A Twice Told Tale?

Jorge Luis Borges' City of the Immortals

|It was while reading Belzoni’s description of his work at Ybsambul (now Abu Simbel) that I was first reminded of Borges’ story of the immortal one.|

Among the best stories that Jorge Luis Borges wrote is a particular favorite of mine, The Immortal. Originally published 1947, it was subsequently reprinted to a wider audience in the first edition of El Aleph in 1949. It is possible that the current state of literary criticism and analysis regarding this work is at best incomplete, and possibly irrelevant.

Whether this narrative is about the reputed author Marcus Flaminius Rufus, the book dealer Joseph Cartaphilus, or someone else who has achieved temporary immortality may not matter. Of the many observations discussed in the Postscript of The Immortal, most significant is likely, “He infers from these intrusions or thefts that the whole document is apocryphal.” In point of fact, it is not.

Recently, a friend and noted Egyptologist acquired all of the plates – with original watercolor – that accompanied 1820, 1821 and 1822 versions of Giovanni Battista Belzoni’s narrative of his time in Egypt. Handsomely rebound by the Cairo bookbinder Mr. Fahti (who has worked magic on many antiquarian volumes in my personal collection) I took advantage of our friendship to borrow both the enormous plate volume (measuring 40 inches by 24 inches when open, with fold-out plates) as well a first edition of the more practically sized text volume.


Narrative of the Operations and Recent Discoveries Within the Pyramids, Temples, Tombs, and Excavations in Egypt and Nubia; and of a Journey to the Coast of the Red Sea, in Search of the Ancient Berenice; and Another to the Oasis of Jupiter at Ammon by G. Belzoni was first published by John Murray, Albemarle-Street, in 1820. The copy temporarily sitting on my desk once belonged to the collection of Keith C. Seele, responsible for the successful completion of the first UNESCO project in the early 1960’s – moving the enormous temple of Abu Simbel out of harm’s way prior to the completion of the Aswan High Dam (see obituary; Journal of Near Eastern Studies, volume 32, January-April 1973).

It was while reading Belzoni’s description of his work at Ybsambul (now Abu Simbel) that I was first reminded of Borges’ story of the immortal one. Later, descriptions of abandoned temples, references to troglodytes and feral people living in pits led me to open my copy of Labyrinths and read, yet again, The Immortal. Which in turn led me to reread chapters in Narrative. Which in turn… Finally tiring of this dizzying cycle, the unmistakable similarities between these two works led me to write this brief note.

Belzoni notes in his Preface that his career was made in Thebes. Marcus Flaminius Rufus notes that his fate was sealed in Thebes. Mysterious peoples, the desert and protagonists unable to manage their fate appear in both Narrative and The Immortal. Beset by antagonists and problems both fearful and often fanciful, the only thing immortal in either of these tales is the past.

That a fantastic story conceived by a proud Argentinian during the 1940’s was heavily influenced by a boastful description of work undertaken by an Italian with British sympathies in Egypt during the 1810’s is obvious.


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