Fundación mítica de Buenos Aires
Jorge Luis Borges
¿Y fue por este río de sueñera y de barro
que las proas vinieron a fundarme la patria?
Irían a los tumbos los barquitos pintados
entre los camalotes de la corriente zaina.
Pensando bien la cosa, supondremos que el río
era azulejo entonces como oriundo del cielo
con su estrellita roja para marcar el sitio
en que ayunó Juan Díaz y los indios comieron.
Lo cierto es que mil hombres y otros mil arribaron
por un mar que tenía cinco lunas de anchura
y aún estaba poblado de sirenas y endriagos
y de piedras imanes que enloquecen la brújula.
Prendieron unos ranchos trémulos en la costa,
durmieron extrañados. Dicen que en el Riachuelo,
pero son embelecos fraguados en la Boca.
Fue una manzana entera y en mi barrio: en Palermo.
Una manzana entera pero en mitá del campo
expuesta a las auroras y lluvias y suestadas.
La manzana pareja que persiste en mi barrio:
Guatemala, Serrano, Paraguay, Gurruchaga.
Un almacén rosado como revés de naipe
brilló y en la trastienda conversaron un truco;
el almacén rosado floreció en un compadre,
ya patrón de la esquina, ya resentido y duro.
El primer organito salvaba el horizonte
con su achacoso porte, su habanera y su gringo.
El corralón seguro ya opinaba YRIGOYEN,
algún piano mandaba tangos de Saborido.
Una cigarrería sahumó como una rosa
el desierto. La tarde se había ahondado en ayeres,
los hombres compartieron un pasado ilusorio.
Sólo faltó una cosa: la vereda de enfrente.
A mí se me hace cuento que empezó Buenos Aires:
La juzgo tan eterna como el agua y el aire.
English Translation (by Alastair Reid):
The Mythical Founding of Buenos Aires
And was it along this torpid muddy river
that the prows came to found my native city?
The little painted boats must have suffered the steep surf
among the root-clumps of the horse-brown current.
Pondering well, let us suppose that the river
was blue then like an extension of the sky,
with a small red star inset to mark the spot
where Juan Diaz* fasted and the Indians dined.
But for sure a thousand men and other thousands
arrived across a sea that was five moons wide,
still infested with mermaids and sea serpents
and magnetic boulders that sent the compass wild.
On the coast they put up a few ramshackle huts
and slept uneasily. This, they claim, in the Riachuelo,
but that is a story dreamed up in Boca.
It was really a city block in my district – Palermo**.
A whole square block, but set down in open country,
attended by dawns and rains and hard southeasters,
identical to that block which still stands in my neighbourhood:
Guatemala – Serrano – Paraguay – Gurruchaga.
A general store pink as the back of a playing card
shone bright; in the back there was poker talk.
The corner bar flowered into life as a local bully,
already cock of his walk, resentful, tough.
The first barrel organ teetered over the horizon
with its clumsy progress, its habaneras, its wop.
The cart-shed wall was unanimous for YRIGOYEN***.
Some piano was banging out tangos by Saborido.
A cigar store perfumed the desert like a rose.
The afternoon had established its yesterdays,
and men took on together an illusory past.
Only one thing was missing – the street had no other side.
Hard to believe Buenos Aires had any beginning.
I feel it to be as eternal as air and water.
What better way to begin a series of poems by writers (arguably) better known for their prose than with a poem about foundations, about beginnings?
Borges has always struck me as one of those writers in whose work the line between poetry and prose blurs. On the one hand, his best short stories have an intensity and a vision that is authentically poetic, on the other hand, some of his finest poems read like stories that have been stripped of all but the most essential details, so that the narrative, stripped to its essence, achieves the purity of verse.
Today’s poem is like that. There isn’t anything too dramatically stunning about Borges’ description, no one line or metaphor that reaches out to grab you by the throat, and yet in these eight and a half quatrains Borges captures the essence of a city’s beginnings, the excitement and risk of all our pioneer journeys, the incredible sense of possibility that walked the streets in those early days. The founding is mythical not only because it is factually inaccurate, combining as it does different stages in the city’s history, but because in Borges’ magical hands, the images of those early days have been transformed into the stuff of legend. This is magic realism applied to poetry, and the way in which this imagined and dreamlike history comes to seem so incredibly authentic is trademark Borges.
Nor is the poem quite as simple as it appears. What seems like a random collection of images is, I suspect, the product of careful and painstaking selection, and notice how cleverly the different scenes flow into each other – the pink of the store “as the back of a playing card” melting effortlessly into the poker game. It is no accident that these few short lines create a picture so vivid, evoke an atmosphere so charged. This is why Borges is the Master craftsman that he is.
Notes on the poem (taken from Borges’ Selected Poems):
*Juan Diaz de Solis was an explorer who rowed into the River Plate in 1516 and was promptly devoured by Indians.
** Palermo is a district in the city of Buenos Aires, originally the Italian quarter, where Borges spent his childhood.
*** Irigoyen was the twice-elected president of Argentina and victim of a military coup in 1930
A lovely post and interesting discussion (even if I do say so myself) on Borges over at Middle Stage (see comments)
Finally, my thanks to Black Mamba for digging up this recording and providing the link to the Borges lectures. I’m not quite sure why I’m the one posting this piece, but well, there it is.