseo Arroyo building, the only things he brought with him were mind-boggling quantities of suitcases. Unless Mr Franz were a clothes designer (which he was not), such extravagant luggage would have made little sense. What kind of man travels with so many bags? For the course of one whole afternoon, the neighbours watched these bulky, reddish leather suitcases being lugged one by one – never two at a time! – up to the fourth-floor apartment. They literally filled it. With the exception of the bathroom and kitchen, there were suitcases everywhere. The porters had deposited them face down on the shiny parquet, exactly in the order of the numbers attached to them. Nobody knew what they contained.
Mr Franz had travelled alone. The idea that there must be a Mrs Franz still in Europe, waiting to join her husband – and the numberless suitcases – on some later transatlantic crossing, would have seemed to be in the natural order of things. Some imagined her as young, blonde and bosomy; others argued that, on the contrary, she would be quite elderly, grey-haired, withered and bony, albeit still very chic. Neither hypothesis was ever proven true or false, because “Mrs Franz” never showed up...
Mr Franz was militarily meticulous. Each and every item that belonged to him had to be numbered, and these numbers were duly recorded in a ledger. As a matter of fact, more than half the suitcases contained nothing but inventories of his possessions. Some contained forged artworks; some contained merely artworks.
In the first year of his sojourn in Buenos Aires, Mr Franz kept a fairly low profile. He could sometimes be seen sauntering down the Avenida Alvear to take his morning coffee – and never more than two medialunas – at the Alvear Palace; he would treat himself to an occasional play at the Teatro Colon; or else he would merely spend his time strolling up and down the Paseo Arroyo, apparently counting his steps. His entire existence seemed to revel in being opaque. His entire appearance seemed to achieve non-description. Had it not been for his daily routines, Mr Franz would have been invisible.
But perhaps it was precisely this – his cottonwoolly routine – which turned him into a desaparecido in plain sight. He was both present and absent. While maintaining a more than comfortable lifestyle, he had become inconspicuous. Nobody would have guessed that he was on the run from anything – not least from Interpol! The initial shock of his “suitcase overload” had subsided. Mr Franz had settled comfortably into the mould of a late-middle-aged, quiet, conventional citizen.
His apartment was kept spotlessly clean. Every morning at nine thirty on the dot, Doña Rosa, the cook, who was in her fifties, would arrive and promptly start work in the kitchen. Her daughter Rosaria, a tall, gaunt spinster with a darkish complexion, came twice a week and left the rooms with a perfect sheen. They were both trustworthy and highly efficient: in her youth, Rosa had been employed as a cook in a hotel in Switzerland, and so she knew how to prepare good, healthy food – her broccoli fondues were wunderbahr, said Mr Franz; Rosaria was not outstanding, but made a point of attaining impeccability by dint of sheer hard work. And, while her mother sang in her kitchen and clattered the gleaming metal utensils like in some musical comedy, Rosaria would put her long nose down, stare at the parquet as if it were a crossword puzzle that needed solving, and vigorously apply her cloth to each square centimetre. Mr Franz was satisfied.
2. The letter in the parquet
It was thanks to this diligent application, as she laboured over a section of not yet mirror-like parquet, that Rosaria made a discovery that was to change her life – and Mr Franz’s – forever...
It happened one gray Monday, at around a quarter past ten in the morning. It had rained all Sunday and, although raindrops were now intermittent, like ghosts of the previous day, the air was still damp.
Rosaria had woken up at the usual hour, which is to say, five. Even had she wished to, she would not have been able to sleep longer, given that she went to bed at eleven o’clock every evening and six hours of sleep were more than enough for her.
Being a spinster, she lived with her mother, who had been a widow for quite some time. Rosaria’s father had been somewhat of a blight on both women’s lives – a drunk and a punk and a wastrel who had succumbed to cancer of the liver at the age of forty – and so by tacit accord they had eliminated his very sorry existence from their lives: the house where they lived – in Montserrat – had been bought using Rosa’s money, and her daughter had of late been earning more and more, as her hardworking skills gained her more and more lucrative jobs.
On the morning in question (a Monday, at quarter past ten, as Rosaria recalls), Rosa had already arrived at Mr Franz’s – at nine thirty, as usual. As it was also a cleaning day, Rosaria had come with her, on the C line of the Subte, which took them to the Estacion San Marin; thence, it was a mere ten minutes walk to Mr Franz’s apartment.
But Rosaria had parted with her mother at the estacion, as she felt an irresistible craving for some bonbons... Rosa did not want to wait for her – Rosaria was forlornly searching for one of those sweet vendors that usually throng the square – so she left her there and quickened her steps in order to reach the Paseo Arroyo on the dot. Rosaria finally found some bonbons and, instantly gladdened, quickened her own steps, arriving at Mr Franz’s apartment some ten minutes after her mother.
Mr Franz himself was preparing to go out and take breakfast at Alvear’s (Como es el tiempo? he asked Rosa as she entered, todavia la lluvia? Mr Franz was mixing together all the languages he knew – he knew about five, some only vaguely, but could generally make himself understood) when Rosaria arrived at the apartment, a silly smile on her dark face. Hola, chica, que tal? mumbled Mr Franz his standard greeting, and off he went. Rosaria just stood there grinning stupidly, and the minute Mr Franz went out of the door she frenziedly set about her task.
And so, she was on her knees, barely conscious of the milonga coming through the kitchen door c/o her mother, when she felt the wooden rectangle she was polishing wobble... She raised her torso, more startled than curious, and then bent back down, tentatively fingering the piece of wood as if it were jelly fresh-from-the-fridge.
In her mind – where not many things found refuge, and those which did had nothing to do with mysteries – a loose piece of parquet meant only one thing: it had to be fixed, and fixed fast, before Mr Franz found out, otherwise he might think Rosaria herself was to blame for loosening it! And Rosaria certainly didn’t want that. So she stood for a while looking down, trying to figure out a way to make that wood sit still...
As it happened, Mr Franz came back at that very moment, having submitted to the thought that perhaps an umbrella might come in handy – in Buenos Aires, one never knows when it is going to start raining again. And so he found Rosaria in that equivocal position, as if she were undecided as to whether to kneel in front of an altar or scrub the floor in front of it. Rosaria, que pasa? he asked. Tienes un problema? Rosaria was even more startled than when she had discovered the loose piece of wood: shaking and trembling she sprang up, as if electrocuted (a rather exaggerated analogy, fortunately). Es... es... she stammered unconvincingly, before pointing at the floor with her middle digit (her index finger had probably shrivelled up with fear). Mr Franz approached and looked down. He kneeled, touched the piece of wood, and immediately went into action: “Quickly, get me a knife!”
Rosaria burst into the kitchen looking like the bride of Frankenstein and headed straight for the top middle drawer. Her mother looked at her in bewilderment, she too gripping a knife (she had been chopping carrots).
At that very moment, in Jorge Luis Borges’ small apartment on the fourth floor of Calle Maipu 994, Alberto Manguel was about to read to Borges from Fernando Pessoa’s notebooks.
Manguel had become the Argentine master’s reader a few months before. Borges had asked him when he was visiting the bookshop where the very youthful Manguel was working. Manguel had felt proud, although suitably intimidated. Borges was living in the apartment with his mother, Doña Leonor. Because his blindness was advancing, he would ask people he met to be his readers. Of course, they agreed.
For Borges, reading had acquired the objective reality of listening to another’s voice telling him stories he already knew. Or poems. Or essays. People assumed Borges had read everything, but that was not the case. That morning, for instance, Manguel’s voice began to inform Borges about Pessoa’s thoughts, which he could only have guessed at when reading Pessoa’s poems with his own seeing eyes, a long time ago.
The poems were Pessoa’s, there was no doubt about that, but the mysterious Portuguese had chosen to give them the voices of the four other poets he had invented for himself. They were what he called heteronyms.
Borges was thinking about this as he listened to Manguel. He was thinking about how Pessoa, who had wanted to vanish behind four identities of his own invention, had been speaking in his own voice in those notebooks. What had become of his heteronyms in the meantime? Borges did not know, of course, but he could imagine. As Manguel – who had a voice similar, perhaps, to that of one of Pessoa’s poets – read to him, Borges dreamed that the young Argentine was, in fact, one of those poets, let us say Ricardo Reis. And so, he imagined that Ricardo Reis was reading to him the thoughts of Fernando Pessoa.
This settled the exact setting of one of Pessoa’s alter egos, but he still had three more to imagine.
Borges immediately placed Alberto Careiro in a café in Chiado, at a table by the window, where he could smoke while gazing at the people walking past. Careiro had a husky voice, but he was not speaking right then. He was an angular, sturdy man of around forty, with a short moustache and round glasses. (He looked a bit like Mr Franz, but Borges had not yet met Mr Franz, and so he could not see the resemblance.) Alberto Careiro was also an occasional smoker. Because he was a little vain, he liked showing off his ivory cigarette holder with its narrow golden ring at the wider end. In his case, smoking had acquired the ingenuous form of puffing away in public, as a means of displaying what he considered to be a clear sign of his refinement: his cigarette holder. It was the yellowish white spindle around which the smoke slowly unwound, and it seemed as if Careiro was also drifting away in wisps, like an appendix to the cigarette holder.
Borges smiled. Manguel noticed that he was smiling and so he paused, somewhat perplexed: what he had just read was not particularly funny... He imagined the writer wanted to test his reactions, and so he continued reading.
But then he thought – as he went on reading, without any particular empathy toward the text – that the blind old man could not have seen his reactions, so maybe it was something about his voice which had made him smile? He unconsciously raised his voice in the middle of the sentence, and on realising it he surreptitiously looked at Borges once more, from beneath his long, sensitive eylashes. Borges had the same hermetic smile on his face. Manguel frowned, gave a slight shrug and read on.
Alberto Careiro was still admiring his cigarette holder, fixed to a figment of Borges’ imagination.
“A dadaist, surrealist, postmodern tale, the novella unreels at brisk pace, playing ping-pong with time and space, teeming with puns, anagrams, anachronisms, paradoxes, switcheroos, interchangeable characters, cryptic allusions, ‘flamboyantly extravagant’ (the author’s own phrase) flights of imagination, neologisms, Gallicisms, and mannerisms à la Alex. Leo Serban – a sui generis modernist écriture, with dialogues that are buried in the text, delimited only by quotation marks.”
“Even when they are not dialogues and diary entries, Alex Leo Serban’s texts create the impression of spontaneity. What also contribute to this effect are the numerous parentheses, designed to reflect the flux of thought. Another strong point of his texts is their lively style (the puns are another dominant, even in the titles).”
“I have no idea what life is, or what death is, and only an idiot would claim to have an absolute answer. But one thing I do know: what it means to be alive. Leo showed me this. I have never met anyone who inspired and expired life with so much contagious passion. His mind, language and spirit had the savour of a Borges or a Hitchcock, but also a green salad with surimi. If you were looking for a sure thing, you followed his lead: in cities, in films, in stories, in delights.”