February 23, 2005

My Own Personal Borges

While crisscrossing Guatemala on chicken bus, I met a skinny old man named Don Garcia. He shuffled down the bus aisle, stooped crooked by old age and other ailments. His two lacquered walking-sticks clattered when he plopped down in the seat beside me. I think this life-long bachelor felt a little bit lonely, but he was mostly fascinated to meet a gringo traveling far from any of the tourist towns.

Don Garcia was a 75-year-old retired teacher. High school teachers earn next to nothing in the villages in Guatemala. “A few years ago, my school fired me,” my new friend explained, his eyes glittering. “All because I wanted to teach my students a new alphabet!” On a scrap of paper, Don Garcia mapped out what he called his “pure phonetic alphabet”—a scrawled set 40 characters that represented every single, stray sound in Spanish. “That school couldn’t handle my revolutionary ideas,” he explained, turning his retirement into an elaborate tale of adventure.

I loved his exaggerated stories. Hardly anyone had the time or money to read in these poor parts of Guatemala, but he knew all my favorite writers: Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Juan Rulfo, and Jorge Luis Borges. I went to Guatemala because I wanted to live in the dreamy landscapes of these Latin American writers, and I’d never met anybody that wanted to talk books with me.

We spent most of our time discussing Jorge Luis Borges, that Argentinean master of the short short story. Borges composed bitty fictions that hinted at magnificent, imaginary books: fragments of a cosmic encyclopedia, sacred texts from make-believe societies, and scraps from a library with infinite shelves. In the middle of his chaotic and impoverished country, Borges staged a literary coup: writing stories within stories, books shaped like a mobius-strip, an eternal echo chamber with a life bouncing around inside forever. Discussing those stories with Don Garcia, I had found my own personal Borges with his imaginary alphabet.

Before I left, Don Garcia told me a story. When he was a teenager, a beautiful teacher from Germany moved into his village to volunteer at his school for a few months. Elsa, the blond-haired gringa, enchanted young Garcia. With some lovesick luck, he managed to find a copy of a German textbook and studied German. Young Garcia spent months writing a love sonnet in German, and finally read it to her one sunny morning.

60 years later, Don Garcia could still reel off every line of that poem in German, and translate it into Spanish: “Mi amor tiene pelo como una cascada de oro,” he whispered to me as we bumped along the crumbled highway inside a sweaty bus. “My love has hair like a golden waterfall,” he recited. According to Don Garcia, Elsa kissed him after she heard the poem. I hoped that they got married and had a couple wonderful kids, but they didn’t. In real life, Elsa moved home to Germany, and Don Garcia stayed a bachelor for the rest of his life.

I’m pretty sure that my friend has passed away by now. Guatemala isn’t an easy place to be old and sick. Whenever I tell somebody that story, I explain that I’m pretty sure that Don Garcia ended up in some alternate universe, some infinite library, or some kind of heaven, a place straight out of a story by Jorge Luis Borges. No matter what, I’ve managed to keep a bit of Don Garcia and his imaginary alphabet alive. In my short short story, Don Garcia is kissing his German girlfriend in heaven.

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