After a run of wonderful books by women authors, I was casting around to decide what I wanted to read next, and struggling a bit tbh. Then I remembered Stu‘s Spanish and Portuguese Lit Month, and had a quick dig in the stacks. I still have tons of Pessoa calling to me, and plenty of unread Borges; however, I spotted a slim volume which I thought might be just the thing to pick up next – and it was! The book is “Borges and the Eternal Orang-Utans” by Luis Fernando Verissimo, translated by Margaret Jull Costa – and it’s a real hoot!!

The book is narrated by one Vogelstein, a loner who lives an isolated life surrounded by books. Obsessed with the great writer, Jorge Luis Borges, he even writes to the master in his younger years, sending him stories which receive no reply. However, by several twists of fate (including his cat, Aleph, dying), Vogelstein gets he chance to attend a conference on Edgar Allan Poe in Buenos Aires; and here, to his joy, he finally meets his idol. But the conference is riddled with academic discord and competing arcane theories; and when one of the attendees is murdered, Vogelstein, Borges and the criminologist Cuervo (which translates as Raven!) set out to solve the mystery.

The twists and turns of the plot will leave the participants (and the reader!) baffled; which of the three knives found killed the victim? does the beautiful Angela have anything to do with the plot, as she arranged to have Vogelstein housed in the same hotel as Borges and co? and what is the significance of the Japanese professor who is constantly being knocked over? The story will lead you through a fantastic and complex plot exploring hidden language, demons, the mysteries of the Kabbala and the strange tale of the occultist John Dee and his ‘eternal Orang-Utan’ which would supposedly be able to to write all the known books in the cosmos if left alone for long enough…

I have to say that this book was a delight from start to finish! Obviously riffing on Borges’ own writings (particularly the story “Death and the Compass”), as well as that of Poe’s (I won’t say why…), it manages to combine a locked-room mystery with an extremely metafictional narrative which kept me hooked from the very beginning. Although Vogelstein is relating his story to the reader, it is mostly addressed to Borges himself, as if setting everything out clearly so that the great writer can solve the mystery – assuming, of course, he’s a reliable narrator… And indeed, at several points in the tale it does seem as if Borges has found a working solution. Cuervo, however, struggles to accept most of the options proposed, and then something else will occur to change things – it’s all very entertaining!

Inevitably a solution is arrived at, and I was perhaps starting to suspect a little of it as the narrative went on. However, once you reach the end of the book, and Borges’ final words, it all seems so clear that you find yourself going back to the start to pick up all of the clues you missed – such fun, and a lovely homage to Borges himself, too!

As you might have guessed, I loved “Borges and the Eternal Orang-Utans”. It’s one of those books which has you questioning everything by the time you get to the end; from the various arcane mysteries to Dee and his Orang-Utans, I suspect that there’s very little which is actually grounded in fact. I even found myself questioning the biography of the author at the end of the book, as his name actually translates as “very true”, but a quick search online does seem to confirm he exists!! Nevertheless, this is a treat of a book; if you love quirky crime books or metafictional narratives, this is definitely one for you!