Borges and the Eternal Orangutans

Written by Luis Fernando Verissimo
Review by Colleen Quinn

In Borges and the Eternal Orangutans, the theme is that there is no such thing as a coincidence. The narrator—a meek translator of foreign texts into Portuguese—is invited to attend a conference on Edgar Allan Poe, a conference also attended by the narrator’s idol, writer Jorge Luis Borges. The conference is also attended by a cast of feuding Poe scholars, one of whom is found stabbed to death in his locked hotel room, a mystery worthy of Poe himself. The first orangutan is the one trained to kill in Poe’s story The Murders in the Rue Morgue.

Our humble narrator, the last person to see the victim alive, finds himself working with the great Borges, whom the Brazilian police consult on especially baffling cases. Their ruminations start with Poe’s love of cryptography. The body is found positioned in the shape of a letter—a V or an L—or, taking the mirror beside him into account, possibly an X or a W. Did he drag himself to the mirror to leave a clue to the identity of his killer, or was he arranged to incriminate someone else? Along the way, our philosopher-investigators touch on the secret language of the world and the mission of the Eternal Orangutan: given enough time, paper, and ink, the Orangutan will write and write, eventually coming up with the sacred syllables that comprise the name of God, thus ending the world.

What does all this have to do with a dead Poe scholar? Borges wraps it all up for us, noting some revealing clues in the narrator’s account. Readers familiar with Borges will enjoy this foray into language, meaning, and hidden agendas, while mystery fans will appreciate the classic locked-room murder.