The Seventh Circle by Jorge Luis Borges and Adolfo Bioy Casares

I copy and paste the following text due to its potential interest to readers of this blog.

borges-bioyThe police genre is one of the few literary inventions of our time. Distraction often confuses it with a less rigorous and less lucid genre: that of adventure. In this, however, there is no other unit than the attribution of the various adventures to the same protagonist or other order than that advised by the convenience of graduating the reader’s emotions. (Remember the Seven Journeys of Sinbad; remember the novels that delighted Don Quixote.) Instead, police fictions require severe construction. Everything in them must prophesy the outcome; but those multiple and continuous prophecies have to be, like those of the ancient oracles, secret; they should only be understood in the light of the final revelation. The writer is thus committed to a double feat: the solution of the problem posed in the initial chapters must be necessary, but it must also be astonishing. To complicate the mystery, it is forbidden to interleave useless characters, accumulate accomplices or skimp indispensable data; also, purely mechanical solutions are prohibited: electromagnets, which invalidate the fundamentals of locksmithing; the fast false beards, which disrupt the principle of identity; the machinery of slices and piolas, whose labyrinthine explanation exceeds the possibilities of attention; Nor should the police novelist enrich toxicology with scholarly and imaginary poisons, or endow his characters with unusual acrobatic, thaumaturgical or ballistic hypnotic faculties.

In police novels the unity of action is essential; also it is convenient that the arguments do not expand in time and space. Treat yourself, then, in spite of certain romantic additions, of an essentially classical genre. Even death is punctual in police novels; although it is never absent, although it is usually the center and the occasion of the intrigue, it is not used for morbid delegations, except in certain examples of the American school, which represent another regression towards the adventure novel.

The tradition of the police genre is very noble: Hawthorne prefigured it in some tale of 1837; the illustrious poet Edgar Allan Poe created it in 1841; it has been cultivated by Wilkie Collins, Dickens, R.L. Stevenson, Kipling, Eça de Queiroz, Arnold Bennett and Apollinaire; recently, Chesterton, Phillpotts, Innes, Nicholas Blake. It is possible to suspect that if some critics are obstinate in denying the police genre the corresponding hierarchy, this is due to the lack of prestige of boredom.

Paradoxically, the most relentless detractors of police novels tend to be those who enjoy reading the most. This is due, perhaps, to an unconfessed Puritan prejudice: to consider that a purely pleasant act cannot be meritorious.

So powerful is the charm that derives from this literary genre that there is hardly any police work that does not participate in it, to some extent. It could also be said that there is no reader who is completely insensitive to that virtue. Everyone admires the first police novel they read; This admiration, sometimes astonishing or unfair, constitutes an involuntary homage to the genre.

Unintentionally, the writers who have analyzed the police novel hurt her, because by insisting on the mechanism of the argument – in whom, in how and why. They have fostered, or tolerated, the mistaken belief that these novels have no other value than that of their argument and that it exhausts them. Those who profess that belief seem to forget that the police novel is, above all, a novel, that is to say a work in which the psychology of the characters, the effectiveness of the dialogue, the power of the descriptions and the style of the narrator have decisive value. A proof of the error of judging the police novels by the single argument is manifested in the frequent equation of essentially dissimilar works; Thus, the mystery of the yellow room and the equivocal form are often cited as two versions of the same problem – that of the murder committed in a closed room -: this assimilation, justifiable from a point of view, ignores the vast differences between Gaston Leroux and Chesterton.

Of all the forms of the novel, the police is the one that demands writers greater rigor: there is no phrase or idle detail in it; everything, in its course, tends at last, to delay it without stopping it, to insinuate it without giving it away, to hide it without excluding it.

From this delicate direction of the emotions and thoughts of the reader, one might perhaps compare this genre with oratory and theater. However, we do not think presumptuous to remember that the task of the police novelist is more arduous, since it is not aimed at a passive and easily suggestible crowd, but rather at isolated readers (always more insightful than the writer, according to Stevenson’s observation).

There was a time, now happily surpassed, in which diagrams, plans and schedules joined their generous efforts to exasperate the reader. From the mechanical and topographic it has been passed, now, to the human. The works of Eden Phillipotts, Nicholas Blake, Robert Player, Richard Hull, Patrick Quentin and Vera Caspary adjoin the psychological analysis novel; in those of Anton Chekhov, Graham Greene, Margaret Miller, Michael Innes, Cora Jarret and Lynn Brock, a tragic vehemence prevails; those of Anthony Gilbert renew the successful tradition of Dickens; those of James M. Cain are distinguished by an unbearable hardness; those of E.C.R. Lorac, Milward Kennedy and Clifford Witting continue and enrich the Orthodox school; those of John Dickson Carr, whose protagonist, Dr. Fell, combines the people of Dr. Johnson and Chesterton, play wisely with melodramatic terrors; those of H. F. Heard and those of Leo Perutz, with fantastic terrors.

We believe, finally, that the police novel exerts a beneficial influence on all branches of literature; advocates the rights of construction, of lucidity; of order, of measure.

Museum fragment. Unpublished texts by Borges and Bioy Casares. Buenos Aires: Emecé, 2002 (Source: La Bòbila de Hospitalet Library, Barcelona

Last picture of Jorge Luis Borges and Adolfo Bioy Casares together. It was taken  by Julio Giustozza at Alberto Casares bookshop on 27 November 1985.

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