|August 25, 1983
© by Jorge Luis Borges (1,700 words)
I saw by the little station clock that it was a few minutes past eleven at night. I walked to the hotel. I felt, as on so many other occasions, the relief and resignation inspired by places we know well. The heavy gate was open; the house stood in darkness.
I entered the hall where dim mirrors duplicated the potted plants in the room. Strangely enough, the hotel-keeper didn't recognize me and handed me the register. I took the pen which was chained to the desk, dipped it in the bronze inkwell and, as I bent over the open book, there occurred the first of many surprises that night was to offer me. My name, Jorge Luis Borges, had already been written on the page and the ink was fresh.
The hotel-keeper said, "I thought you had already gone upstairs." Then he peered at me more closely and corrected himself. "I'm sorry, sir, the other looks a lot like you. But you're younger of course."
"What room is he in?"
"He asked for number nineteen," was the answer. It was as I feared.
I dropped the pen and ran up the stairs. Room nineteen was on the second floor and looked on to a poor and badly tended courtyard with a veranda and, I seem to remember, a bench. It was the highest room in the hotel. I tried the handle and the door opened. The lamp had not been switched off. Under the harsh light I recognized myself. There I was lying on my back on the small iron bed, older, wizened and very pale, the eyes lost on the high stucco moldings. The voice reached me. It wasn't exactly mine; it was like the voice I often hear in my recordings, unpleasant and monotonous.
"How strange," it said. "We are two and we are one. But then, there is really nothing strange in dreams."
I asked bewildered, "Is all this a dream?"
"It is certainly my last dream."
He pointed at the empty bottle on the marble top of the night-table.
"But you have still got plenty to dream before reaching this night. What date is it for you?"
"I don't know exactly," I answered. "But yesterday was my sixty-first birthday."
"When you reach this night, your eighty-fourth birthday will have been yesterday. Today is August 25, 1983."
"So many more years to wait," I said in a low voice.
"I have nothing left," he said suddenly. "I can die any day now. I can fade into that which I don't know and yet keep on dreaming of the double. That hackneyed theme given to me by Stevenson and mirrors!"
I felt that to mention Stevenson was a last farewell, not a pedantic allusion. I was he, and I understood. Even the most dramatic moments are not enough to turn one into Shakespeare and coin memorable phrases.
To change the subject I said, "I knew what would happen to you. In this very place, in one of the lower rooms, we began to draft this story of suicide."
"Yes," he answered slowly, as if collecting vague memories, "but I don't see the resemblance. In the draft I bought a one-way ticket to Adrogué, and in the Hotel Las Delicias I climbed to room nineteen, the farthest room of all. There I committed suicide."
"That is why I am here," I said to him.
"Here? But we are always here. Here I am dreaming of you, in the apartment of Calle Maipé. Here I am dying in the room that used to be mother's."
"That used to be mother's," I repeated, trying not to understand. "And I am dreaming of you in room nineteen, on the top floor."
"Who is dreaming of whom? I know I am dreaming of you but I don't know whether you are dreaming me. The hotel in Adrogué was pulled down many years ago - twenty, maybe thirty. Who knows!"
"I am the dreamer," I answered with a certain defiance.
"But don't you see that the important thing is to discover whether there is only one dreamer or two?"
"I am Borges who has seen your name in the register and has climbed up to this room."
"Borges am I, dying in Calle Maipú."
There was moment of silence. Then the other said, "Let's put ourselves to the test. Which was the most terrible moment of our life?"
I leant over towards him and we both spoke at the same time. I know we both lied. A faint smile lit the old face. I felt that the smile somehow reflected my own.
"We have lied to each other," he said, "because we feel two and not one. The truth is that we are two and we are one."
The conversation was beginning to irritate me. I told him so. And I added, "And you, in 1983, won't you reveal something of the years that lie before me?"
"What can I tell you, my poor Borges? The misfortunes to which you have grown accustomed will keep on happening. You will live alone in this house. You will touch the letterless books and the Swedenborg medallion and the wooden box with the Federal Cross. Blindness isn't darkness - it's a form of loneliness. You will return to Iceland."
"Iceland! Iceland of the seas!"
"In Rome you will say a few lines by Keats whose name, like that of all other men, was written on water."
"I have never been to Rome."
"There are other things as well. You will write our best poem and it will be an elegy."
"To the death of . . . ." I said. I did not dare utter the name.
"No. She will live longer than you." We sat in silence. Then he continued.
"You will write the book that we dreamt of for so long. Towards 1979 you will understand that your so-called works are nothing but a series of sketches, miscellaneous drafts, and you will yield to the vain and superstitious temptation of writing your one great book. The superstition that has inflicted upon us Goethe's Faust, Salammbo, Ulysses. To my amazement, I have filled too many pages."
"And in the end you realized you had failed."
"Something worse. I realized it was a masterpiece in the most oppressive sense of the word. My good intentions did not go farther than the first few pages. In the others lay the labyrinths, the knives, the man who believes he is a dream, the reflection that believes itself to be real, the tigers of night, the battles turned to blood, Juan Murano fatal and blind, Macedonio's voice, the ship made of the fingernails of the dead, old English spoken through so many days."
"I know that museum well," I observed, not without irony.
"And then false memories too, the double play of symbols, the long enumerations, the craft of good prose, the imperfect symmetries that the critics can discover with glee, the not always apocryphal quotations."
"Have you published this book?"
"I am not surprised," I said. "Every writer ends by being his own least intelligent disciple."
"That book was one of the roads that led me to this night. As to the others, the humiliation of old age, the certainty of having already lived all those days to come . . ."
"I won't write that book," I said.
"Yes, you will. My words which are now present, will be barely the memory of a dream."
His dogmatic tone, no doubt the same one I use in the classroom, annoyed me. I was bothered by the fact that we resembled each other so much, and that he should take advantage of the impunity given him by the nearness of death. In revenge I asked him: "Are you really so certain you are about to die?"
"Yes," he answered. "I feel a sort of sweet peacefulness and relief which I have never felt before. I cannot explain it to you. All words require a shared experience. Why do you seem annoyed by what I'm telling you?"
"Because we are far too alike. I hate your face which is a caricature of mine. I hate your voice which apes my own. I hate your pathetic way of building sentences, which is mine."
"So do I," said the other. "That is why I have decided to kill myself."
A bird sang in the street
"The last one," said the other.
With a gesture he called me to his side. His hand took hold of mine. I drew back, fearing that both hands would fade into one.
"The stoics have taught us not to regret leaving this life: the gates of prison are at last open. I have always thought of life in this way, but my sloth and cowardice made me hesitate. Some twelve days ago I gave a conference in La Plata on the sixth book of the Aenid. Suddenly, repeating an hexameter, I knew which was the road to take, and I made up my mind. From that moment onwards I felt invulnerable. My fate will be yours, you will receive this sudden revelation in the midst of Virgil's Latin, and you will have forgotten this curious and prophetic dialogue which takes place in two places and at two moments in time. When you dream it again you will be the one I am now and I will be your dream."
"I won't forget and tomorrow I'll write it down."
"It will lie deep inside your memory, beneath the tide of dreams. When you write it, you will believe you are inventing a fantastic story. But it won't be tomorrow. You still have several years to wait."