The first book I read by the Argentinean novelist Alan Pauls was called El factor Borges—an investigation into the “Borges factor, the particularity, the digital imprint, the molecule that makes Borges Borges.” I’d never heard of Pauls, but the long essay, first published in Buenos Aires in 2000, seduced me with its charm and brilliance, and I remembered it above all for its way of describing Borges’s originality. In Pauls’s account, Borges wanted to be a classic, he wanted the grand esteem of his beloved nineteenth-century writers, like Dumas or Dostoyevsky. But instead of writing fictions of a grand plenitude, like these classic authors, Borges instead performed a side-step: he wrote slim stories that recounted the critical reception of classic works that did not exist. This was the great strategy of lightness that Borges invented, and that has shadowed a certain mutant strain of literature ever since (“Borges is inexhaustible,” wrote Roberto Bolaño, a near contemporary of Pauls).
What do you do, as a novelist, after Borges and his disappearing trick? For Borges’s strategy was not just a local literary effect. As Pauls suggests, it can lead to grandly devastating conclusions:
For Borges the question of the classic is precisely the critical point of a much vaster problem: the problem of literary value and of its historicity. Borges maintains that the value of a work is not intrinsic, it isn’t contained within it nor in its properties; value is the fruit of an evaluation: it is something given to it, attributed to it, assigned to it. And reading is the principal agent of this labour of value-assignation.
Everything in Pauls’s work is contained in this small sequence. His writing—whose background is always the grotesqueries of recent Argentine politics—is a constant process of evaluations, of readings and misreadings, as his characters try to investigate the true nature of the stories in which they find themselves. Before the essay on Borges, Pauls had published two or three short novels; but it was in the works he published subsequently, in his novel The Past (2003), and then a trilogy of shorter novels, A History of Tears (2007), A History of Hair (2010), and A History of Money (2013), where he perfected his baroque style. In that style, events are always hidden behind the scribble of the characters’ thinking, a haze of suspended investigation into an infinitely receding past—both personal, and also historical: the era of the Junta and the Dirty War. And in A History of Money, now published by Melville House in a translation by Ellie Robins that offers fluidly acrobatic equivalents for Pauls’s ornate syntax, this intertwining of world and personal history is at its most intense (and also least quotable, since one of Pauls’s most sinuous techniques is the ease of his transitions).
The novel—like A History of Tears (2007) and A History of Hair (2010) before it—examines the bourgeois bildungsroman of an unnamed boy in Buenos Aires, centering on his adolescence during the years of the Junta, which began in 1976 with a right-wing coup, and roughly ended in 1983, when the military was forced from power. It was an era that came with its terrible motif: the “disappearances” of thousands of left-wing activists, trade unionists, and any other suspected enemies of the regime. And yet: to be bourgeois was a relatively peaceful occupation. This was the repressed reality that a generation grew up in, and it is the reality that the novel’s narrator inhabits. His parents separated when he was a young child. His father is a gambler and businessman. His mother, who has remarried, is a hypochondriac and spendthrift. While, in this elegant world of tennis clubs and psychiatrists, the boy himself is rebelliously loyal to an idealized Trotskyite Communism. That is the cushioned atmosphere in which the novel takes place, and it begins at a wake for a family friend who has died in a helicopter accident, which occurred as he was on his way to negotiate with striking workers at a factory. The man was said to be carrying a briefcase full of money, but the briefcase has not been recovered, just as it’s not clear if the accident is in fact an assassination. Nothing is certain about the circumstances of this death—nor even about the man himself:
a man of whom it’s not at all clear, today—and the question of what’s meant by today can be added to all the other unknowns—whether he was a hero or a traitor, fallen in the line of duty or a victim, a soldier or a double agent, a crook out for blood or a family man determined to avoid spilling any.