New Directions Publishing, 2000, 135 pages
From the back cover:
Vogelstein is a loner who has always lived among books. Suddenly, fate grabs hold of his insignificant life and carries him off to Buenos Aires, to a conference on Edgar Allen Poe, the inventor of the modern detective story. There Vogelstein meets his idol, Jorge Luis Borges, and for reasons that a mere passion for literature cannot explain, he finds himself at the center of a murder investigation that involves arcane demons, the mysteries of the Kabbala, the possible destruction of the world, and the Elizabethan magus John Dee's "Eternal Orangutan," which given all the time in the world, would end up writing all the known books in the cosmos. Verissimo's small masterpiece is a literary tour de force and a brilliant mystery novel rolled into one.
First of all, if you are not familiar with the work of Jorge Luis Borges, then this book will probably go right over your head, because it's a continual stream of literary jokes referencing Borges and his work. Also, a familiarity with Edgar Allen Poe and H.P. Lovecraft would be helpful.
Just as I knew little about Borges before I read Labyrinths for the books1001 challenge, I had never heard of Brazilian author Luis Fernando Verissimo before I picked up this book, but the title made it something I had to check out. Verissimo is apparently well-known in Brazil, and in this book, which was originally written in Portuguese, he gives loving homage to the Argentinian author.
Set in 1985 (the year before Borges died), Borges and the Eternal Orangutans is narrated by a fifty-year-old little-published author from Porto Alegre named Vogelstein. Vogelstein is a great fan of Jorge Luis Borges. When an international conference of Edgar Allen Poe scholars decides to meet in Beunos Aires and Vogelstein learns that Borges (who was a great fan of Poe) will be there, he attends the conference to meet his idol. At the conference, one of the scholars, a belligerent man named Rotkopf, is found stabbed to death in his locked hotel room. Three knives are found at the bottom of elevator shafts. One of the police inspectors enlists Vogelstein and Borges to supply their insight into this perplexing case. And so we have a Poe-style locked room murder mystery, with two authors (one of them fictional, one of them real) fictionally commenting on it and bringing into the narrative all sorts of meta-speculation.
It's a short book, so I won't say too much more about the story, other than that you can probably guess the murderer, but the motive and nature of the crime will be considerably more challenging, and everything else is a mindfuck. It is a Borges tribute, after all.
"At least that solves the problem of the locked room. After all, spirits can walk through walls," I said provocatively.
"Or perhaps Johnson was the embodiment of Hastur, since he had presumably deciphered all the spells in the Necronomicon," you added.
"Can we be serious for a moment?" Cuervo pleaded.
"Do you not find it a serious matter that, for the first time in its history, the Israfel Society decided to hold its conference in the South, and that Rotkopf, Urquiza, and Johnson all ended up on the same floor in the same hotel? Perhaps they were under the jurisdiction of Azathoth and Yog-Sothoth, the king and prince of chaos, in order to kill each other. Not to mention the Japanese professor, who was suspicious of the intentions of the board of the Israfel Society, about which, by the way, almost nothing is known."
"There's just one thing," I said, embarrassed.
"It wasn't an X."
"What wasn't an X?"
"The shape made by Rotkopf's body in the mirror. It was a W."
I really enjoyed this, and I was quite impressed at how well Verissimo incorporated the elements and style of Poe, Lovecraft, and Borges into his story. Clearly, he wanted the reader to believe that this was something one of those gentleman might have written, and I found it pretty convincing even in translation.
Verdict: Highly recommended for fans of literary murder mysteries, especially if you're a fan of Edgar Allen Poe, H.P. Lovecraft, and Jorge Luis Borges. If you are not familiar with any of them, however, you may simply find this story exceedingly strange. (But hie thee hence and read some Borges!)