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This item is taken from PN Review 191, Volume 36 Number 3, January - February 2010.

It is seventy years since ‘Pierre Menard, author of the Quixote’ was published in Victoria Ocampo’s magazine Sur in Buenos Aires. Jorge Luis Borges introduces us to this extraordinary Frenchman from Nîmes who ‘did not want to compose another Quixote which is easy - but the Quixote itself.’ He did not copy or transcribe but he achieved, in Borges’s story, a perfect textual coincidence.

It isn’t the whole of Cervantes’ original that he creates. He completes two chapters of volume one, chapter IX and chapter XXXVIII, and a part of chapter XXII. Chapter IX is the one in which, in Toledo, the author finds the Cid Hamete Benengeli Arabic manuscript and gets its translated. He has to make some adjustments, because the words of the author of the account were originally ‘translated by an Arabian’ who portrayed Don Quixote with too little respect. Chapter IX is about translation and mistranslation or wrong emphases in translation, when cultural and religious differences are added to linguistic ones. This chapter serves several ends, not least underlining the precision of Menard’s word-perfect achievement in creating the chapter in 1918 in Nîmes, without distortion, and without recourse to an ‘original’, being itself ‘original’.

How does Pierre Menard write his Quixote? He rejects the easy route, which would have been to ‘Know Spanish well [French being his native language], recover the Catholic faith, fight against the Moors or the Turk, forget the history of Europe between the years 1602 and 1918, be Miguel de Cervantes.’ This, had he been a translator rather than a creator, is the approach which says that an interpreter must master the language, the linguistic moment, the historical moment, the social context, the original author’s biographical reality, and forget all he knows outside those areas, apart from his own language.

Having set that approach to one side, how was he to reach the Quixote through his own experiences as a Frenchman born in the nineteenth, living in the twentieth century, having just survived the Great War? His task is infinitely more complex than Cervantes’s. Menard read Don Quixote as a boy, Borges says, re-reading chapters of it later on. His vague memory of the book, Borges suggests, is perhaps not unlike Cervantes’s own premonition of the story he would write before he put quill to parchment, analepsis and prolepsis striking the same compelling but as yet uncertain note. Unlike his predecessor, Menard cannot collaborate with chance, however. Cervantes could draft and redraft and his judgement dictated a final choice of versions. Menard cannot permit himself approximations, he has to reach a specific point without direct reference to it. Chance has no part to play.

‘The text of Cervantes and that of Menard are verbally identical,’ Borges affirms, ‘but the second is almost infinitely richer.’ This is the most teasing idea in Borges’s story: how, richer? Because Menard does not forget the years between 1602 when the first volume of the book was composed by Cervantes, and 1918 when he composed it, and in those centuries Don Quixote has not been a dead letter but a living one.

Elements that were conventions, tropes, conceits or ironies in Cervantes, writing from deep within a knowledge of the romance tradition and employing his learning against it, are quite different for the retiring and ironic Pierre Menard. For him, a trope, no longer generally familiar, can occasion philosophical reflections, coloured in by our ignorance of its conventionality in the original context, and on that ignorance we bring to bear our understanding of what has happened historically and intellectually in a long interim. Our understanding is anachronistic, as it must be with any printed text. Menard, remembering the intervening centuries, appreciates what they add to sentences, and what they take away.

There is, Borges insists, a great stylistic gulf between what Cervantes wrote and what Pierre Menard writes. Here is the Cervantes:

…truth, whose mother is history, rival of time, depository of deeds, witness of the past, exemplar and adviser to the present, and the future’s counsellor…

Now Pierre Menard’s version:

…truth, whose mother is history, rival of time, depository of deeds, witness of the past, exemplar and adviser to the present, and the future’s counsellor…

Cervantes’s language is roughly ‘of its time’, colloquial, ironically laced with the idioms of romance; Menard’s language, by contrast, is archaising, artful. In Menard Borges hears the strains of William James; the passage becomes a powerful apology for a pragmatic philosophy not articulated until almost three centuries after the original Quixote. Formal language can lose meaning over time; it can also acquire it. And William James is demonstrably present in Menard’s version. If this is so, then the text is not susceptible to paraphrase. It is not about meaning as such but about ordering and shaping experience, in Wallace Stevens’s words, ‘Arranging, deepening, enchanting’, rather than interpreting.

‘Fame is a form of incomprehension, perhaps the worst form of all,’ Menard tells Borges. His version rescues chunks of Don Quixote from the accretions of fame, putting them firmly in his own time, stripped of critical patristics and hagiography. The book sheds its legendary author and has a new life and a new kind of life in its own generated light.

Don Quixote is about poetry, its afflatus, approximations, idealisations, deceptions, and about how tone is dictated by context. Menard’s is a task of a different order from a translator’s. In chapter LXII of the second volume of Don Quixote the knight visits a printer-publisher where he is enraged to see a false sequel to the Quixote being printed. Before this, he reflects on the inadequacy of translation:

Still it seems to me that translation from one language into another, if it be not from the queens of languages, the Greek and the Latin, is like looking at Flemish tapestries on the wrong side; for though the figures are visible, they are full of threads that make them indistinct, and they do not show with the smoothness and brightness of the right side; and translation from easy languages argues neither ingenuity nor command of words, any more than transcribing or copying out one document from another.

Pierre Menard shows the smoothness and brightness of the right side and becomes the patron saint of memory and recreation. He has brought potential new life to every text and proposed new disciplines to every author. Most of all, he is the sworn foe of the plagiarist and imitator.

This item is taken from PN Review 191, Volume 36 Number 3, January - February 2010.

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