Don’t Trust Everything You Read: Comparing the Credibility of the Narrators in Cervantes’s Don Quixote and Borges’s “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote”
Like the narrator in Don Quixote, the narrator in Borges’s “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote” is first-person and, as such, he is overt. But also like the narrator in Don Quixote, the degree to which this narrator is overt is questionable, because he also puts on a front of erudition and academic background. He uses elevated diction, including such words as “marmoreal” (Borges 88) and “periphrastic” (89), and makes references to such intellectuals as William James (94) and James Joyce (95), and such literary classics as The Odyssey and the AEnid (95). He cites his sources carefully and precisely and includes academic quotes from the texts he compares, as well as quotes from Pierre Menard’s letters.
Yet, in his very first sentence, the narrator reveals that his own prejudices and biases get in the way of his intellectual approach. He writes:
The visible oeuvre left by this novelist can be easily and briefly enumerated; unpardonable, therefore, are the omissions and additions perpetrated by Mme. Henri Bachelier in a deceitful catalog that a certain newspaper, whose Protestant leanings are surely no secret, has been so inconsiderate as to inflict upon that newspaper’s deplorable readers—few and Calvinist (if not Masonic and circumcised) though they be. (Borges 88)
The very opening of the essay acknowledges that another list of Menard’s works exist, allowing for the possibility of a version other than the one the narrator presents us with. The narrator discounts this other list on the unscientific grounds that it appears in a Calvinist newspaper, much as the narrator of Don Quixote discounts the found manuscript because it was written by an Arab. The narrator’s vilification of this newspaper is exaggerated, which also serves to call his reliability into question.
Borges’s narrator acknowledges that he has given us cause to distrust him, writing “I am aware that it is easy enough to call my own scant authority into question” (88). He therefore gives us his credentials:
The baroness de Bacourt (at whose unforgettable vendredis I had the honor to meet the mourned-for poet) has been so kind as to approve the lines that follow. Likewise, the countess de Bagnoregio, one of the rarest and most cultured spirits of the principality of Monaco (now of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, following her recent marriage to the international philanthropist Simon Kautzsch—a man, it grieves me to say, vilified and slandered by the victims of his disinterested operations), has sacrificed “to truth and to death” (as she herself has phrased it) the noble reserve that is the mark of her distinction, and in an open letter, published in the magazine Luxe, bestows upon me her blessing. Those commendations are sufficient, I should think. (Borges 88)
But are they? Once again, the narrator employs gross exaggeration, this time in the praise of his references—they are of “the rarest and most cultured spirits” and so forth, but neither the baroness de Bacourt nor the countess de Bagnoregio has any credentials other than her rank. The Mme. Henri Bachelier whom the narrator vilifies has at least published the book Le jardin du Centaure (Borges 95), but we do not find that these ladies have published anything other than their approbation of the narrator’s remarks. In fact, the countess de Bagnoregio’s husband Simon Kautzsch rather seems to have a tarnished reputation—we can only imagine what the complaints of “the victims of his disinterested operations” might be.
And further, the baroness de Bacourt and the countess de Bagnoregio are fictional. So are the sources the narrator lists, in which Menard’s works were supposedly published. This is not necessarily surprising—after all we are reading a work of fiction—but it leads us to question who it was that fabricated these people and sources. Was it Borges or the narrator? If Borges created them, then they exist in the narrative, and the narrator may be citing them correctly. But the possibility also exists that it was the narrator who created them, in which case they don’t exist in the reality of the story, and the narrator is an out and out liar. Of course, we have no way of telling, and so the truth of this narrative is ambiguous, but, as the narrator himself writes, “ambiguity is richness” (94).
Borges’s narrator is also difficult to pinpoint as completely homodiegetic or completely heterodiegietic. For the most part, he is homodiegetic, as he plays a character trying to record and analyze the greatness of Pierre Menard’s work. However, his descriptions of Pierre Menard’s process he becomes heterodiegetic:
Initially Menard’s method was to be relatively simple: Learn Spanish, return to Catholicism, fight against the Moor or Turk, forget the history of Europe from 1602 to 1918—be Miguel de Cervantes. Pierre Menard weighed that course (I know he pretty thoroughly mastered seventeenth-century Castilian) but he discarded it as too easy… To be a popular novelist of the seventeenth century in the twentieth seemed to Menard to be a diminution. Being, somehow, Cervantes, and arriving thereby at the Quixote—that looked to Menard less challenging (and therefore less interesting) than continuing to be Pierre Menard and coming to the Quixote through the experiences of Pierre Menard (Borges 91).
The narrator tells us the story of Menard’s process without inserting himself as a character in the story or claiming to have influenced the process in any way. He does mention himself, “I know he pretty thoroughly mastered seventeenth-century Castilian,” but this line does not indicate any action on the part of the narrator. The narrator reads about Menard’s work in the letters Menard sends him (much as the narrator in Don Quixote reads about Don Quixote and Sancho’s travels in the manuscript written by Cide Hamete Benengeli), but he does not do anything to influence the work or the author. Although Borges’s narrator did have contact with Pierre Menard, he still exists on a plane outside of Pierre Menard’s story, just as the narrator in Don Quixote exists on a plane outside of Don Quixote and Sancho’s story.
We have proved how similar the narrators in Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote and Jorge Luis Borges’s “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote” are in that both are overt, there is ambiguity about the truthfulness of each of them, and both switch between being heterodiegetic and homodiegetic. It is interesting that the narrator of the Borges piece mirrors the narrator of Don Quixote so exactly. Pierre Menard may not have written the entire Don Quixote over again, but it seems that Jorge Luis Borges wrote the narratological structure of Don Quixote over again in this piece.
Borges, Jorge Luis. “Menard, Author of Quixote.” Collected Fictions Jorge
Luis Borges. Trans. Andrew Hurley. NY: Penguin, 1998. Print.
De Cervantes Saavedra, Miguel. The Ingenious Hidalgo Don Quixote de la
Mancha. 1605. Trans. John Rutherford. Columbus, MT: Penguin,