Jorge Luis Borges

The Plagiarist

Upon completion of his film-script – an adaptation of the short-story The Gospel According to Mark by Jorge Luis Borges – the then obscure, but now justly famous writer, Phillip Morris [1], contemplated the strange and complex issue of its copyright. We can consider the word strange as particularly apt in this case as, from Morris’s highly subjective point of view, ownership of the aforementioned story was not a straightforward issue.

The collection of Borges stories Brodie’s Report had been recommended to the young writer by a brief acquaintance, [2] as something that would be of interest to him. This proved to be an uncannily accurate supposition, as we shall see. In deference to his mother’s religion, Morris began with The Gospel According to Mark – which he rightly guessed to be some form of instructive parable.

The opening paragraphs of the story delineate the perverse, ironical nature of its central character, Baltasar Espinosa [3]. As Morris read on, he couldn’t fail to notice the number of disturbing parallels to be drawn between Espinosa and himself, at the time of reading he was thirty-three [4] – just like Espinosa – and he also had a mother, a devout Pentecostal, who similarly obliged him to make a daily show of religion in spite of his atheism. It required little more than these few coincidences, and a profound sympathy with Espinosa’s penchant for nuance and self-correcting thought-processes, for Morris to believe he had chanced upon his exact literary double.

It often bewildered the young writer that even in the shadow-worlds of his fictionalised autobiographies, the characters he designated his alter egos were inevitably puffed-up or idealised self-images, or wizened, partial glimpses of an interior self. Yet here he was in The Gospel According to Mark, the work of another, replicated in almost every detail, excepting the superficial.

Morris cautioned himself that he had thought similarly of Mersault in Camus’ The Outsider, and Joseph K in Kafka’s The Trial, and even Nick Carraway in Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, only for such comparisons to embarrass him later when he came to reread those novels. Yet with each rereading of The Gospel According to Mark, his initial identification with Espinosa only increased. He copied out the story in long hand – hundreds of times – in order to understand it more completely. His decision to finally adapt the story into a screenplay stimulated further this bizarre fascination. The story began to affect a change in him, until he came to regard himself as the story’s one and true author. The Gospel According to Mark belonged to him, and not to Borges.

For the cattle-ranch where Espinosa is trapped by the floods, Morris envisioned the farm that clung to the side of Twmbarlum Hill, which he visited weekly in his youth. It was during childhood that the terrible fancy suggested itself to him that Twmbarlum was actually the very same Golgoltha where Christ was crucified. And, rather than accept Daniel’s half-Indian and half-Scottish servants, the Gutres [5] as ‘tall, strong, and bony with reddish hair’, he recast them, in his mind, as short, stocky, dark-haired and Welsh. The Gutre Bible (printed in English) that Espinosa discovered in the farm’s main-house, Morris felt sure resembled in every respect (five inches thick, two feet by one foot across, cloaked in a hard, black cover with the words ‘Holy Bible’ embossed in gold leaf on its front) the same Bible that sat on the table in his grandparent’s living-room.

This cross-fertilisation of imagery was made possible by the central idea of The Gospel According to Mark – that people, being fickle and paradoxical, inevitably kill those who offer themselves as their redeemers – being one that had lodged in Morris’ imagination long before he had read a single word of Borges. The theme had become quite emblematic for the young writer, to the extent that he became convinced that somehow Borges had plagiarised him. Time was Morris’ enemy, confounding his hopes of claiming authorship. For it was stated clearly at the bottom of Borges’ foreword to Brodie’s Report:


Buenos Aires, April 19th 1970 [6]


Three years before Morris was born!

He entertained briefly the possibility of challenging Borges’ copyright, before concluding that the laws of intellectual property would not bend to metaphysics.

Morris’ claim was indeed difficult to prosecute, even in the case of Borges, who had once written: ‘The fact is that every writer creates his own precursors. His work modifies our conception of the past, as it will modify the future.’ [7] The implications of this idea tantalised Morris. The argument was clearly there to be made that in crafting his film-script of The Gospel According to Mark, furnished with the new setting of the Welsh Valleys, he had effectively created Borges as his precursor upon whom he now exerted a retrospective creative influence. The task of proving such a transformation had taken place, unfortunately, was a job for a literary theorist and not a lawyer.

Morris was apprehensive that his script might languish, unmade, in his bottom drawer, unless a direct appeal was made to Maria Kodama [8]. It was she who currently exercised the copyright of Borges’ complete works. There would be little consolation for Morris to be had in the continued existence of the film as a platonic ideal in his mind’s eye. Quite the contrary, he needed the film to exist so that the past could be modified and the original story supplanted. It was the only way to show the story belonged to him and no one else. He felt sure that when audiences saw the rolling Welsh hills substituted for the sweeping long grass of the Pampas, they would understand it actually made sense to relocate the action of the story there. Concerning the depiction of the rain-floods, the inciting incident that keeps Espinosa isolated on the farm with the Gutres, where else other than Wales is it known to rain endlessly?

Aside from this relocation, Morris’ script shared with the original story only the motives of its protagonists, the fate of its hero, its central theme of superstition and redemption – and nothing more. Both versions of the story followed identical narratives, related a chain of events in precisely the same way, and began and ended at corresponding points.

He wrote a long letter to Ms. Kodama but didn’t send it. There was little doubt in his mind that the widow of Borges would be open-minded enough to consider intelligently his authorial claim to The Gospel According to Mark, yet surely by some sentimental pang of loyalty to her late husband she would still maintain the story belonged solely to Borges.

It should be made clear at this point that Morris wasn’t seeking to avoid paying a royalty to Ms. Kodama for his putative screen adaptation. He merely wanted to credit his film thus:

                             The Gospel According to Mark

                             A film by Phillip Morris

                            Based on the Short-story by Phillip Morris [9]

                                    – as suggested by Jorge Luis Borges

The co-author credit would reflect the fact that the story resulted from a relationship between both writers. Morris considered it a neat way of acknowledging their respective roles in the story’s genesis; making sure he was proclaimed the story’s author, whilst also conceding that Borges had had the privilege of telling it first. It was an elegant solution but Morris eventually convinced himself that Ms. Kodama would oppose it. He suspected pride in her husband’s work would lead her to reject Morris’ claim that his achievement as a reader of the story was as important as her husband’s writing of it. And, no doubt, she would maintain her sentimental view even though Borges had written: ‘Poetry is the encounter of the reader with the book, the discovery of the book.’ [10]

The imposition of Ms. Kodama as mediator mitigated the intimacy Morris had supposed existed between him and his illustrious Argentinean collaborator. He wished to negotiate with no one other than Borges, yet that was made impossible by the immovable fact of Borges’ death nearly twenty years before. The young writer struggled for weeks and months to find a solution to the problem. He couldn’t sleep. He refused to read the works of others. He wouldn’t start another project. Then, on the verge of surrendering to despair, he happened upon the expedient of contriving a meeting with Borges in a story he would write. This story would have the form of a dream, possessing its own reality.

He picked up his pen and started to describe the journey, by foot, from his three-bedroom suburban home into the city-centre of Newport; writing of the Malpas Road and the Lyceum Tavern and the canal that passes underneath a motorway bridge. He could not resist the observation that Chartist rebels had walked the same road in eighteen thirty-nine, marching towards the guns of a troop of dragoons. His visual and historical imagination thus stirred, Morris took the decision to add to these local descriptions, the evocations of Buenos Aires from Borges’ work.

He copied out these words from Borges’ text: the street corner on Cabrera where a mailbox stood; two cement lions on a porch on Calle Jujuy a few blocks from the Plaza del Once; a tile-floored corner grocery-story- and-bar…

He wrote them down, again and again, until the repetitions took on an incantatory power and the walls of his study began to shake. Books fell from shelves. In moments the Welsh home around him was torn down to reveal sudden and sweeping vistas of Buenos Aires. Morris required no more than those few words above to work this magic. No mere photograph could stimulate as complete a vision of the Argentine capital as those scant details selected by Borges. Their very sparseness opened up imaginative spaces large enough for the young writer to build his city of dreams. With decreasing astonishment, Morris found he was able to populate his Buenos Aires with buildings and parks that Borges hadn’t described. It had become more real to him than Newport.

He wandered the streets, absorbing the sounds of Spanish and Italian; until he was sure he’d acquired some understanding of these foreign tongues. He searched for an arch of an entrance hall with grillwork on the gate (as described in ‘Borges and I’) and found just such an arch and just such a gate around the corner of a large public building – The National Library of Argentina. He found Borges’ name on a list of professors’ mailboxes and climbed up three flights of stairs.

The door to an office was open; inside a balding old man with dry, yellowing skin sat a desk. Morris recognised him immediately – it was Borges. In spite of his prior confidence, the young writer grew nervous at the silence of his great precursor. He wondered momentarily if he had indeed travelled back through time to engineer the encounter, or whether the old man was a ghost. On reflection, this question of time became increasingly important to Morris.

On Borges’ desk was a wood-carved chess-set, with opposing sides missing one of their rook’s pawns.

‘Do you play?’ asked Borges.

Morris could not recall later if Borges had asked this in Spanish or English.

He looked down at the chessboard, and then at the misty, sightless eyes of the old man. He remembered how the writer Bruce Chatwin had once described the entire genius of South America as having funnelled down into the personage of Borges, and thought it prudent to avoid the battle.

‘Not really, though I do write about the game quite well.’

Borges nodded sagely. ‘A proper story has much in common with a good game of chess. There should be nothing accidental about it. As Poe once said – in reference to his most famous story The Raven – the work should proceed, “step by step, to its completion with the precision and rigid consequence of a mathematical problem.” Does your story unfold in such a way?’

‘It does,’ Morris replied.

‘You must know that my father once explained Zeno’s famous paradox, choosing to make his example through a game of chess?’

‘Yes, and I can think of no better preparation for your games with time and infinity.’

Dispensing with this chitchat, the old master brought them round to the business at hand. Morris chose to be bold and, with a tone that suggested he anticipated no denial, said he’d come to claim ownership of The Gospel According to Mark. Borges expressed no surprise at this, but simply asked if, like Pierre Menard (the author of the Quixote), the young writer was proposing a word for word rewrite of the story, making no alterations to the text. To achieve this, Borges explained it would be necessary for Morris to know Argentina as well as he, to understand its culture and landscape as a native, to be steeped in its myths and literature.

‘Have you read Facundo?’ asked Borges.

The young writer confessed that he hadn’t.

‘My boy… Facundo is the most memorable character of Argentine literature.’

Morris said that he had no doubt of it, but that it wasn’t necessary for him to study Argentinean literature, or spend any time in the country, to be the writer of The Gospel According to Mark.

‘With respect, the story is closer to me than it is to you Señor,’ Morris countered. ‘To the Welsh, religion is as dark and superstitious as it is for the Gutres.  They must be neither Indian nor Calvinist, but Celtic non-conformist protestants. Place them in the landscape of my country and you have a more fitting theatre for Espinosa’s tragedy.’

The old man shrugged his shoulders and asked to see the script. Morris handed over his copy, and was pleased to watch Borges trace his gnarled fingers over the surface of each page. Despite the fact that the script hadn’t been written in Braille, Borges appeared able to read it. With a couple of gurgles, which sounded something like laughter, he finished reading.

‘My original is unfaithful to your adaptation.’

‘I’m glad you think so.’

‘I am much impressed by the penultimate line of your script, there you have written – “A bird screamed; it’s a goldfinch, Espinosa thought.” Whereas I write – “A bird screamed; it’s a goldfinch, Espinosa thought.” I believe your version is infinitely richer than mine.’

Morris caught the scent of a passionflower and breathed deeply.

‘Tell me,’ Borges went on, ‘is the goldfinch native to Wales?’

‘It is. Nothing is lost and something is gained by transferring the story to a Welsh setting.’

The old man smiled thinly, ‘I’m happy to have met you in this Patagonia [11] of our imaginations. I believe the story is yours.’

The young man rose quickly to his feet and thanked the old master. He paid fulsome and lengthy tribute to the brilliance of Death and the Compass and Funes the Memorious, and said he was certain he’d always be learning from them.

‘No, no… It is I who should thank you,’ said Borges with a wave of his hand. ‘For you came to me in this dream and brought me your story. I shall look forward to waking and committing it to paper.’


The End


Authors Note: In the autumn of 2005, a cataloguist working for The Jorge Luis Borges Center, at the University of Aarhus, Denmark, unearthed an early draft of The Gospel According to Mark. The manuscript (dated 1966) had a note attached, in Borges’ own handwriting. It told of the curious genesis of the story, which Borges claimed was delivered to him in a dream, complete, but in the form of a film-script, by another writer.


[1] The reader will no doubt recall Morris’s screenplay The Seduction of Bel-Ami (after the novel Bel-Ami by Guy de Maupassant) and his religious satire Sadhana.

[2] The novelist Gregory Norminton, author of Ship of Fools.

[3] The Spanish reader will sooner or later associate the character’s surname, Espinosa (thorny) with Christ’s ‘crown of thorns’.

[4] The age of Christ at his crucifixion, a foreshadowing of the story’s denouement.

[5] It is revealed that ‘Gutre’ is a corruption of their Scottish ancestral name Guthrie.

[6] Brodie’s Report, JL Borges.

[7] Kafka and his Precursors, J.L. Borges

[8] Ms. Kodama was a student of Borges, later his amanuensis then, in the final year of his life, his wife.

[9] Mr. Morris has become somewhat notorious for his collection of credits.

[10] See Borges’ lecture Poetry.

[11] An area of Argentina settled by the Welsh in the 19th century.

Banner illustration by Dean Lewis