“The Challenge” — Jorge Luis Borges

“The Challenge”


Jorge Luis Borges

Translated by d by Norman Thomas di Giovanni

All over the Argentine runs a story that may belong to legend or to history or (which may be just another way of saying it belongs to legend) to both things at once. Its best recorded versions are to be found in the unjustly forgotten novels about outlaws and desperadoes written in the last century by Eduardo Gutiérrez; among its oral versions, the first one I heard came from a neighborhood of Buenos Aires bounded by a penitentiary, a river, and a cemetery, and nicknamed Tierra del Fuego. The hero of this version was Juan Muraña, a wagon driver and knife fighter to whom are attributed all the stories of daring that still survive in what were once the outskirts of the city’s Northside. That first version was quite simple. A man from the Stockyards or from Barracas, knowing about Muraña’s reputation (but never having laid eyes on him), sets out all the way across town from the Southside to take him on. He picks the fight in a corner saloon, and the two move into the street to have it out. Each is wounded, but in the end Muraña slashes the other man’s face and tells him, “I’m letting you live so you’ll come back looking for me again.”

What impressed itself in my mind about the duel was that it had no ulterior motive. In conversation thereafter (my friends know this only too well), I grew fond of retelling the anecdote. Around 1927, I wrote it down, giving it the deliberately laconic title “Men Fought.” Years later, this same anecdote helped me work out a lucky story—though hardly a good one—called “Streetcorner Man.” Then, in 1950, Adolfo Bioy-Casares and I made use of it again to plot a film script that the producers turned down and that would have been called On the Outer Edge. It was about hard-bitten men like Muraña who lived on the outskirts of Buenos Aires before the turn of the century. I thought, after such extensive labors, that I had said farewell to the story of the disinterested duel. Then, this year, out in Chivilcoy, I came across a far better version. I hope this is the true one, although since fate seems to take pleasure in a thing’s happening many times over, both may very well be authentic. Two quite bad stories and a script that I still think of as good came out of the poorer first version; out of the second, which is complete and perfect, nothing can come. Without working in metaphors or details of local color, I shall tell it now as it was told to me. The story took place to the west, in the district of Chivilcoy, sometime back in the 1870’s.

The hero’s name is Wenceslao Suárez. He earns his wages braiding ropes and making harnesses, and lives in a small adobe hut. Forty or fifty years old, he’s a man who has won a reputation for courage, and it is quite likely (given the facts of the story) that he has a killing or two to his credit. But these killings, because they were in fair fights, neither trouble his conscience nor tarnish his good name. One evening, something out of the ordinary happens in the routine life of this man: at a crossroads saloon, he is told that a letter has come for him. Don Wenceslao does not know how to read; the saloonkeeper puzzles out word by word an epistle certainly not written by the man who sent it. In the name of certain friends, who value dexterity and true composure, an unknown correspondent sends his compliments to don Wenceslao, whose renown has crossed over the Arroyo del Medio into the Province of Santa Fe, and extends him the hospitality of his humble home in a town of the said province. Wenceslao Suárez dictates a reply to the saloonkeeper. Thanking the other man for his expression of friendship, and explaining that he dare not leave his mother—who is well along in years—alone, he invites the other man to his own place in Chivilcoy, where a barbecue and a bottle or so of wine may be looked forward to. The months drag by, and one day a man riding a horse harnessed and saddled in a style unknown in the area inquires at the saloon for the way to Suárez’ house. Suárez, who has come to the saloon to buy meat, overhears the question and tells the man who he is. The stranger reminds him of the letters they exchanged some time back. Suárez shows his pleasure that the other man has gone to the trouble of making the journey; then the two of them go off into a nearby field and Suárez prepares the barbecue. They eat and drink and talk at length. About what? I suspect about subjects involving blood and cruelty—but with each man on his guard, wary.

They have eaten, and the oppressive afternoon heat weighs over the land when the stranger invites don Wenceslao to join in a bit of harmless knife play. To say no would dis
honor the host. They fence, and at first they only play at fighting, but it’s not long before Wenceslao feels that the stranger is out to kill him. Realizing at last what lay behind the ceremonious letter, Wenceslao regrets having eaten and drunk so much. He knows he will tire before the other man, on whom he has a good nine or ten years. Out of scorn or politeness, the stranger offers him a short rest. Don Wenceslao agrees and, as soon as they take up their dueling again, he allows the other man to wound him on the left hand, in which he holds his rolled poncho.4 The knife slices through his wrist, the hand dangles loose. Suárez, springing back, lays the bleeding hand on the ground, clamps it down under his boot, tears it off, feints a thrust at the amazed stranger’s chest, then rips open his belly with a solid stab. So the story ends, except that, according to one teller, the man from Santa Fe is left lifeless, while to another (who withholds from him the dignity of death) he rides back to his own province. In this latter version, Suárez gives him first aid with the rum remaining from their lunch.

In this feat of Manco (One Hand) Wenceslao—as Suárez is now known to fame—certain touches of mildness or politeness (his trade as harness and rope maker, his qualms about leaving his mother alone, the exchange of flowery letters, the two men’s leisurely conversation, the lunch) happily tone down and make the barbarous tale more effective. These touches lend it an epic and even chivalrous quality that we hardly find, for example—unless we have made up our minds to do so—in the drunken brawls of Martín Fierro or in the closely related but poorer story of Juan Muraña and the man from the Southside. A trait common to the two may, perhaps, be significant. In both of them, the challenger is defeated. This may be due to the mere and unfortunate necessity for the local champion to triumph, but also (and this is preferable) to a tacit disapproval of aggression, or (which would be best of all) to the dark and tragic suspicion that man is the worker of his own downfall, like Ulysses in Canto XXVI of the Inferno or like that other doomed captain in Moby Dick.

Something fundamental in the brutal story just told saves it from falling into unalloyed barbarousness—an episode out of La Terre or Hemingway. I speak of a religious core. “His beliefs,” said the poet Lugones of the gaucho, “could be reduced to a few superstitions, which had no great bearing on his everyday life.” He then adds, “The one thing he respected was courage, which he cultivated with a chivalrous passion.” I would say that the gaucho, without realizing it, forged a religion—the hard and blind religion of courage—and that this faith (like all others) had its ethic, its mythology, and its martyrs. On the plains and out on the raw edges of the city, men who led extremely elementary lives—herders, stockyard workers, drovers, outlaws, and pimps—rediscovered in their own way the age-old cult of the gods of iron. In a thirteenth-century saga, we read:

“Tell me, what do you believe in?” said the earl.

“I believe in my own strength,” said Sigmund.

Wenceslao Suárez and his nameless antagonist, and many others whom myth has forgotten or has absorbed in these two, doubtless held this manly faith, and in all likelihood it was no mere form of vanity but rather an awareness that God may be found in any man.

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