The Sincerest Form of Flattery: A Note on Bruce Chatwin's "The Estate of Maximilian Tod" as an Imitation of Borges

By Stewart, Iain A. D. | The Modern Language Review, July 2001 | Go to article overview

The Sincerest Form of Flattery: A Note on Bruce Chatwin's "The Estate of Maximilian Tod" as an Imitation of Borges


Stewart, Iain A. D., The Modern Language Review


In Bruce Chatwin's Anatomy of Restlessness, an anthology of previously uncollected essays, stories and reviews, there is a tale which resounds with echoes of the narrative art of Jorge Luis Borges, the Argentinian maestro. The story in question, 'The Estate of Maximilian Tod', shares features of unmistakable likeness with certain of the cuentos gathered in Borges's most celebrated volume, Ficciones (1944, augmented edition 1956). (1) The present essay attempts to elucidate these similarities, noting self-evident resemblances, such as South American settings and thematic parities, together with correspondences of a more intricate brand, including those of style, vocabulary and structure. I shall commence with a brief resume of Chatwin's life, which serves chiefly to underline his familiarity with Borges's writing, and then move on to summarize the predominant characteristics of 'The Estate of Maximilian Tod', while elaborating the most notable convergences between this story and examples of the porteno (Buenos Aires) author's work. The focus of the analysis falls especially upon four pieces found within Ficciones: 'Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius', 'Pierre Menard, autor del Quijote', 'El jardin de senderos que se bifurcan', and 'La forma de la espada'. (2) Passing reference is also made to a number of Borges's other writings, including two stories from Historia universal de la infamia (1935) and two from El Aleph (1949).

Bruce Chatwin, born in England in 1940, began his working life at the age of eighteen as a porter at Sotheby's auction house, where he quickly became a specialist in antiquities, prior to pursuing a career as a writer on the Sunday Times magazine. His true vocation, however, was that of the literary traveller, one enthralled by accounts of others' peregrinations and dedicated to recording his own experiences in an imaginative fashion. The publication of In Patagonia in 1977, the fruit of a voyage of personal discovery, marked Chatwin's arrival as a writer of the first rank, a status later enhanced by critically acclaimed works such as The Viceroy of Ouidah, On the Black Hill, The Songlines, and Utz. (3) In 1985, he collaborated with the prolific travel writer and novelist Paul Theroux, author of an account of an epic train journey southwards through the Americas (which may have inspired Chatwin's own visit to Argentina), to write Patagonia Revisited. (4) Chatwin died from AIDS-related illnesses in 1989. (5)

It was inevitable that Bruce Chatwin, by dint of his twin interests in literature and South America, would become familiar with Borges's work, probably in translated form (with all the implications, too numerous to elaborate here, that this entails). Of course, many travellers who combined their wanderlust with writing and who ventured to the River Plate region eagerly devoured tales crafted by the Argentinian genius, or even sought to interview him. Theroux, Chatwin's friend and colleague, states in The Old Patagonian Express that he had always aspired to meet Borges (p. 384), and goes on to relate his numerous discussions with the author during a stay in Buenos Aires (pp. 386-402). In one of the sections of Patagonia Revisited drafted by Theroux, Borges is quoted on the affinity for Argentina's southern wilderness felt by the writer and naturalist W. H. Hudson (p. 18). Chatwin himself appeared with Borges and Mario Vargas Llosa on a BBC television discussion programme about South American writing in October 1983, and remarked that 'you can't go anywhere without packing a Borges. It's like taking your toothbrush' (Shakespeare, p. 432).

'The Estate of Maximilian Tod' opens with the words: 'On 6 February 1975, Dr Estelle Neumann fell down a crevasse of the Belgrano Glacier in Chilean Patagonia. Her death robbed Harvard University of the finest glaciologist at work in the United States; I lost a close ally and a good friend' (Anatomy, p. 54). The reader thus learns that the tale is to take the basic form of a first-person account, a narrative strategy much favoured by Borges. …

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