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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

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Argentine-born writer Alberto Manguel pictured Sept. 11, 2007, in his house of Mondion near the city of Châtellerault, France. (Alain Jocard/AFP/Getty Images)

I have a theory that if Manguel is a little more interested in the political world today than he was yesterday, it’s not just age and fatherhood that we have to thank. It’s also Mario Vargas Llosa, the Peruvian novelist, journalist, and, in 1990, presidential candidate. Manguel’s best essay, his angriest, most political, and most memorable piece of writing, an essay in which his passion vigorously goads his talent, is called “God’s Spies.” Along with his short book on reading to Borges, with its intrinsic historical interest, “God’s Spies,” which was first published as the introduction to the 1999 collection of the same title, is the work of Manguel’s that should last longest. It is about many things—memory, violence, poetry—but it lands on Vargas Llosa’s 1995 newspaper article “Playing With Fire,” published in the Spanish newspaper El País. In his article, Vargas Llosa argued, more or less, that Argentina would do well not to bring the old government torturers and murderers to justice, that it is better to forget, and that, after all, wasn’t everyone at least a little bit at fault?

Manguel was not the only writer horrified by what he felt amounted to a defense of brutal dictatorship, and in fact the end of “God’s Spies” is given over to a lengthy summary of Argentinian writer Juan José Saer’s published rejoinder. But if Manguel’s was not a surprising reaction, reading it surprised me. To read the compulsively amiable Manguel launch from Auden—“Poetry makes nothing happen,” he famously wrote—into an evisceration of a colleague in the world of letters is like watching a bookish nerd finally snap, punch the bully, and knock him out cold.

“Burston-Marsteller”—the public relations firm hired by the Argentinian military—“could not have come up with a more efficient publicist for its cause,” Manguel writes. “The maze of a politician’s mind has seldom held the promise of redemption,” Manguel icily adds, “but that of a gifted writer is almost exclusively built on such a promise, and in spite of Auden’s dictum, it allows no forgetting.” Not only is Vargas Llosa, who was to win the 2010 Nobel Prize in literature, demoted to p.r. flack, but then, the close reader will notice, he is identified not with the “gifted writer” but merely the politician. For the writer, Manguel is telling us, must in the end side with justice. Just as the sadist, like Bret Easton Ellis, forfeits the title “writer,” so too does the politician who betrays truth for votes.

Manguel held this conclusion about Vargas Llosa with the newfound force of the reluctant convert, of one who had resisted for a long time. “I had, for a time, a theory that literature, good writing, or good art in general, disallowed certain attitudes and ways of thinking simply because they were dogmatic and literature is contrary to dogma,” Manguel told me. Although, he added, Vargas Llosa’s “political memoirs are very badly written”—so maybe the theory holds? “I tried to contain the anger” in that essay, he said, “but of course it seeps through. Hypocrisy angers me. I think it’s a cardinal sin. If you don’t know better, if you’re stupid, it is up to a point a valid excuse.”

As it happened, Vargas Llosa never got far in politics at all, and he moved to Spain. But Manguel has not forgiven him. One can imagine all sorts of good reasons to carry this grudge: Vargas Llosa’s apologies for crimes against humanity; for crimes against humanity in a country not his own; for crimes against humanity in a country not his own where, during the troubles, as other writers died, he was able to publish freely. The whole thing stinks, and Manguel was right to hold up the rotting fish for all to see. Manguel, of course, has yet another reason, not unique to him but of unusual importance: Vargas Llosa is an excellent writer. That good books were written by unkind people—Manguel would never have denied that. But how many of those unkind people had run for president in another, nearby country, also with a history of man’s great cruelty to man, and then, five years after losing, written a blithe and obtuse defense of dictatorship in the land where Alberto was born?

For the most part, Manguel lacks the ambition of the great cosmopolitan writers. If Naipaul left his small island to be a writer of the world, Manguel left his country to read books in other countries. Want someone to edit a collection of Tanzanian haiku? He is surely your man. His facility with many kinds of literature, originally in many languages, makes him a fine party magician, turning tricks for a bit of money. But it is hard to be unmoved by the force and clarity that enliven his writing when he is truly agitated, when he is after something more than diversion or profit—when he is summoned, as by the impertinence of Vargas Llosa, to answer a great writer by being a great man.

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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

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