Thursday, July 6, 2006

Was Borges a Lousy Librarian?

Jorge Luis Borges is remembered as one of the greatest writers of the 20th Century, based on the strength of his short stories, "The Library of Babel" among them.

Borges was also a librarian. But was he a good one? I recently combed through the bargain book shelves at the local barnes & Noble and came across a book called "Borges: A Life" by Edwin Williamson. Naturally, my first thought was to go to the index in the back and look up the word "library." This led me to page 292 and a discussion of the well-known story of how Borges had been "promoted" out of the Miguel Cané branch of the Buenos Aires Municipal Library in 1946 and installed as the director of poultry inspection. (Borges was later appointed as director of the National Library in 1955 by an anti-Peronist government.)

The author suggested that there may have been objective grounds for Borges' removal from the library:
  1. His record of absenteeism (apparently not a proud one)
  2. Infringing standard civil service rules against becoming involved in political activities
The "promotion" to inspector of poultry is always given in biographies as a deliberate insult to Borges--as a reward for his anti-Peron agitations. But was someone trying to do him a sincere favor? According to the book:

The only difference between Borges and the many others who were to lose their jobs was that he was one of the best-known writers in the country. And it was for precisely this reason that he gained the sympathy of certain writers who worked at the Secretariat for Culture.

The only way to keep Borges from being fired was to transfer him elsewhere. It was decided he would be a director of Beekeeping (apicultura in Spanish). The book states that it was Borges and his pals who distorted the word to avicultura (poultry in English) for the purpose of marketing the transfer as a deliberate humiliation. Borges then played it up as an instance of "political persecution."

The account is interesting because this is the first I've heard that the promotion was for beekeeping not poultry, as well as the idea that his influential friends were actually trying to do him a favor, not humiliate him.

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