Pierre Menard, author of the Quixote, is seen by some (Blanchot, Genette, Jauss, Deleuze, Danto) as “the paradigm of a new definition of meaning that is not fixed, ready-made, and author-oriented, but transient, ever-changing and reader-oriented”; – and by others (Obooki) as “a piss-take”. – We can agree, perhaps, that it is a “satire”. But the question arises, a satire of what – or more precisely, of whom. For it is not, I believe, Pierre Menard – or his absurd undertaking – who is being held up to ridicule; nor indeed, is it Pierre Menard qua author. – No, the particular figure of ridicule being served to us is, it seems to me, the critic who is writing it – that personage who finds such unquestionable genius in the work of Pierre Menard – who doesn’t indeed think it a con-trick, an absurdity, a “piss-take”, but takes it seriously – a critic whose name might even be Blanchot or Genette, Jauss, Deleuze or Danto, though it may be more profitable for our enquiry if we merely call him H Bustos Domecq.
Perhaps the problem is that Borges is too subtle a writer: the meaning of his work is no doubt obscure or ambiguous. Even a highly regarded and perspicacious critic is lost within its mazedness. We are mistaken to try. But hardy breed that we are, let us nonethless offer a few passages which, we feel, suggest we should be regarding our narrator as, to an extent, unreliable.
Throughout the story, the narrator feels the constant need to defend Menard’s reputation against other critics (the entire work is framed as an apologia) – particularly the calumny that Menard’s Quixote was a mere transcription of Cervantes’:
Needless to say, he never contemplated a mechanical transcription of the original; he did not propose to copy it. His admirable intention was to produce a few pages which would coincide – word for word and line for line – with those of Miguel de Cervantes.
others (not at all perspicaciously) [have seen it as] a transcription of the Quixote
At length, our critic goes on about the difficulties Menard encountered in attempting to write the Quixote from his problematic twentieth-century point of view, but perhaps to the reader this all seems a little undercut by the narrator’s admission that there’s not the slightest shred of evidence for this:
In truth, not one worksheet remains to bear witness to his years of effort.
He multiplied draft after draft, revised tenaciously and tore up thousands of manuscript pages. He did not let anyone examine these drafts and took care they should not survive him.
Are we to take the episode where the critic places a passage (the same passage) from Cervantes’ and Menard’s texts side by side, and points out the infinitely greater subtlety of Menard’s passage, seriously? Do we recognise here that a very important point is being made about authorship? Or don’t we rather laugh at the foolishness of the critic who imagines too much in what he’s reading; who has too many improbable theories; who, believing everything to be fashionably avant-garde, has himself been taken in by a simple conman? Are not all the ideas in the work built on precisely this same absurdity; don’t they all lead back inevitably to the folly of the literary critic?
All the same, who would have thought that the subtle impersonator Pierre Menard, good modernist that he was, wasn’t even the least bit original? – We doff our caps to him, as we do to Joyce for his invention of the stream of consciousness, but even if in this sense he turns out to be a fraud. He has a predecessor – a man who accomplished the very same deed as him, as if were, act for act – but who has been curiously overlooked by literary history.
Look up César Paladión on google and you won’t find much (I tried: the fifth entry was the first version of this post which I’d only started fifteen minutes before, and which I hadn’t realised until then I’d accidentally published).
Paladión, an Argentine writer, published his first work in 1909, entitled The Abandoned Parks. Its publication led, however, in 1910, to “a rather regrettable episode which no one any longer remembers … a critic of considerable renown collated The Abandoned Parks with a work of the same title by the Uruguayan modernist Julio Herrera y Reissig, arriving – incredible as it may seem – at the conclusion that Paladión was guilty of plagiarism. Long extracts from both works, printed in parallel columns, justified, according to him, the daring indictment”.
This episode forgotten, however, Paladión went on between 1911 and 1919 to write the following: “The Pathfinder, the pedagogical novel Émile, Egmont, and the Eclectic Reader (second series) … under the pseudonym H Riger Haggard … the novel entitled She, using the Spanish version for young readers by Dr. Carlos Astrada … The Hound of the Baskervilles, From the Appenines to the Andes, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, The Provinces of Buenos Aires up until the Establishment of the Federal Capital, Fabriola, The Georgics (in the Ochoa translation), and the De Divinatione (in Latin)” – all of which without “falling into the all-too-easy vanity of writing a single new line”.
It’s a pity then the a writer of such “scandalous originality” should be overlooked in favour of the imposter Menard.