Mirroring their souls in the Aleph: Borges y Francisco


Jorge Luis Borges (1899 – 1986).  “Ibant obscuri sola sub nocte per umbram.”

The fifth antipope of the modern era was elected on the thirteenth of March in 2013, a fortnight after the resignation of antipope Benedict XVI.  As everyone surely knows by now, the College of Cardinals chose the Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Jorge Mario Bergoglio.  Upon his elevation, Bergoglio took the regnal name Francis, which he chose in honor of his favorite saint, Francis of Assisi, the thirteenth-century friar beloved for his emphasis on humility and his concern for the poor.  If Francis were actually the pope, he would be the first pope to take the name Francis, the first pope to be a Jesuit, and the first pope from the New World.  But he is not the pope.

There are, however, some lesser-known but intriguing facts to be known about Francis.  Shortly after I commenced my research into the survival of Pope Paul VI, I became embroiled in a correspondence with an interesting and rather eccentric Argentine expatriate by the name of Baltasar Fuentes Ramos, who was living as a wanderer and mendicant in southern Portugal.  He was traveling, he said, with a group of Romani drifters, dwelling in a rusted old trailer and living on rice and beans.  He used various internet cafés for his computing.  Fuentes told me he was happiest when he was living life close to the bone, in total simplicity.  He said he loved the hermits and misfits and mystics of Catholic history, and his favorite saint, he told me, was St. Simeon the Stylite.  (At the time, I did not question this, but in retrospect, I wonder if his nomadic and under-the-radar lifestyle was a deliberate choice for a different reason: in order to safeguard himself and the incendiary knowledge he possessed).  Originally, Fuentes and I were discussing some information he had concerning the whereabouts of Pope Paul VI in Portugal, but almost immediately we diverged onto the subject of Francis.  Fuentes claimed to have been a student of Francis’ in the mid-1960s, when the young Jorge Bergoglio was a Jesuit seminarian teaching a course in creative writing to teenagers at a parochial boys’ school, the Colegio de la Immaculada Concepción, in Santa Fe, Argentina.  Fuentes informed me that Francis is extensively aware of (and somewhat involved in) the history of Pope Paul VI.

Fuentes began by telling me that Bergoglio had been quite a likeable profesor.  Fuentes even became friendly with him.  From a very young age, Fuentes had been an avid lover of literature, and at the colegio he was the most well-read pupil in his grade.  Bergoglio appreciated the boy’s enthusiasm, and sought to nurture his budding talent by engaging him in long discussions during lunch.  They quickly discovered they had a favorite writer in common: the famous Argentine master of short fiction, Jorge Luis Borges.  In the second semester of the class, Francis decided to add three stories by Borges to the course syllabus (these stories were Averroës’ Search, The Writing of the God, and Three Versions of Judas).  As the end of the semester approached, Bergoglio assigned his students to write a “Borgesian” short story of their own.  “You will have noticed,” he told them, “that Borges infuses his fiction with an insatiable curiosity for religion and philosophy.  Try to do this yourselves.  Push at the boundaries of your thought.  Do not be afraid, even,” he said, “to transgress certain mild taboos.”  (During his papacy, of course, Francis himself would be somewhat notorious for violating taboos, at times even appearing to call into question long-held traditional positions of the Catholic Church.  He is, without question, the most outspokenly modernist of all the contemporary antipopes).

After class, Bergoglio told Fuentes that he would soon be in for the surprise of his life.  And truly he was: back in his seminary room at night, Bergoglio had been working on an important composition of his own.  He labored for several evenings over it, scribbling multiple drafts at his desk beneath a large crucifix hung on the wall, giving painstaking care to the wording and style.  He wanted it short, sweet, and impressive, for it was a missive to Borges himself.  Bergoglio whittled his taut little masterpiece down to two terse paragraphs.  The first paragraph functioned as a fan letter (reserved in tone, never fawning), while the second consisted of a polite request for Borges to read his students’ stories, and to select the five best from among them to be anthologized in an issue of the school’s literary magazine.

A week later, Bergoglio had his reply: Borges would do it.  The great author wrote back and confessed to feeling a certain restlessness; the idea appealed to him as a change of pace.  He was also looking for a brief respite from Buenos Aires, and he agreed to not only serve as the judge of the stories, but to personally come to Santa Fe and speak with the students as well.  Bergoglio was overjoyed—his perseverance in writing the letter had paid off abundantly.  If anyone from the distant future had been able to see him in his room, as he knifed open the envelope and read the response from Borges, they probably would’ve recognized the impish smile of “Pope Francis” that dawned on him as he gleaned the good news.


Portrait of the antipope as a young man: Jorge Mario Bergoglio in his twenties.

I was able to find an article on the internet (with a photo, as well, of Francis and Borges) which verified much of Fuentes’ story: World-famous Argentinian writer Borges impressed by Pope Bergoglio’s charisma 50 years ago.   This particular account was given by a classmate of Fuentes’, Rogelio Pfirter, but Fuentes claims Pfirter got some details wrong.  Fuentes remembered the young Pfirter as a hotshot braggart, and was therefore unsurprised at his outrageous boast of having written not only one, but two, of the winning stories.  “How could he have written two?  The rule was one entry per pupil.  Nobody was allowed to submit two stories.  And Pfirter’s story didn’t even win.  The winning entry was mine, and it was called The Wandering Jew.  There were four runners-up, and Pfirter wasn’t one of them.  Secondly, Borges did not take the bus to Santa Fe.  He was a famous writer, not a pleb.  He took the train.  I know this for a fact.  I was with Bergoglio when he met Borges at the station.”

When Borges disembarked from the train at Santa Fe, he was sixty-six years old, and partially blind due to a deteriorative eye condition which had plagued him since youth.  He walked with a cane and was helped onto the platform by his secretary, a graceful, middle-aged, auburn-haired Russian Jewish woman named Jana Filippovna.  Filippovna was a scholar of the Hebrew language and something of a moderate authority on the system of Jewish mysticism known as Kabbalah.  Borges, for his part, was a lifelong philo-Semite.  (In the 1930s, Argentine nationalists had accused Borges of being a crypto-Jew.  He’d composed a tract in his own defense entitled “I, a Jew.”  Borges denied the charge, being a complete agnostic in matters of religion, but carefully suggested that any Argentinian of Spanish descent, as he was, likely carried traces of the blood of the Sephardic Jews of Spain from before the Alhambra decree).  Jana Filippovna had come into Borges’ employ as a consultant on a planned short story about Kabbalah, tentatively titled The Treasury of Solomon David, about a young Jewish accountant who is a prodigy with numbers, who stumbles upon an obscure connection between the Hebrew alphabet and Wittgenstein’s philosophy of mathematics, and unknowingly manages to solve an ancient puzzle of Kabbalistic numerology.  The story was never published, but Filippovna and Borges had become good friends during their collaboration on it, and afterwards she remained in Argentina as his assistant for a period of roughly a decade, from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s, which is when they had a falling out.  (The woman who replaced her as Borges’ secretary, Maria Kodama, eventually became his wife).

At the train station, Borges and Filippovna were surprised to find Bergoglio accompanied by a student.  Fuentes was introduced: “this young man is my star pupil,” Bergoglio told them.  “He has a future as a great writer, I assure you.”  Fuentes blushed.  “Shouldn’t the teacher remain impartial on the eve of a writing contest?” asked Jana Filippovna.  “Ah, but I am not judging the stories,” Bergoglio shrugged, and turned to address Borges.  “You are.”

The four of them dined at a restaurant that evening.  Fuentes remembers being impressed at Bergoglio’s ability to keep apace with the intellectual verve of Borges’ conversation.  “Francis sometimes has a tendency to come across as a bumbling stooge,” Fuentes remarked, “with his silly grin and his rambling way of speaking.  But don’t be fooled.  He is a fiercely intelligent man.  His public image is very different from who he is privately.  In front of a crowd or at the head of a classroom, he tends to get anxious and inarticulate.  But if you sit down with him, individually or in a small group, and let him relax and have a maté, he is incredibly astute.  In fact, I suspect that at some point in his life he decided to purposefully exaggerate his goofy persona.  I think he realized he could get away with much more if he appeared outwardly clueless.  I believe he’s sustaining a terrific act: the act of the ‘holy fool.’”

At the end of their dinner, Bergoglio produced from his satchel an accordion folder housing his students’ attempts at Borgesian fiction.  Inside of the folder lay Fuentes’ story, The Wandering Jew, a sprawling tale which was longer than the rest of the entries combined.  Said Fuentes: “there was me—a frail, awkward, dark-haired boy with glasses; an insignificant nobody, sitting at that restaurant table with the one and only Borges.  I was tongue-tied.  I knew my story was good, though.  I was confident about it.  But I had no idea whatsoever how profoundly my life was about to change after that.”  Jana stubbed out a cigarette, and Bergoglio handed her the folder.  She and Borges would read the stories that night, and announce the winners at class the following afternoon.

The next day at school, Borges singled out The Wandering Jew for highest honors.  He sat facing the class, holding his cane, his eyes (sadly vacant) staring off at nothing.  Jana sat next to him.  Bergoglio stood by the classroom windows, twirling a ruler.  Announced Borges: “this one, especially, is a fine tale, containing many instances of lurid religiosity.  At some points it almost seems to flirt with outright sacrilege, and yet it somehow manages to remain extremely pious throughout.  It’s a delicate and well-executed balancing act.  My compliments to the author for dreaming this up.”

In response, Fuentes did something completely unexpected.  He told me: “I don’t know what came over me, but for some reason even Borges’ praise seemed insufficient.  It wasn’t enough for him to merely like my story.  I wanted him to like me.  I wanted to become his friend and his protégé, like I was with Bergoglio.  So I told a lie that even Rogelio Pfirter wouldn’t have told.”  The young author of the story stood up at his desk, with a look of determination in his eyes.  “Begging your pardon, Herr Borges,” he said, employing the Deutsch honorific to address the famous Germanophile, “but it is not a work of fiction.  It is the actual and living truth.”

Borges said nothing in reply.  Jana looked out the window, disinterested.  It was left to Bergoglio to defuse the situation, so he laughed.  It wasn’t too hearty a laugh, or mocking in tone; it was probably intended to provide enough levity to break the tension and encourage the young Fuentes to sit back down.  But instead the boy fixed his gaze of defiance on his teacher, and suddenly turned on his mentor.  “Of course you would find it funny,” he sneered.  “You’re a modernist.  You are an adherent to the robber council called Vatican II.  It’s natural that someone like you would scoff at the truth.  But remember this: the heart of fools is in the house of mirth.”

Bergoglio frowned.  He knew Fuentes had a favorite uncle who was a monsignor in Buenos Aires—a staunch theological conservative who was an open dissenter to the teachings emerging from the current council, and whose bishop had threatened to defrock him for his relentless criticism of the hierarchy.  For this reason, Bergoglio and his favorite student had always politely avoided discussions of church politics.  Now he became suddenly bashful at Fuentes attacking him for his liberalism.

But Borges seemed to be enjoying himself.  “Perhaps you are trying to be provocative, young man,” he surmised aloud.  Borges himself had been the instigator of several literary hoaxes.  “It is healthy,” he said, “sometimes, to suggest a wild misinterpretation of a story simply for the fun of it.  Of course, by all means be playful with your work, but be careful to be so overly bold as to claim the entire thing as true.  That’s a diversion without any amusement.  It’s as perverse as the most humorless and intractable religious fanatics.  No one ever enjoyed the company of a Puritan or a Jansenist.”

Quod scripsi, scripsi,” said Fuentes.  He sat back down at his desk and crossed his arms.  Borges smiled.  Bergoglio tapped his ruler idly on the windowsill, then sauntered up to the front of the classroom and changed the topic entirely.  “I figured that was the end of it,” Fuentes told me.  “I had hoped that Borges would’ve been intrigued by my claiming the story as true, but instead he’d just shrugged it off.  As it turned out, I was wrong.  Borges was intrigued indeed.  Two months later, during summer vacation, I was surprised to get a phone call from my parents saying my writing teacher was trying to get in touch with me.  This amazed me, as our friendship had deteriorated into nothing after that day I called him a modernist.  I was staying with my uncle in Buenos Aires, which was my usual custom during the school break.  Mama said it was all the better that I happened to be in Buenos Aires, because Bergoglio was there, too.  She told me he was interested to know if I wanted to meet with Borges again—because Borges, apparently, wanted to meet with me.  She told me to expect Bergoglio’s call.  It’s like I told you: writing that story changed my entire life.  I was thrust into the orbit of people whose designs on the world I could not even begin to comprehend.”

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