In the short story Pierre Menard: Author of Quixote, Jorge Luis Borges writes of an author’s quest to reproduce Cervantes’ masterpiece, word by word, comma after comma. “Pierre Menard did not want to compose another Quixote, which surely is easy enough – he wanted to compose the Quixote,” Borges writes.
More likely than not to be aware of this Borgesian playfulness, Argentine author Pablo Katchadjian decided in 2009 to remix one of Borges’s most renowned short stories The Aleph, keeping the original text but adding a considerable amount of his own writing. The result was the short experimental book called El Aleph engordado (The Fattened Aleph), published by a small underground press in a short run of 300 copies. An unfortunate consequence of Katchadjian’s literary experiments is an ongoing lawsuit initiated in 2011 by Maria Kodama, Borges’s widow and fervent guardian of his literary estate.
For Borges, Menard’s Quixote is radically different to Cervantes’, even if they appear identical: how could an identical paragraph mean the same in 1605 as in the 1930s? Literature might be the endless repetition of the same topics but these are never received unchangeably.
Those familiar with Borges’ oeuvre will recognise in “Pierre Menard …” the return of a number of his intellectual concerns: meta-literature, an obsession with reproducibility and the classics. And forgery – Borges is, after all, also famous for his use and abuse of fake quotes and forged literary references.
So it seems fair to conclude that the real issue in the Katchadjian case is not literary integrity but financial value, and it is not about protecting Borges’s oeuvre, as the plaintiff claims. It seems unlikely that Katchadjian will actually end up in prison, but the implications of taking writers to court over creative acts are chilling.
That in 2015, when everything is reproduced and available to anyone clever enough to perform a web search, someone can risk prison for a literary game brings into view the clear incongruities between contemporary culture and copyright laws. It takes only a Google search to dig out Borges’s complete works – even the now infamous The Aleph, in many languages – without charge, and not always illegally. The internet, which Borges did not live to see but certainly imagined, has introduced questions over intellectual property that most guardians of privately owned culture still refuse to acknowledge.
Has Katchadjian’s stunt harmed Borges in any way? Will people stop reading Borges, damaging his legacy, because someone did a Menard on one of his short stories? It seems unlikely. Do canonised writers need jailers to protect their work? That most big players manage to keep their place in the bookshelves long after their executors are dead would seem to indicate that they do not.
It is tempting to ask oneself what Borges would have done with The Fattened Aleph. He was renowned not only for his rather reactionary politics but also for his sharp sense of humour. I find it hard to believe that he would have taken Katchadjian to court over an experimental book. Perhaps he would have just sneered – as he did in one of his perhaps apocryphal anecdotes – that this “century has been very mediocre”, hence the need for canonised masters that we can mash-up to the point of exhaustion.
The Fattened Aleph might be a facile attempt at recycling a canonised narrative, or it might be a work of art. This is something worth debating, but surely not in the courts of justice.
"The Guardian," June 25, 2015