In 1984, an aging Jorge Luis Borges, the Argentinean writer famed for his stories laden with intertextuality, philosophy, mirrors and labyrinths, visited Sicily. The elderly author was by now blind and had been garlanded with some of the world’s most prestigious literary honours including The Formentor Prize and The Cervantes Prize, not to mention the French Légion d’honneur and the award of Commendatore from the Italian government. The Bagheria-born Magnum agency photographer, Ferdinando Scianna, accompanied Borges and his soon to be wife, María Kodama, on a trip around the island. He captured the writer in various Sicilian locations from the Villa Palagonia of his hometown to Selinunte and Palermo, reproducing the images in a small volume simply entitled Jorge Luis Borges released by the publisher, Sciardelli and subsequently by FNAC Gala.
Years later, the Spanish writer, Alejandro Luque, received this little book about Borges as a present. Some of you will recognise the name, as translations of Alejandro’s articles and interviews concerning Sicilian matters have appeared on this website. In fact, Alejandro is a cultural journalist for the Spanish paper, El Correo de Andalucía, who, at the time of receiving the gift, was writing a book about the friendship between Borges and the Cádiz-based writer, Fernando Quiñones called Palabras mayores. He forgot the present as he was too involved in finishing his text, eventually leafing through it he saw a reference to Borges and Palermo, which he initially mistook for the district in Buenos Aires called Palermo. Further scrutiny of Scianna’s images and text confirmed the mistake; the Argentinean had, indeed, visited Sicily.
His discovery of Borges’ trip around Trinacria coincided with his friend Ro’s grant-funded study at Messina University. Alejandro and two other friends decided they would visit Ro and in the process retrace Borges’ footsteps via Scianna’s photographs. The journey was intended to be a farewell to Luque’s borderline obsession with all things Borgesian, a way of exorcising the author’s considerable ghost after months of research that saw the journalist buried in papers, texts, essays and verses concerning the blind writer. Prior to departure, Alejandro also discovered that he was beginning to add a Sicilian obsession to his Borgesian one, as his forays into the world of the island’s literature proved incredibly fruitful.
When the four friends took to the highways and byways of Sicily, Luque knew that the reality was beginning to match the page and that he was developing a lifelong love for the island. As if in a mirror pointed at a lens focused on the venerable subject, Alejandro decided to write up his journey in the wake of Borges which would also feature the images taken by Scianna. The author, himself, says ‘… in a proudly topsy-turvy world, for once the words illustrate the images.’ Luque intersperses his examination of each photo, the thoughts and feelings that the black and white pictures provoke, with his own travels around locations from Siracusa to Trapani, via Messina, Enna and Selinunte, in short the three corners of Sicily’s triangle and many points in between. Through Borges, Scianna, the island’s literature and his own observation, Luque reveals the Sicily to which he now feels a deep affinity. The resulting text became the book, Viaje a la Sicilia con un guía ciego (Journey to Sicily with a Blind Guide), originally published in Spain.
It is into this story that Suzanne and I now humbly step. Not long after beginning our Sicilian odyssey, we were casting around for items to read about the island written by ‘continentali’, in other words, non-Sicilians. We had a stack of books by islanders – Lampedusa, Sciascia, Pirandello, however, we also wanted to read outside perspectives, but not just those from the UK. I happened upon Alejandro’s book and it made a great impression upon me. I am not accustomed to writing to authors in order to congratulate them on their work, but in this case I felt compelled to do so. Via the website, M’Sur, which Alejandro helped to instigate, I contacted him and told him how the text had affected me. Eventually my message found its way to the author and we exchanged our impressions of the island.
It wasn’t long before I offered to translate the book, a thoroughly enjoyable task. Literature can bridge rivers, seas, artificial borders and connect individuals who would not otherwise have met. A couple of English people and an Andalusian have now become friends thanks to the power of literature and the pull of Sicily. I firmly believed in Alejandro’s text and really wanted those with no grasp of Spanish to be able to share in his impressions of the island. I am proud to say that my belief was shared by the publisher Haus, notable in the field of travel literature, who have released works by figures such as Jens Mühling, nominated for the 2015 Stanford Dolman Travel Book of the Year Award.
Viaje a la Sicilia con un guía ciego is now available as Borges in Sicily (subtitled Journey with a Blind Guide) and was published on 16th October by Haus, complete with Scianna’s original photographs of Jorge Luis Borges. I may be the translator of the text, but I started as an avid reader of a book that approached the island from a unique perspective, or should that be perspectives; through the clouded eyes of Borges, the lens of Scianna, the pages of literature, the activity and impressions of Alejandro and his friends. Borges in Sicily was the start of Alejandro Luque’s fascination with the island. In his epilogue, written especially for the English edition, he says ‘I often return to Sicily and each time I go back I discover a new treasure, a marvel that was hitherto unknown to me. I am, therefore, in a position to confirm that the island, with its wonders and its dramas, is inexhaustible.’ He wants the book to be ‘an invitation to continuing exploring’. I can categorically say it fulfils that invitation and much more, for which I am eternally grateful.