Thomas Allen Publishers, 104 pp, $19.95, hardcover.
Like the short stories of Jorge Luis Borges, Alberto Manguel's With Borges is almost perfect in its brevity (almost only because of the annoying typos and spelling mistakes). But, as with Borges, brevity in this case doesn't mean simplicity. In fewer than 100 narrow pages, many of them with Sara Facio's evocative photographs, Manguel manages to echo the complexity of his fellow Argentinean's labyrinthine tales, with their blending of fact and fiction, mysticism and mathematics. With Borges does not include fiction (although the conversations are based on memories of a time long past), but it does combine memoir, biography, and reflections on the works of Borges and of the writers he admired to create an intimate portrait of this enigmatic writer.
Manguel, who is now a Canadian, encountered Borges in 1964, when the writer asked the 16-year-old bookstore clerk if he would read to him three or four evenings a week. Borges, in his mid-60s, had been blind since his late 50s and had a number of people who would read to him, "minor Boswells whose identities are rarely known to one another but who collectively hold the memory of one of the world's great readers". Manguel writes that he did not at the time consider the experience a privilege but found it enjoyable and satisfying: "I didn't take notes because during those evenings I felt too contented."
Visiting Borges's Buenos Aires home was like peering into the mind of the writer. Borges has described in interviews two incidents "of timelessness, of eternity" that affected much of his work, and Manguel finds that "Borges's apartment seemed to me to exist outside time, or rather, in a time made up of Borges's literary experiences."
Now, Manguel realizes what an extraordinary opportunity it was. "His concern was literature, and no writer, in this vociferous century, was as important in changing our relationship to literature as he was," Manguel writes, a statement that the always-modest Borges would have rejected.
For those who enjoy the written word, and especially for those who enjoy the fantastic writing of Borges, Manguel's book is confirmation of the pleasure that words can bring, whether to one of the greatest readers and writers of the 20th century or to a young man who would become one of Canada's most acclaimed writers.