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Posted on 11 Nov 2021 in Non-Fiction | 1 comment

JAY PARINI Borges and Me. Reviewed by Ann Skea

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Jay Parini’s memoir provides an insight into the famous South American author as the two of them tour the Scottish Highlands.

It doesn’t matter if you have never read any of the work of the famous Argentinean writer Jorge Luis Borges, neither had Jay Parini when he was co-opted to look after the elderly, blind author and persuaded to drive him around the Scottish Highlands.

Parini is an American who, in the 1970s, was accepted as a PhD candidate at the Scottish University of Saint Andrews. As he explains, this was the choice he made when, after graduating from Lafayette College in Pennsylvania, he had moved (briefly he hoped) back to live with his parents in the Pennsylvanian town of Scranton. The alternatives, as he saw them at the time, were to ‘Stay at home, where my mother would chop off my balls, or go to Vietnam, where they would be blown off.’

In Scotland, Parini settled into his studies, supervised by Professor Alec Falconer, who seemed to be ‘vaguely senescent’ and forgetful, and who was dismayed by Parini’s decision to write his thesis on the Orkney poet George Mackay Brown. Falconer was an ex-naval officer and author of the ‘improbable’ ‘masterwork’, Shakespeare and the Sea, in which he argued that Shakespeare’s familiarity with naval terms clearly demonstrated that he had spent his ‘lost years’ as a ‘naval man’. He regarded Mackay Brown as a poor subject for a PhD because he was not well-known and ‘seem[ed] to be still alive’.

Parini’s progress in researching this thesis, and his eventual meeting with George Mackay Brown in Mainland Orkney, is a minor theme in this book. So, too, is his pursuit of Bella Law, a feisty, independent young woman who leads protest marches, runs the Poetry Society, and sports ‘bright red sneakers’, but already has what she calls a ‘quondam relationship’ with another man. More worrying, for Parini, is his status as a draft-dodger, especially as letters from his Draft Board (which he refuses to open) are regularly redirected to him by his mother.

The major theme of the book, however, is his meeting with Borges at the home of Borges’ friend and translator, Alastair Reid, and their subsequent voyage together around the Scottish Highlands in Parini’s jointly owned ‘rust-bucket’ 1975 Morris Minor. Borges’ challenging personality is clear from their first meeting:

We approached him without speaking.

‘This is Jay Parini,’ Jasper said in his piping voice.

 ‘I’m glad to meet you, sir,’ I said.

‘Speak louder, I’m blind!’ said Borges.

Jasper is Alastair’s young son: ‘He’s nine or ten. Almost eleven? I lose track,’ says Alastair. Whatever his age, Jasper is clever, articulate, funny and, as he says of himself, ‘advanced for a boy’.

After this first meeting with Borges, a sudden phone call from Alastair, who has been called to attend a sick relative in London, leaves Borges in Parini’s care. Parini wonders what on earth he will do with this ‘difficult and self-involved’ man, but Borges, on learning that Parini has a car, declares that he ‘wants to see the Highlands’.

‘But you’re blind, Borges,’ I said.

‘Oh no, don’t tell me you’re blind as well?’

‘I’m not.’

‘What luck, then! You will be my eyes.’

… ‘We will discover this wonderland together,’ Borges continued. ‘I know the points on the map: Perth, Aviemore, Inverness, Loch Ness and its monster, Grendel! And the battlefield of Culloden! Just to read a map of the Highlands is to recite poetry.’

Borges intended to cover all the costs, and he was also keen to ‘surprise’ a man in Inverness with whom he had been in correspondence about Anglo-Saxon riddles. These riddles, he explains to Parini, are all about surprises.

They set off at once, and Borges immediately christens the car ‘Rocinante’:

 ‘I speak of the lazy old horse of Don Quixote. Rocin, in Spanish, this is a workhorse, but never a good one. Nunca! Lazy because exhausted, not unlike your motor-car, which may be unequal to the task of circumnavigating the Highlands.

From then on, and much to Parini’s annoyance, Borges frequently addresses him as ‘Sancho’, Don Quixote’s patient squire. Borges, like Quixote, is given to long rhetorical monologues. ‘Being blind, he talks a lot,’ Parini tells Bella. He finds him both fascinating and irritating, and he despairs of getting any work of his own done, but Borges’ philosophy of life and literature, about which he has extensive knowledge and which he expounds at length, does interest him and (clearly from this book) he learned a lot from it. At the same time, he is tasked with describing everything he sees as they drive in vivid and ‘poetic’ terms, and this, too, has influenced his writing.

‘My work is only invention,’ Borges tells him. ‘Novels and works of non-fiction rub spines, even mirror each other. Anything that passes through memory becomes fiction.’ Parini, in his Afterword to the book, describes it as having grown from ‘a novelistic memoir’ to a ‘narrative’, a ‘Borgesian fiction’ or a story ‘shaped by fiction or auto-fiction’. Whatever it is, memory, early notes, and many retellings have played a large part in it, and some of the situations he found himself in as he looked after this unpredictable, difficult and determined old man are very funny.

I laughed out loud at what Parini’s wife, much later, came to call ‘the night of pissing’, when Parini and Borges have to share a bed in a B and B belonging to the dour Mrs Baird. Her husband, she tells them, ‘died on the crapper’, to which Borges frequently has to resort during the night because of his weak bladder and the effects of Scottish beer, which, as he puts it, ‘runs through the pipes of this old building’.

There is a worrying and funny description of Borges heading off into a storm reciting lines from King Lear, then falling down a sharp slope and having to be treated in hospital by a nurse who is so bemused by him that she suggests Parini ‘alert his family to the issues’. Then there are the three ‘Weird Sisters’ from Kinross who appear through the mist at Scone Castle and utter gnomic phrases; and the guide at the Andrew Carnegie Library, who has to stop Borges from licking the spines of old books. Predictably, too, Borges has to stand up in a small boat on Loch Ness to chant the ‘Song of Creation’ in Anglo-Saxon verse:

‘It celebrates the music within us, how we can in dark moments sing! It caused such fury in Grendel, who was mad that men could sing like this, could soothe and inspire themselves and others … Then Grendel arrived, the fiend from hell. This is Nessie, dear boy! And now, yes, Nessie approaches!’

The result of this is unsurprising but Parini tells it well.

By the end of Borges and Me (a title chosen in tribute to Borges’ own essay ‘Borges and I’), I really felt that I knew and liked this garrulous old man; and, because Parini often uses Borges’ own writing to reconstruct some of their conversations, I also began to know a good deal about his ideas and his work. Altogether, I thoroughly enjoyed being ferried around the Scottish Highlands, and elsewhere, by a writer who has absorbed some of the smoke and mirrors philosophy of Borges, and who is also a gifted storyteller.

Jay Parini Borges and Me Canongate 2021 HB 320pp $32.99

Dr Ann Skea is a freelance reviewer, writer and an independent scholar of the work of Ted Hughes. She is author of Ted Hughes: The Poetic Quest (UNE 1994, and currently available for free download here). Her work is internationally published and her Ted Hughes webpages ( are archived by the British Library.

You can buy Borges and Me from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW here or you can buy it from Booktopia here.

To see if it is available from Newtown Library, click here.

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1 Comment

  1. Thank you Ann for showing us this wonderful book. I love your review because it made me laugh. And I have already fallen in love with Louis, and his patient Sancho and enduring Rocinante. I great tale in all. I will definitely read it. Suzanne