Alberto Manguel and the Library of Babel
The Argentinian-born man of letters, cosmopolitan defender of books and reading, is exiled to a world of his own making
In primary school, back in Argentina, Manguel would occasionally be taunted by anti-Semitic classmates. “And in high school, in this colegio, you sometimes felt this anti-Semitism which is endemic in the Argentinian aristocracy,” he said. “You wouldn’t be insulted, but you knew there was some kind of stigma attached to this.” But in dictatorship-era Argentina, religion was not the most important category for organizing people’s enmity. “The political divisions were so strong, and the political questions were so loud, that that overrode everything else.” And then there was the fact that Manguel was an egghead: “If anything, I felt somewhat segregated because of my bookish interests, you know? Now, when people say, ‘Young people don’t read’—well, in my generation, we had maybe three, in a class of 30, who were interested in books.”
Manguel dropped out of college and left Argentina in 1969, at the age of 21. He found jobs in publishing houses in both Paris and London; in London, he also wove belts that he sold to British and expat hippies. He began to write essays and short stories. But almost immediately after Manguel had left Argentina, the country’s politics fell into a chaos that only ended with a military coup in 1976—bringing to power the most brutal government of all, which would famously “disappear” thousands suspected of leftist sympathies. During this time, Manguel stayed out of Argentina, spending time in Tahiti, England, and Tahiti again, before settling in Canada, where he lived from 1982 to 2000.
Of course, in the United States or England, being a writer of one’s land is a great calling: There is hardly higher blurbalistic praise than “the great American novel.” But in South America and in the Caribbean islands, national borders are constricting. For someone like Gabriel García Márquez, to be a great writer means being great beyond Colombia. And it’s not just a Hispanophone trait. It’s a small-country trait, and an island trait. Nobody is less interested in being seen as Trinidadian than V.S. Naipaul. When Manguel speaks of having to attend literary festivals in order to see his friends, friends “from Turkey and Colombia,” etc., he is not lamenting this state of affairs but, I think, bragging.
Manguel also dismisses his Jewishness in a particularly Argentine way. Most of the great Jewish writers have had distant or estranged relationships with Jewish religious practice—with Judaism—but they typically enjoy their ethnicity; they emphasize it and exploit it. I am thinking here of Sholem Aleichem, Bernard Malamud, Howard Jacobson, plenty of others. Many younger Jewish writers are interested in Jewish practice, too: Dara Horn, Tova Mirvis, Michael Chabon. I can think of Jewish writers who at times seem quite angry with the Jews, in an obsessive way, like Philip Roth and Shalom Auslander. Manguel’s smooth indifference to his Jewishness is something else. It is the work of an Argentinian man of letters, for whom being un-Argentinian, like being un-Jewish, is a lifelong practice.
Manguel does not like talking about “the troubles” in Argentina, but if his literary ambitions had not recommended that he move beyond his native land, the murder of many close friends might have done the trick. He feels vaguely guilty, he told me, for having not been there during the years that his friends were getting “disappeared.” But it’s not as if he fled: He was already gone, to Europe, and just refrained from coming back to the place that an American might casually call his “home.” He had a lot of the wrong friends, and his name could have been in the wrong address book, or inscribed in the front of the wrong book lent to somebody—and that would have been that. His guilt is a survivor’s guilt, the guilt of one inexplicably favored by fate.
It is understandable that Manguel generally avoids politics. His choice of subject tends in the opposite direction, away from reality. He enjoys nonfiction—George Steiner, Schopenhauer, Gramsci—and of course much realism, but, even beyond his trinity of Lewis Carroll and Robert Louis Stevenson and Borges, his passions run mainly from the fantastical to the ridiculous. He has edited anthologies titled, to pick a few, The Oxford Book of Canadian Ghost Stories, The Ecco Book of Christmas Stories, Canadian Mystery Stories, and Black Water: The Book of Fantastic Literature (not to mention Black Water 2: More Tales of the Fantastic). Manguel has a strong claim to being the leading anthologist of our age, and while his list also includes titles like God’s Spies: Stories in Defiance of Oppression, a collection of short fiction about political oppression, I suspect that Manguel edits his more serious collections for the money, his more whimsical collections for the joy.
We could say that a fantasist is made, not born, that Manguel’s life, from his unsettled childhood to the dark affairs in his homeland, made him crave books that veered away from life outside the covers, that did not replicate it. But many children of distant parents, or of authoritarian states, have the opposite reaction: to use books to record and to remember. And Manguel has been so omnivorous a writer and reader that books surely do anything and everything for him: The brilliance of Alice as a favorite character, for Manguel, is that her absurd journey is both child’s play and eerily reminiscent of police-state hell. It depends on how you read it.
Manguel is aging, and his children are interested in their family’s past. They are more interested in Judaism than he or his parents were, he told me, and one daughter has just moved to Argentina. Perhaps they will pull their father in front of mirrors that he had long avoided. His next collection, to be published in Canada next year, includes “A Return,” a novella about a resident of Rome who returns after decades to his native land, which in the interim was ravaged by troubles that sound distinctly Argentinian. “Thirty years had passed since Nestor Esteban Samuel Fabris had left the city to which he was now returning,” it begins, “and to do so now, simply because he had promised to attend the wedding of his only godchild (whom, it must be said, he’d never seen), seemed to him an act of remarkable idiocy.” When he arrives, the hotel where he had a reservation seems not to exist; old friends are recognizable but slightly, uncannily off; he cannot navigate the streets. It’s not third-rate Kafka—I’ll grant it second-rate—but its pathos inheres in what we know, or imagine we know, about Manguel. At the end, the narrator is trapped in his childhood city, which “he had sworn to himself … would from now on belong to the past … swallowed by the sea.”
Munich authorities seem more interested in protecting an art dealer than in returning stolen works to their rightful heirs