Saturday, May 31, 2008
Despite having a reputation (especially in Anglo-American circles) for being a very dry, detached, "intellectual" writer who concentrated so much of his writing energy on labyrinths, mirrors, and doubles, Borges was known in his native Argentina for writing a much wider variety of stories. While I'll discuss his early fictions, much of which was influenced by the tone that José Hernández used in his epic poem, Martín Fierro, at a later point, I do want to note that Borges spent over 30 years of his life collaborating with fellow Argentine author Adolfo Bioy Casares on a series of stories. Most of these tales, published under the pseudonyms of H. Bustos Domecq and B. Suártez, were satirical works that parodied the increasingly popular género policial (crime fiction) stories that were becoming the rage in Argentina (as it had in the US and Britain in the late 1930s). Despite the nature of these stories, one can also detect Borges and Bioy Casares' appreciation for the crime fiction genre itself.
Six Problems for Don Isidro Parodi (or Seis problemas para don Isidro Parodi, as I read this in the original Spanish) deals with six interconnected stories that take the structure of a Holmesian mystery and inverts it to a degree. Instead of a super sleuth who notes precisely physical evidence that others have neglected, Isidro Parodi, or "prisoner in cell block #273," solves all of his clues behind bars. Imprisoned for 21 years for a variety of crimes including embezzlement, Parodi happens to overhear police officials and other socialites discussing a crime that they haven't been able to solve. Wh.ile the obstinate and rather obtuse police officials bear a family resemblance to their peers in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's mysteries, here in these stories, Borges and Bioy Casares turn them into a caustic and often hilarious caricature of Argentinean society of the early 1940s, full of creído and prompousness.
It is for this juxtaposition of an imprisoned criminal sleuth and the foibles of his society that makes Six Problems for Don Isidro Parodi a delight to read. Each of the stories builds on the ones that preceded it, until by the final story, there is a tapestry of vividly-drawn characters. Borges and Bioy Casares combine their talents for interesting, ponderous crimes with their wickedly-executed characters to create six stories that work equally well as crime fiction and as satire. Highly recommended for those who are Borges completests, crime fiction lovers, and those who have read and enjoyed Bioy Casares' excellent La invención de Morel