Among the books on alchemy and philosophy in the library at Llys Rhosyn, did Aunt Megan think to include the works of that most philosophical alchemist, Douglas Adams? And if so, did our anonymous narrator, in the course of his eclectic studies, ever happen upon Adams’ description of the infamous torture device, The Total Perspective Vortex? I’d like to think that Aunt Megan might have left it as a warning to her nephew of the terrible forces at work around him. Additionally, considering her sideline as a ‘regular pixie pot-head’, it seems possible that the shelves mightn’t entirely be groaning under the weight of abstruse conjecture and that could be at least a little reading matter more playful than the Aphorismi Urbigerani, or Certain Rules, Clearly Demonstrating the Three Infallible Ways of Preparing the Grand Elixir of the Philosophers.
LLys Rhosyn is, of course, the isolated fourteenth-century farmhouse house in the Black Mountains that serves as the setting for Richard Gwyn’s novel, The Blue Tent. Its current inhabitant has inherited it from his mysterious Aunt Megan, who has also bequeathed him the contents of its library, along with some oddly specific instructions for its preservation and, perhaps more importantly, for its use:
‘One book opens the other. Read many books and compare them and then you get the meaning. By reading one alone you cannot get it, you cannot otherwise decipher it.’
And so our narrator spends his time reflecting on this directive, walking in the nearby hills and reading, reading, reading.
It seems to me that his life is perfect and he would do well to keep his head down and enjoy it.
But then one day, a blue tent appears in the farmer’s field at the end of his garden. Our narrator is uneasy and with good reason. The tent is not only ecstatically blue, but it also appears to have magical properties. With the passing days, different characters emerge from it and inveigle themselves into the daily life of Llys Rhosyn. Each claims to have some connection to the late Aunt Megan and each claims that Aunt Megan gave them the blue tent. One of them, a homeless Irishman (or ‘gentleman of the road’ as the narrator insensitively refers to him), named O’Hallaran, claims that Aunt Megan swapped the blue tent for an Aleph that he found while working as a maize-castrator in the south of France.
Jorge Luis Borges himself, at the conclusion to The Aleph, his celebrated examination of grief, literary vanity and personal small-mindedness, speculates that there had to be another Aleph – perhaps hidden in a pillar in the great Amr mosque in Cairo – and that the Aleph he encounters in Buenos Aires was a false one. There is no reason not to suspect that one might turn up among the enchanted hills of Wales.
The Aleph begins with a dead woman: Beatriz Viterbo. She has died after a long illness ‘in which she never for an instant stooped to sentimentality or fear’. Borges, who was devoted to Beatriz in life, now makes an annual pilgrimage (every April 30 – her birthday) to her house on Calle Garay. There, to obtain a few melancholy and nostalgic hours among the photographs and mementoes of Beatriz, Borges must have dinner with her witless and pompous cousin, Carlos Argentino Daneri, who he cannot stand.
For Daneri is a man corrupted by literary ambition, and to wallow in nostalgia, Borges must endure his host’s poetry.
Daneri’s poetry is not the worst in the universe. That would, of course, bring us back to The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and its famous scenes of excruciation and torture. But it is, according to Borges, pretty dire – an epic poem, entitled The Earth, which attempts to describe the entire world and everything in it in minutely detailed terms. The poem is clumsy and extravagant, and on reading each stanza Daneri cannot resist indulging himself in a kind of director’s commentary, in which he expounds upon his poem’s intellectual lucidity, formal daring and intertextual depths.
Borges comments: ‘I realized that the poet’s work had lain not in the poetry but in the invention of reasons for accounting the poetry admirable.’
One of the lovely things about the framing of The Aleph is the way Borges presents himself as – there is no nice way to say it – a rather conceited snob. The sort of man who would look down on a fellow library worker for holding ‘some sort of subordinate position in an illegible library in the outskirts towards the south of the city’. And based on the quoted extracts of the poem and its commentary, it’s safe to say that had Aunt Megan sought to obtain an English translation of The Earth for the library at Llys Rhosyn, then her nephew, who shares not a few of the fictional Borges’ less admirable personality traits, might not have been so martyred by insomnia.
For a long while, Borges accounts the source of Daneri’s literary ambition as vanity. Until one day he learns of the Aleph in Daneri’s cellar.
I don’t wish to spoil any more of Borges’ narrative. All I will say is that, for whatever my opinion is worth, if anyone knows of a better short story than The Aleph, I would like to hear of it. Its sheer cleverness – and its smug self-awareness of how clever it is – and the way that Borges makes you feel, just for a moment as though you might be as clever (and as vain) as he, and the sleight-of-hand with which he lures you into the cold sucker-punch of his tale’s final sentences and all that they imply – there’s not much better. It is necessary, however, since Gwyn’s Aleph and Borges’ Aleph are the same general kind of thing, to say a few words about what an Aleph is, and how the two authors differ over it.
Taking its name from the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, an Aleph is, according to Daneri, who experiences his Aleph as a spot on the wooden stairs leading down to his basement in the house on the Calle Garay, ‘the place where, without admixture or confusion, all of the places of the world, seen from every angle, coexist’. It is these visions he has experienced courtesy of the Aleph that underpin his mind-numbingly dull poetry. O’Hallaran, in The Blue Tent, describes it thus:
‘It contained images, at first indistinct then becoming clearer, or human faces, of streets, of entire cities, and of landscapes, grand and terrifying, of oceans and deserts and jungles and wild marshes, or animals and people of every kind. Everything was contained within its small screen. The whole universe, from every angle simultaneously, without distortion, overlapping or confusion. The whole of history was in it, viewed from all perspectives. It was – he added – as you might imagine, incredibly heavy to hold in my hand.’
O’Hallaran’s Aleph is not a fixed place, but a portable object, a metal cylinder about the size of his thumb, and soon it has corrupted him as completely as Sauron’s ring corrupts the hobbit Smeagol. At first, O’Hallaran shares his find with his companions, but then becomes defensive of it, secretive and jealous. His companions, not surprisingly, abandon him.
‘I descended into a terrible depression. I stopped speaking to anyone or anything other than the silver cylinder, to which I murmured softly, as to a lover… I spent all my time consulting my cylindrical treasure, watching the events of history unfold within its small and infinite space, marvelling at the revelation of things yet to come, and of things that might have been – for it soon became apparent that the wonderful object contained all the possible stories, and not only those that took place, as it were, in actual fact.’
Here, Gwyn’s Aleph seems to differ from Borges, who nowhere suggests the Aleph contains anything but reality, seen at once and from all angles. There is nothing in it that might have been, only what was and is. Additionally, it is implied that Gwyn’s Aleph has a bit of a nasty streak. Again, O’Hallaran:
‘I could see the world from the point of view of Roger the gimp, who spent each morning sipping his Armagnac while gazing at Mimi’s cleavage; could witness the infidelities the town rugby team’s coach, Jean-Pierre; participate in the bizarre existential enquiries of the postwoman, Aurélie; share the dreadful fear of death that tormented the school caretaker, Fréderik; recoil at the paedophilic fancies of old Pane, the patissier… I must confess the magical screen often seemed to home in on truly vile and ugly things. Unless that’s what it found most salient about human beings. Or unless it adjusted its revelations to suit the mind of a voyeur – a possibility that would not reflect well on me.’
A magical screen that seems to home in on what is vile about human beings? It seems telling that no one in The Blue Tent possesses a mobile phone. Reference is made to a laptop somewhere in Llys Rhosyn, and to the internet, but no one ever seems to spend any time doom-scrolling Twitter, or enviously poring over photos of other peoples’ dinners on Instagram, or tanking the occasional hedge fund with their pals on Reddit.
This portrait of O’Hallaran, lurking alone in the corner of a bar somewhere, forgetful of his friends, aware of the world around him only as mediated by the shiny cylinder of the Aleph, consumed by it, seems so familiar that it should hardly need pointing out. To return momentarily to The Aleph of Borges, Daneri paints the following picture of modern man, ‘in his study, as though in the watchtower of a great city, surrounded by telephones, telegraphs, phonographs, the latest in radio-telephone and motion-picture and magic-lantern equipment, and glossaries and timetables and bulletins…’
‘He observed that for a man so equipped, the act of travelling was supererogatory; this twentieth century of ours had upended the fable of Muhammad and the mountain – mountains nowadays did, in fact, come to the modern Muhammad.’
We might dismiss this, as Borges, in a crucial act of narratorial misdirection, in fact does, but it feels very close to home. We moderns do have all this stuff, and not in our studies, but in our pockets – telephone, telegraph, phonograph, magic-lantern – not to mention a spirit level and a couple of supermarkets. Borges, for once, is not thinking on a big enough scale.
At the end of his tether, having run out of money and friends, O’Hallaran runs into Aunt Megan, who, on learning of his Aleph and seeing that it is not bringing him any happiness offers to trade it for her magical blue tent, which promises to return the wretched O’Hallaran to the authenticity of actual experience. It’s a more than fair trade – swapping miserable voyeurism for travel and adventure. In both accounts, the Aleph is a deeply enervating and stultifying phenomenon for a human being to encounter. Having experienced the wonders of an Aleph our minds can’t encompass that experience and seek to prolong or recreate it. And yet, Daneri fulfils his literary ambition when his Aleph is taken from him, forcing him to abandon his great epic and finally submit the thing to a publisher.
O’Hallaran’s fate is not so happy. He knows that the Aleph might be at Llys Rhosyn and he can’t keep away. There is much in The Blue Tent that remains ambiguous – it would be a brave critic who offered anything like an actual interpretation – but it does seem likely that he has come to Llys Rhosyn to locate and steal the Aleph.
The Aleph is a terrible thing. A horror and an abomination. It is not for us. Look into it and you risk being lost forever. Aunt Megan knew this and so did Douglas Adams. He wrote of a sort of an Aleph – the Total Perspective Vortex. Its inventor sought only to win an argument with his wife but ended up destroying her mind. The Vortex was taken to the deserted ruins of a dead planet and installed as a cruel and unusual punishment:
‘For when you are put into the Vortex you are given a momentary glimpse of the entire unimaginable infinity of creation, and somewhere in it a tiny little marker, a microscopic dot on a microscopic dot, which says, You are here.’
What kind of fool would, knowingly, look into an Aleph? Far better to kick back and enjoy the quiet, bickering life at Llys Rhosyn, its steady rhythms of meal-times and trips to local beauty spots, not to mention its inexhaustible supply of hash. Things might be a bit weird, unnerving even, since the tent appeared, and started disgorging these waifs and strays, particularly when experienced through the prism of the narrator’s chronic insomnia. But don’t try and figure it out. Maybe they are, as some have suggested, different aspects of Aunt Megan’s personality, or maybe they are ghosts, trapped in some kind of Last-Year-in-Marienbad-style limbo, or maybe it’s all a Marxist allegory (or could it be something darker than that entirely – after all, when he first set eyes on the blue tent, on the very first page, isn’t the narrator’s very first thought that he might murder its occupants?) – or maybe, as in Borges’ Library of Babel, is it possible that The Blue Tent is written in one of the infinite number of secret tongues:
‘You who read me – are you certain you understand my language?’