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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Borges and the Eternal Orangutans

Luis Fernando Verissimo

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To purchase Borges and the Eternal Orangutans

Title: Borges and the Eternal Orangutans
Author: Luis Fernando Verissimo
Genre: Novel
Written: 2000 (Eng. 2004)
Length: 135 pages
Original in: Portuguese
Availability: Borges and the Eternal Orangutans - US
Borges and the Eternal Orang-Utans - UK
Borges and the Eternal Orangutans - Canada
Borges et les Orangs-outangs éternels - France
Vogelsteins Verwirrung - Deutschland
  • Portuguese title: Borges e os orangotangos eternos
  • Translated by Margaret Jull Costa

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Our Assessment:

B+ : enjoyable and very clever homage to Borges, nicely tied together

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The LA Times A+ 3/7/2005 Thomas McGonigle
Sunday Telegraph . 27/6/2004 James Francken
TLS . 18/6/2004 Brian Dillon
The Washington Post . 5/6/2005 Melvin Jules Bukiet
Die Welt . 31/5/2003 Holger Kreitling
World Lit. Today . 9-10/2006 Nelson H. Vieira

  From the Reviews:
  • "Luis Fernando Verissimo's Borges and the Eternal Orangutans is a perfect novel. I'll say it again: This book is a perfect novel. (...) The reader will mourn because the novel is so short, and it's only the second by Verissimo to be translated into English" - Thomas McGonigle, The Los Angeles Times

  • "Verissimo's novel is constructed like a giant crossword, with its information scrambled. (...) Verisimmo's elegantly constructed caper works in Borges's enthusiasm, and ratchets up the tension before its final, fateful disclosure." - James Francken, Sunday Telegraph

  • "In the end, Verissimo's pleasure in his own absurd intertextual universe is infectious: the two-way-mirror trickery of his conclusion is as satisfying as it is utterly predictable. As Borges wrote of Poe: "we might think that his plots are so weak that they are almost transparent". Luis Fernando Verissimo's is decidedly threadbare; but he knows, with his heroes, that a predictable detective story is not necessarily an imperfect one." - Brian Dillon, Times Literary Supplement

  • "In any case, Borges and the Eternal Orangutans is an authentic whodunit as well as a loving homage to its eponymous detective and a serious meditation on the truths that Borges himself lived to reveal, intuit and invent." - Melvin Jules Bukiet, The Washington Post

  • "Vogelsteins Verwirrung ist galant einfach verfasst und, wenn man sich anstrengen möchte, auch teuflisch kompliziert zu lesen. Ein amüsanter Kriminalroman, ein gelehrter Traktat über den Kriminalroman, eine Verbeugung vor Poe und eine Liebeserklärung an Borges." - Holger Kreitling, Die Welt

  • "Via a lucid translation that captures the many subtleties of Veríssimo’s and Borges’s humor and style, this clever narrative seductively engages the reader’s curiosity about the solution to the crime and, most important, the salvation of the world via literature." - Nelson H. Vieira, World Literature Today

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Borges and the Eternal Orang-Utans is a clever little homage to the great Argentine writer, Jorge Luis Borges. It is quite literally presented as such, the narrator going so far as to address the text to Borges. And the grand master even plays a prominent role in the story.
       The narrator is Vogelstein, a fifty year-old translator and English-teacher whose passions include the works of Borges and of Edgar Allan Poe. He is a member of the Israfel Society, a group of Poe-enthusiasts and scholars, and is very excited when he learns that the 1985 conference of the society will be held in (relatively) nearby Buenos Aires -- close enough that he can actually afford to go.
       The book is an account of his trip to the conference, and what happened there -- as well as a bit of personal background --, all written with reader-Borges (or 'Jorge', as he addresses him) in mind. Vogelstein and Borges have a history, too: many years earlier Vogelstein had translated one of the stories Borges had published in Ellery Queens' Mystery Magazine -- and, not knowing who Borges was and finding the story, "dreadful, confused and lacking in excitement":

I decided to improve it. I added a few lugubrious Poe-like touches to the plot and a completely new surprise ending that belied everything that had gone before, including the author's account of events.
       Borges didn't take too kindly to this, and a correspondence ensued -- with Borges soon cutting it off, but Vogelstein continuing to awkwardly and futilely try to set things right and apologise. At the conference their paths cross again, though Borges doesn't seem to remember him.
       The conference doesn't go quite as expected: the odd characters there have a variety of agendas and there are some entertaining clashes, but very soon the obnoxious Rotkopf -- "An eminently knifeable man", one character acknowledges -- winds up murdered. Appropriately, it's a puzzling, Poe-like locked-room murder: there seems no way the murderer could have escaped the room.
       Vogelstein was one of the last to speak with Rotkopf, and one of those who found him. Borges is fascinated by the puzzle, and he invites Vogelstein to share his observations (as eyewitness and conference participant) and speculate on how the crime might have been accomplished, and by who.
       One confusing trail after another emerges, in part because Vogelstein keeps remembering the position of the body differently, and both he and Borges read a great deal into various clues. There are a number of suspects, but while there are no shortage of motives, the murder still appears to be an impossible one.
       It's an entertaining if somewhat awkwardly twisting mystery for much of the way, as Poe-allusions and 16th century mysticism (both of which have to do with the orangutans of the title) also play a role. The fawning fan, Vogelstein, presents the material fairly nicely, only occasionally getting bogged down in Borges-like erudition and philosophy (which doesn't work quite as well).
       But it's all worth it in the end; it should come as no surprise, but the book takes a wildly different turn in its conclusion, as Vogelstein hand off the story to Borges and allows him to finish it -- which Verissimo does with great aplomb. The solution and resolution is fantastic, no question: well-presented (the shift in tone from Vogelstein to Borges is convincingly accomplished) and very clever.
       The end is very satisfying, but it nearly overwhelms the book: only in retrospect does it become clear how clever a text Verissiomo has fashioned, only long after the fact do all the little details fit into place. To be a complete success, it would have to function on both levels (the text in the first place, and then seen again in (the completely different and very revealing) light of the ending), and that Verissimo doesn't quite pull off: he comes close, but the bulk of the narrative does occasionally sag and sway unsteadily as one makes one's way through.
       Still: a very enjoyable work, well worth reading.

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Borges and the Eternal Orangutans: Reviews: Books by and about Borges under review: Luis Fernando Verissimo: Other books by Luis Fernando Verissimo under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Brazilian author Luis Fernando Verissimo was born in 1936.

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© 2005-2012 the complete review

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