Borges: Influence and References

Thomas Pynchon

This American writer is considered one of the most important figures in postmodern letters, and has produced some of the most complex novels of the last few decades. Full of sparkling erudition, constant allusions to both high and pop culture, and a unique sense of humor, Pynchon's novels explore traditional themes such as love, war, politics, and the human condition using experimental narrative and arcane structuring devices. His 1973 masterpiece, Gravity's Rainbow, is often compared to both Moby Dick and Ulysses, and contains some playful references to Borges.

Gravity's Rainbow
An attempt to encapsulate this sprawling work in a single paragraph is surely an exercise in futility; but as this novel is explored in depth elsewhere in the Libyrinth, a few lines should be sufficient for these purposes. The work deals with an American named Tyrone Slothrop, a somewhat happy-go-lucky fellow who is stationed in London during the final year of World War II. Largely unknown to him, he is a central figure in a vast network of spies, scientist, politicians, and lunatics; most of which are obsessed -- for some reason or another -- by the German V2 rocket. The plot unfolds over the better part of a year, taking Slothrop through some fairly intriguing adventures across England and the Continent.
Borges enters the picture after Slothrop becomes involved with an Argentine expatriate named Squalidozzi and his motley but passionate group of anarchists. Borges is mentioned by name in Episode 28:

"In the days of the gauchos, my country was a blank piece of paper. The pampas stretched as far as men could imagine, inexhaustible, fenceless. Wherever the gaucho could ride, that place belonged to him. But Buenos Aires sought hegemony over the provinces. All those neuroses about property gathered strength, and began to infect the countryside. Fences went up, and the gaucho became less free. It is our national tragedy. We are obsessed by labyrinths, where before there was the open plain and sky. To draw ever more complex patterns on the blank sheet. We cannot abide the openness: it is terror to us. Look at Borges. Look at the suburbs of Buenos Aires. The tyrant Rosas has been dead a century, but his cult flourishes. Beneath the city streets, the warrens of rooms and corridors, the fences and the networks of steel track, the Argentine heart, in its perversity and guilt, longs for a return to that first unscribbled serenity . . . that anarchic oneness of pampas and sky. . . . "
--Gravity's Rainbow V264/B307

Squalidozzi and company return later in the book, responsible for a passage that brings its own Borgesian riddle to Pynchon's novel. In this scene, which begins Episode 37, the Argentines have hijacked a German submarine, and they "lazily plan a film version of José Hernandez's epic poem of the Argentine pampas, Martín Fierro."

A soft night, smeared full of golden stars, the kind of night back on the pampas that Leopoldo Lugones liked to write about. The U-boat rocks quietly on the surface. The only sounds are the chug of the "billy-goat," cutting in now and again below decks, pumping out the bilges, and El Ñato back on the fantail with his guitar, playing Buenos Aires tristes and milongas. Beláustegui is down working on the generator, Luz and Felipe are asleep.
By the 20 mm mounts, Graciela Imago Portales lounges wistfully. In her day she was the urban idiot of B.A., threatening nobody, friends with everybody across the spectrum, from Cipriano Reyes, who intervened for her once, to Accíon Argentina, which she worked for before it got busted. She was a particular favorite of the literati. Borges is said to have dedicated a poem to her ("El laberinto de tu incertidumbre/ Me trama con la disquietante luna . . . ").
The crew that hijacked this U-boat are here out of all kinds of Argentine manias. El Ñato goes around talking in 19th-century gaucho slang -- cigarettes are "pitos," butts are "puchos," it isn't caña he drinks but "la tacuara," and when he's drunk he's "mamao." Sometimes Felipe has to translate for him. Felipe is a difficult young poet with any number of unpleasant enthusiasms, among them romantic and unreal notions about the gauchos. He is always sucking up to El Ñato. . . .
--Gravity's Rainbow V383/B446

An interesting opening, and one delightfully informed by Borges in both allusion and spirit. The young Borges was very much the "difficult young poet," obsessed with the more lurid details of the gaucho mythos as well as the epic poem Martín Fierro. He was also much enamored of Lugones; indeed, in the introduction to El hacedor (The Maker; or Dreamtigers) he dedicated the book to Lugones, going so far as to imagine a fictional meeting with the late poet. And finally, the poem fragment -- which is most likely a total fabrication on behalf of Pynchon, who probably could resist in "out-Borgesing" Borges. Steven Weisenburger writes, in his excellent resource A Gravity's Rainbow Companion:

Here is a curious puzzle. The quotation does not appear in the Obras Poeticas (Poetical Works) of Jorge Luis Borges, nor does it crop up in the course of his fictional works. It is neatly consistent with the rhythms and motifs of Borges's poems, and if the lines are not his then Pynchon has worked up a decent imitation -- a neat trick, given the way Borges's fictions reinvent literary history. The lines translate: "The labyrinth of your uncertainty / detains me with the anxious moon."


Additional Information

Spermatikos Logos -- The Libyrinth runs one of the Web's most comprehensive sites on Thomas Pynchon.

Spermatikos Logos Bookstore -- Here you may order books by and about Pynchon from Amazon.com.


Return to Borges Influence