Last week I went to KEL’s, an English language bookstore in Barrio Norte, to pick up some books that I’ve been wanting to read. I highly recommend J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace, which I believe is the only 200+ page book that I’ve ever read in one afternoon. Other than Coetzee being from the southern hemisphere, he doesn’t have anything to do with Buenos Aires, so I’m not going more indepth into his works on this site.

A book that I’ve been putting off reading for a long time is The Hours by Michael Cunningham. Like a lot of people, I saw the movie and enjoyed it but I could never bring myself to actually read the book. Here’s the story why:

Back in graduate school, a young, intellectual woman I was courting (unsuccessfully) was visiting my apartment. Looking over my bookshelf, she said “That’s a well worn copy of To the Lighthouse.

I sat up in the chair. Then looking closer at the book, she said, “But it’s not your well worn copy”, having noticed the used bookstore label inside. I slouched back down.

Then I got up and went to the bookcase, “You might like this book, KATE VAIDEN by Reynolds Price. It’s told through the voice of a woman.”

She responded, “I don’t think men should do that. How do they know how to write like a woman? What it’s like to be a woman?”

That comment stuck with me for a long time, so whenever I thought about reading The Hours, which has three different women narrators, one of whom is the great novelist Virginia Woolf, I could never get beyond my friend’s comment. Finally, standing in KEL’s, I started to read some of the prose for myself and discovered that I really liked it. To hell with the gender of the author and characters.

Now, what does all this have to do with Borges and tigers? One of the epigraphs to The Hours is from the poem The Other Tiger by Borges:

We’ll hunt for a third tiger now, but like the others this one too will be a form of what I dream, a structure of words, and not the flesh and bone tiger that beyond all myths paces the earth. I know these things quite well, yet nonetheless some force keeps driving me in this vague, unreasonable, and ancient quest, and I go on pursuing through the hours another tiger, the beast not found in verse.

The epigraph to Cunningham’s novel is an uncredited prose translation of the Spanish, which is in verse:

Un tercer tigre buscaremos. Éste
Será como los otros una forma
De mi sueño, un sistema de palabras
Humanas y no el tigre vertebrado
Que, más allá de las mitologías,
Pisa la tierra. Bien lo sé, pero algo
Me impone esta aventura indefinida,
Insensata y antigua, y persevero
En buscar por el tiempo de la tarde
El otro tigre, el que no está en el verso.

I tend to prefer translations of poetry to remain in verse rather than prose. As comparison, here is a poetic translation of the same selection by Alastair Reid:

Let us look for a third tiger. This one
will be a form in my dream like all the others,
a system, an arrangement of human language,
and not the flesh-and-bone tiger
that, out of reach of all mythologies, paces the earth. I know all this; yet something
drives me to this ancient, perverse adventure,
foolish and vague, yet still I keep on looking
throughout the evening for the other tiger,
the other tiger, the one not in this poem.

That translation is included in the Penguin edition of Borges’ Selected Poems, which includes the Spanish version and English translation on facing pages for easy comparison.

Borges was fascinated with tigers and tigers appear throughout his works. In this poem the tiger represents the reality that the writer can never quite capture through words. According to his latest biographer, Borges wrote this poem just before his sixtieth birthday as an expression of the frustration with his own sense of failure as a writer.

Towards the end of the novel The Hours is a wonderful paragraph. One should know that “The Hours” was the original title that Woolf used for Mrs. Dalloway, the novel that figures so importantly in Cunningham’s book. It has been a while since I’ve seen the movie version but I think that these sentiments appear closer to the beginning of the film. I like it better as a closing and it’s clear why Cunningham won both the Pulitzer and the Pen/Faulkner award for The Hours:

Yes, Clarissa thinks, it’s time for the day to be over. We throw our parties; we abandon our families to live alone in Canada; we struggle to write books that do not change the world, despite our gifts and unstinting efforts, our most extravagant hopes. We live our lives, do whatever we do, and then we sleep – it’s as simple and ordinary as that. A few jump out of windows or drown themselves or take pills; more die by accident; and most of us, the vast majority, are slowly devoured by some disease or, if we’re very fortunate, by time itself. There’s just this for consolation: an hour here or there when our lives seem, against all odds and expectations, to burst open and give us everything we’ve ever imagined, though everyone but children (and perhaps even they) knows these hours will inevitably be followed by others, far darker and more difficult. Still, we cherish the city, the morning; we hope, more than anything, for more.