Historia universal de la infamia manifests Borges’s interest in performance: the ways in which the self is not a given, but is rather a role that we play. Sometimes we play no other role than the one we are given, which is why perhaps it seems so true to us, and why we easily confuse what is after all mere habit with some kind of abiding essence. At other times, however, characters find themselves faced with a decision: will they act this way or that. This is a dramatic choice between the different selves that they could potentially be. Perhaps infamy itself is precisely the result of some such decision, a deviation from an allotted role in favor of some other performance.
Almost all the stories in the collection revolve around some kind of imposture. Most obviously, “El impostor inverosímil Tom Castro” (“The Improbable Impostor Tom Castro”), which is based on the Tichborne Case, a nineteenth-century cause célèbre in which one Arthur Orton claimed to be the long-lost Sir Roger Tichborne, heir to the Tichborne Baronetcy. Borges observes that Orton’s performance gained credibility from the fact that he was in so many ways so different from the person he claimed to be: where Tichborne had been slim, dark-haired, reserved, and precise, Orton was fat, fair-haired, outspoken, and uncouth. Borges’s point is that presumably an impostor would try to copy at least some elements of the original he was mimicking; the very fact that there was no such attempt at impersonation seemed to prove that Orton must be the real thing. The best disguise is no disguise at all; in the best performance there is no distance between the role being played and the person playing it.
“El impostor inverosímil” features an eminence grise in the shape of Orton’s accomplice Ebenezer Bogle, who plays the part of Tichborne’s manservant. When Bogle dies, Orton quite literally loses the plot and ends up “giving lectures in which he would alternately declare his innocence and confess his guilt” (40; Complete Fictions 18). Borges calls Orton Tichborne’s “ghost,” presumably in that he shows up after the latter’s death, like some kind of strange revenant. But it is surely equally true that Orton himself is haunted by Tichborne. By the end he has spent so longer playing the role that it’s as though he’s know quite sure who he is, and he will let the public decide: “many nights he would begin by defending himself and wind up admitting all, depending on the inclinations of his audience” (40; 18).
In “El asesino desinterado Bill Harrigan” (“The Disinterested Killer Bill Harrigan”), there is no third party: neither the eminence grise nor the ghost that compelled Orton’s transformation. Or rather, there is but it is impersonal, mechanistic: New York tenement boy Harrigan turns himself into the cowboy out West who will be Billy the Kid by acting out melodramatic models provided by the theater. In turn, he will become an iconic part of the myths of the Wild West propagated by Hollywood.
Borges suggests that the History he is telling us is a series of “discontinuous images” that he compares a movie. But it is even better described as a series of scenes in the cinematic sense: briefer than a theater scene but more dynamic than any single image, the filmic scene is a situation in a single space defined by mise-en-scène, a dramatic confrontation, and the position of camera angles or lines of sight. Indeed, the scene is very often the basic unit of Borges’s fiction. (In this collection, think particularly of “Hombre de la Esquina Rosada” [“Man on Pink Corner”] or the ending of “El tintorero enmascarado Hákim de Merv” [“Hakim, the Masked Dyer of Merv”].)
Here the key scene is the moment of transformation of Harrigan into Billy: a notorious Mexican gunfighter named Belisario Villagrán enters a crowded saloon that is outlined with cinematic precision and visuality (“their elbows on the bar, tired hard-muscled men drink a belligerent alcohol and flash stacks of silver coins marked with a serpent and an eagle” [64; 32]); everyone stops dead except for Harrigan, who fells him with a single shot and for no apparent reason. Again, the visual detail as the Mexican’s body is slow to register the indignity: “The glass falls from Villagrán’s hand; then the entire body follows” (65; 33). In that moment, Billy the Kid is born “and the shifty Bill Harrigan buried” (66; 33).
But even if it is Bill’s “disinterested” (unreflective, habitual) killing that turns him into a legend, there is always a gap between that legend and his behavior. He may learn “to sit a horse straight” or “the vagabond art of cattle driving” and he may find himself attracted to “the guitars and brothels of Mexico” (66, 67; 33, 34), but a few tics from his East Coast days remain: “Something of the New York hoodlum lived on in the cowboy” (66; 33). The task of replacing one set of habits (or habitus) with another is never quite complete. But it is not as though Harrigan were the “real” thing and Billy the Kid a mere mask. Rather, it is that the new performance is informed by the old one. As always in Borges, there is never anything entirely new under the sun, even the scorching sun of the arid Western desert.