Jorge Luis Borges’s Dream Tigers at the Buenos Aires Zoo

Photographs — Alex Waterhouse-Hayward

I have a distinct memory of my sitting in my summer whites, my uniform as a conscript in the Argentine Navy in 1966. I was sitting on a bench of the Buenos Aires Zoo in front of the tiger cage. I was reading a copy of Time Magazine. I remember reading the body count for that week in Vietnam and reading how many Russian-made MiGs American Phantoms jets had shot down.

I was there relaxing in one of my favourite places of Buenos Aires, the tiger cage. My father had often taken me in my youth and I always asked to see the elephants and the tigers. I did not like the lions. I thought that dogs and lions were related while the more exciting tigers and cats were of the same family.

It is only at a later stage of my life, one in which I seem to read one Jorge Luís poem or story many times a week that I have come to know that Borges, too, loved tigers and disdained lions.

Of that disdain he wrote in a 1977 poem Leones (no available translation at hand)

Leones — Jorge Luís Borges

Ni el esplendor del cadencioso tigre

Ni del jaguar los signos prefijados

Ni del gato el sigilo. De la tribu

Es el menos felino, pero siempre

Ha encendido los sueños de los hombres.

Leones en el oro y en el verso,

En patios del Islam y en evangelios,

Vastos leones en el orbe de Hugo,

Leones de la puerta de Micenas,

Leones que Cartago crucifica.

En el violento cobre de Durero

Las manos de Sansón lo despedazan.

Es la mitad de la secreta esfinge

Y la mitad del grifo que en las cóncavas

Grutas custodia el oro de la sombra.

Es uno de los símbolos de Shakespeare.

Los hombres lo esculpieron con montañas

Y estamparon su forma en las banderas

Y lo coronan rey sobre los otros.

Con sus ojos de sombra lo vio Milton

Emergiendo del barro el quinto día,

Desligadas las patas delanteras

Y en alto la cabeza extraordinaria.

Resplandece en la rueda del Caldeo

Y las mitologías lo prodigan.

Un animal que se parece a un perro

But I will translate those last two damning lines:

An animal that resembles a dog

Like the prey (a hyena perhaps?) his female mate brings to him.

While taking the subway (the subte is how Argentines call it) in my trip to Buenos Aires a few weeks ago I stopped at the Tribunales Station (Law Courts) on my way to visit my friend, painter Juan Manuel Sanchez in his studio on Paraguay and Talcahuano. For years (since I can remember) one has been able to buy not only magazines but good books in any Subte station kiosks. This particular kiosk had a book, surrounded by a marvelous and eclectic neighbours, that immediately stood out. I chatted with the man who ran it. He is called Carlos Perez, and yes, most appropriately he is a lawyer.

The Subte

Since I have Jorge Luís Borges’s complete poetic output I was slightly confused. I was familiar with the poem called El Oro de Los Tigres. Borges had written it in East Lansing, Michigan, home of Michigan State University where he was conducting a series of lectures.

I finally got the gist of this particular selection. The title is not only about the colour of the Bengal Tiger but is also about yellos the last colour that Borges was able to discern by that year when he was going blind.

Carlos Perez at the Tribunales Subte kiosk

So, on that Tribunales Subte platform it finally hit home that since both Borges and I had been fascinated by the Bengal Tigers of the Buenos Aires Zoo I had to pursue the subject for a blog.

There was some confusion in my task as many told me that the zoo was being closed and that the tigers were gone. This was not the case but it is a fact that the zoo is going to be closed and it’s all hush-hush what the city government is going to do with the very valuable property. I was told the tigers (alas not yellow but very white!) were going to be moved to a town near the resort city of Mar del Plata called Batán.

I drafted my friend Roberto Baschetti who works at the National Library to pose for me with the Borges book. All we needed was to find a tiger. It seems that the tiger was indeed waiting for us as he posed for the shot.

El oro de los tigres — Jorge Luís Borges — 1972

Hasta la hora del ocaso amarillo

cuántas veces habré mirado

al poderoso tigre de Bengala

ir y venir por el predestinado camino

detrás de los barrotes de hierro,

sin sospechar que eran su cárcel.

Después vendrían otros tigres,

el tigre de fuego de Blake;

después vendrían otros oros,

el metal amoroso que era Zeus,

el anillo que cada nueve noches *

engendra nueve anillos y éstos, nueve,

y no hay un fin.

Con los años fueron dejándome

los otros hermosos colores

y ahora sólo me quedan

la vaga luz, la inextricable sombra

y el oro del principio.

Oh ponientes, oh tigres, oh fulgores

del mito y de la épica,

oh un oro más precioso, tu cabello

que ansían estas manos.
 I will translate the first six lines. The this way that way walk of the tiger behind bars Borges wrote at least twice before and in one of the poems it was about a panther.

Hasta la hora del ocaso amarillo

cuántas veces habré mirado

al poderoso tigre de Bengala

ir y venir por el predestinado camino

detrás de los barrotes de hierro,

sin sospechar que eran su cárcel.
 Until the hour of the yellow sunset
 how many times have I looked at
 the powerful Bengal Tiger
 come and go on that predestined way
 behind the iron bars
 without suspecting that they were his jail.
 Perhaps Borges never returned to the zoo once the tigers were removed from their cages,

Roberto Baschetti at the Buenos Aires Zoo

There were no golden Bengal Tigers to be found. The closest were hundreds of papier mâché jaguaretés (South American jaguars) behind bars sunning themselves. Below you will find the Borges little essay called Dreamtigers. Its name was always in English. Note that in the beginning of Dreamtigers Borges lightl dismisses the South American jaguar.

Dreamtigers — Jorge Luís Borges- El Hacedor — 1960

En la infancia yo ejercí con fervor la adoración del tigre: no el tigre overo de los camalotes del Paraná y de la confusión amazónica, sino el tigre rayado, asiático, real, que sólo pueden afrontar los hombres de guerra, sobre un castillo encima de un elefante. Yo solía demorarme sin fin ante una de las jaulas en el Zoológico; yo apreciaba las vastas enciclopedias y los libros de historia natural, por el esplendor de sus tigres. (Todavía me acuerdo de esas figuras: yo que no puedo recordar sin error la frente o la sonrisa de una mujer.) Pasó la infancia, caducaron los tigres y su pasión, pero tadavía están en mis sueños. En esa napa sumergida o caótica siguen prevaleciendo y así: Dormido, me distrae un sueño cualquiera y de pronto sé que es un sueño. Suelo pensar entonces: Éste es un sueño, una pura invención de mi voluntad, y ya que tengo un ilimitado poder, voy a causar un tigre.

¡Oh, incompetencia! Nunca mis sueños saben engendrar la apetecida fiera. Aparece el tigre, eso sí, pero disecado o endeble, o con impuras variaciones de forma, o de un tamaño inadmisible, o harto fugaz, o tirando a perro o a pájaro.

Dreamtigers :: J. L. Borges

In my childhood I was a fervent worshiper of the tiger: not the jaguar, the spotted “tiger” of the Amazonian tangles and the isles of vegetation that float down the Paraná, but that striped, Asiatic, royal tiger, that can only be faced by a man of war, on a castle atop an elephant. I used to linger endlessly before one of the cages at the zoo; I judged vast encyclopedias and books of natural history by the splendor of their tigers. (I still remember those illustrations: I who cannot rightly recall the brow or the smile of a woman.) Childhood passed away, and the tigers and my passion for them grew old, but still they are in my dreams. At that submerged or chaotic level they keep prevailing. And so, as I sleep, some dream beguiles me, and suddenly I know I am dreaming. Then I think: this is a dream, a pure diversion of my will; and now that I have unlimited power, I am going to cause a tiger.

Oh, incompetence! Never can my dreams engender the wild beast I long for. The tiger indeed appears, but stuffed or flimsy, or with impure variations of shape, or of an implausible size, or all too fleeting, or with a touch of the dog or the bird.

[From Dreamtigers, by Jorge Luis Borges, translated by Mildred Boyer]

Link to: Jorge Luis Borges’s Dream Tigers at the Buenos Aires Zoo

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