Borges’ Aleph and the Islamic world

This article is also available in: Italiano

“The Aleph” is one of the most famous and appreciated books by Jorge Luis Borges, one of the greatest Argentine authors of all time, not immune to the charm of the “Islamic world”

The Aleph

A lucid and passionate thought guides these stories, in which an ardent and rash invention touches, with often dramatic or pathetic results, universal themes: time, eternity, death, personality and its doubling, madness, the pain, the fate. Universal themes combined with the feeling of the unrepeatable uniqueness of the individual experience, in a writer who presents himself, first of all, under the aspect of elegance.

A particular book

I made the decision to read something by Jorge Luis Borges about a year ago, when I started dealing with fantastic creatures of the “Islamic world”; I was very impressed by his profound erudition on topics so distant to him both in geography and in history and for this very reason I was determined to read some of his works, so that I could observe his knowledge with my own eyes. It goes without saying that, for what I had imagined, his “Book of Imaginary Beings” would have been much more suitable, but it is very likely that sooner or later the latter will also appear on the Middle East and Surroundings.

The Aleph

“Aleph”, on the other hand, turns out to be much more similar and similar to “Les Portiques de la mer” by Shams Nadir, author who, not surprisingly, has long been considered the “Borges of the East”. The book collects 17 stories, each with a different context and spirit, but each of them capable of providing absolutely non-trivial reflections, several of which can be perfectly connected to the universe of the Medio Oriente e Dintorni.

Between the Ancient and the New World

Specifically, there are 7 texts that are connected quite directly, even if some of them need to be minimally contextualized to better grasp analogies that are not so visible at first glance. The first is without a shadow of a doubt “The search for Averroè”, in my humble opinion, one of the best ever in the collection. The story tells of Averroè’s love for Aristotle, to which however he is unable to access entirely as he is unable to elaborate the concept of drama and tragedy; Borges ‘brilliant idea is to compare Averroes‘ situation to his, only possible thanks to the ignorance of both.

“I felt that that opera was making fun of me. I felt that Averroes, who wanted to imagine what a drama is without knowing what a theater is, was no longer absurd than me, that I wanted to imagine Averroes, certainly material that some news is about by Renan, Lane and Asín Palacios. I felt, on the last page, that my narration was a symbol of the man I was while I was writing, and that, in order to write it, I had to be that man, and that, in order to be that man, I had to write that story, and so on indefinitely. (The instant I stop believing in him, Averroes disappears) “

taken from “The search for Averroes”, itself contained in “Aleph” by Jorge Luis Borges

Other very interesting and extremely connected tales to the “Islamic world” are “The Zahir”, “Abenjacàn the Bojari, killed in his labyrinth”, “The two kings and the two labyrinths” and “The man on the threshold”. The first story revolves all around the concept of Zahir who, within the Latin American world, corresponds to an obsession impossible to dominate and who, starting from the world of dreams, takes possession of the obsessed until he thinks that to the object / thing / living being that embodies its zahir. It must be said that, within the Islamic world, from which the zahir comes, it has no such connotations and would be either the exoteric / manifest meaning of the Koran or one of the 99 names of Allah; Az-Zahir is specifically mentioned in Surah 57 in verse 3 and is traditionally translated as “The Manifest” / “The Evident”. In the second text we see instead the story of a cowardly servant and a violent master who, by changing their habits, will be able to transform themselves into each other, making us relive atmospheres that are very reminiscent of those experienced in some books by Orhan Pamuk . “The two kings and the two labyrinths” is a story that some copyists interspersed in “The Thousand and One Nights” and “The man on the threshold” will make us discover the mysterious fate of a violent British governor of India.

Indirectly related

However, there is a text which, although apparently very far from the world of the Middle East and its surroundings, at the end of the day is perhaps the most similar of all: “God’s writing”. In this story we are told of the imprisonment of Tzinacàn, magician of the pyramid of Qaholom, imprisoned in his own pyramid by the Spanish conquistadors. In his cell, the great sage will be able to raise his spirit beyond all human knowledge, even managing to read the “writing of God” in the spots of a jaguar, a sacred animal for Mayan mythology.

“It’s a formula of fourteen random words (which seem random) and it would be enough for me to say it aloud to be omnipotent. It would be enough for me to say it to abolish this stone prison, for the day to invade my night, for being young and immortal, for jaguar lacerated Alvarado, to sink the holy knife into the Spanish breasts, to rebuild the pyramid and the empire. Forty syllables; fourteen words and I, Tzinacàn, would rule the lands ruled by Moctezuma. I remember more than Tzinacàn. May the mystery written in the tigers die with me. Whoever has seen the universe cannot think of a man, of his petty joys or misfortunes, even if that man is himself. he and now he no longer cares about his action, since he is now nobody. That is why I do not pronounce the formula, that is why I let the days forget me, lying in the darkness. “

From “The writing of the god” in turn taken from “Aleph” by Jorge Luis Borges

Like Hayy ibn Yaqzan, however, once he reaches the height of enlightenment, he will lose interest in life and personal power, considering himself no longer the center of the world, but a part of it, absolutely insignificant compared to its immensity. In addition to the affinity with the path of Ibn Yaqzan and that of the mystics in general, it is impossible not to notice a profound harmony between the search for the “writing of God” in the spots of the jaguar of Tzinacàn and the search for a hidden meaning in the letters of Galip in “The Black Book” by Pamuk. The difference is that the substratum there is absolutely “Islamic” and very strongly reconnected to the Persian and Sufi world, while here the plot and the “illuminations” align with the American context, leading us to very different references.

The Aleph

Another story that is absolutely akin to the Middle East and then without a shadow of a doubt “The Aleph”, which gives its name to the entire collection. I must say, in all honesty, that I imagined the latter very connected to a sort of “path of illumination” similar to those already seen previously, while it is precisely the Aleph object that assumes great value. The story in fact speaks of a book with which Borges would have come into contact, which would have, in a certain sense, the entire universe; here it is impossible not to see some analogy between the two worlds, especially considering some of the strongest interpretations linked to the concept of “book” and “Islam”.

The Aleph

This religion is in fact the one in which this concept is absolutely strongest, so much so that the Holy Quran is considered “its miracle” and its “primeval” copy would be something extremely similar to the Aleph mentioned by Borges. I will not be too precise because I do not remember exactly the source of what I am about to say, but according to some, the “true Quran” would be a kind of immense and sacred book in which there is written the beginning and the end of everything, knowledge that can be accessed, obviously only Allah; based on the characteristics provided by Borges, it is then not so strange to imagine the Aleph as a hybrid of the Quran “for all” and the “primeval” one preserved by the Creator.

A nice experiment

Obviously Jorge Luis Borges is part of a literary and cultural universe different from the one normally treated on “Medio Oriente e Dintorni”, but the affinities between the two realities are not only evident, but many times they are precisely sought by the author who is quite evident, he certainly felt a great curiosity for the East and the “Islamic world”, so much so that Abenjacàn the Bojarì even starts with a Quranic quotation.

The Aleph

Surely in the future we will be able to discover even better his incredible knowledge because, thanks to the latter, he has managed to bring two very distant places closer, not forgetting for any of them a rare respect even for what is known very deeply.

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