Review: Borges and the Eternal Orangutans

Borges and the Eternal Orangutans (translated by Margaret Jull Costa) is a very short novel by Brazilian writer Luís Fernando Verissimo. And it is such a delight really, for everyone who loves detective stories, Borges, and literary puzzles. If you have any knowledge of Poe, Borges and  perhaps even occultism you will enjoy this book because it’ll make you feel clever 🙂

The story is told by Vogelstein, a middle-aged teacher and translator, who has led quite the sheltered life. There was that incident though, where he translated a story by Borges and changed the ending. Borges was understandably horrified and Vogelstein has been trying, unsuccessfully, to make amends ever since. When the Israfel society, devoted to the studies of Poe, suddenly holds its conference in Buenos Aires, Vogelstein reads it as sign. Although he meets his idol Borges at the conference, he also discovers the body of Rotkopf, a hated Poe scholar. Vogelstein believes that the dying Rotkopf moved his body into a position resembling a letter to convey a message and so he and Borges try to solve the puzzle and find Rotkopf’s murderer.

Borges and the Eternal Orangutans is not only a locked-room mystery but also the parody of a detective story and at the same time an anti-detective story. The attempts of reading the clues by Borges and Vogelstein of course mirror the art of interpreting a text, nods like that have to be expected when reading a novel that makes Borges a character. I wasn’t familiar with H.P. Lovecraft’s Necronomicon and my knowledge of Borges is limited to a few short stories, but while reading Verissimo’s novel I was thankful for all those postmodernism classes. I don’t think those are required but I found them quite helpful for all those tidbits that are thrown in (Dee’s eternal orangutan, Borges’ alter ego, mirror symbolism etc). Please don’t be scared off! This is a funny and accessible novel, and while it’ll obviously be a bit more fun of you get all the allusions and references, it’s not a must. In fact, I had lots of fun researching occultism and alchemists and the Necronomicon afterwards.

I can’t really understand how I had never heard of Verissimo before, but I loved Borges and the Eternal Orangutans so much, I looted another of his works, O opositor (couldn’t find the English title, it’s Meierhoffs Verschwörung in German). And here is a link to NPR where you can read an excerpt in case my review hasn’t convinced you 😉

Have you reviewed this book? Let me know and I’ll add a link!

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11 thoughts on “Review: Borges and the Eternal Orangutans

  1. I’d heard of Verissimo but never of this book, which I actually can’t believe either! It sounds so awesome in so many ways.

  2. Wonderful review, Bina! I loved your description of the book – “not only a locked-room mystery but also the parody of a detective story and at the same time an anti-detective story” 🙂 It is interesting that Borges himself plays an important part in the story in solving the mystery. I need to read up on postmodernist ideas before reading this book.

    1. It really is a fantastic read and such a dense text! I think you’ll be fine without much knowledge of postmodernism but I got the feeling that Verissimo was certainly influenced by it (there’s always the VSI series 😉 ).

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