|Funes, the Memorious
him (I scarcely have the right to use this
ghostly verb; only one man on earth deserved
the right, and he is dead), I remember him
with a dark passionflower in his hand, looking
at it as no one has ever looked at such a
flower, though they might look from the twilight
of day until the twilight of night, for a
whole life long. I remember him, his face
immobile and Indian-like, and singularly
remote, behind his cigarette. I remember
(I believe) the strong delicate fingers of
the plainsman who can braid leather. I remember,
near those hands, a vessel in which to make
maté tea, bearing the arms of the Banda Oriental;
I remember, in the window of the house, a
yellow rush mat, and beyond, a vague marshy
landscape. I remember clearly his voice,
the deliberate, resentful nasal voice of
the old Eastern Shore man, without the Italianate
syllables of today. I did not see him more
than three times; the last time, in 1887.
. . .
all those who knew him should write something
about him seems to me a very felicitous idea;
my testimony may perhaps be the briefest
and without doubt the poorest, and it will
not be the least impartial. The deplorable
fact of my being an Argentinian will hinder
me from falling into a dithyramb - an obligatory
form in the Uruguay, when the theme is an
slicker, Buenos Airean: Funes did not use
these insulting phrases, but I am sufficiently
aware that for him I represented these unfortunate
categories. Pedro Leandro Ipuche has written
that Funes was a precursor of the superman,
"an untamed and vernacular Zarathustra";
I do not doubt it, but one must not forget,
either, that he was a countryman from the
town of Fray Bentos, with certain incurable
recollection of Funes is quite clear: I see
him at dusk, sometime in March or February
of the year '84. That year, my father had
taken me to spend the summer at Fray Bentos.
I was on my way back from the farm at San
Francisco with my cousin Bernardo Haedo.
We came back singing, on horseback; and this
last fact was not the only reason for my
joy. After a sultry day, an enormous slate-grey-storm
had obscured the sky. It was driven on by
a wind from the south; the trees were already
tossing like madmen; and I had the apprehension
(the secret hope) that the elemental downpour
would catch us out in the open. We were running
a kind of race with the tempest. We rode
into a narrow lane which wound down between
two enormously high brick footpaths. It had
grown black of a sudden; I now heard rapid
almost secret steps above; I raised my eyes
and saw a boy running along the narrow, cracked
path as if he were running along a narrow,
broken wall. I remember the loose trousers,
tight at the bottom, the hemp sandals; I
remember the cigarette in the hard visage,
standing out against the by now limitless
darkness. Bernardo unexpectedly yelled to
him: "What's the time, Ireneo?"
Without looking up, without stopping, Ireneo
replied: "In four minutes it will be
eight o'clock, child Bernardo Juan Francisco."
The voice was sharp, mocking.
so absentminded that the dialogue which I
have just cited would not have penetrated
my attention if it had not been repeated
by my cousin, who was stimulated, I think,
by a certain local pride and by a desire
to show himself indifferent to the other's
me that the boy above us in the pass was
a certain Ireneo Funes, renowned for a number
of eccentricities, such as that of having
nothing to do with people and of always knowing
the time, like a watch. He added that Ireneo
was the son of Maria Clementina Funes, an
ironing woman in the town, and that his father,
some people said, was an "Englishman"
named O'Connor, a doctor in the salting fields,
though some said the father was a horse-breaker,
or scout, from the province of El Salto.
Ireneo lived with his mother, at the edge
of the country house of the Laurels.
years '85 and '86 we spent the summer in
the city of Montevideo. We returned to Fray
Bentos in '87. As was natural, I inquired
after all my acquaintances, and finally,
about "the chronometer Funes."
I was told that he had been thrown by a wild
horse at the San Francisco ranch, and that
he had been hopelessly crippled. I remember
the impression of uneasy magic which the
news provoked in me: the only time I had
seen him we were on horseback, coming from
San Francisco, and he was in a high place;
from the lips of my cousin Bernardo the affair
sounded like a dream elaborated with elements
out of the past. They told me that Ireneo
did not move now from his cot, but remained
with his eyes fixed on the backyard fig tree,
or on a cobweb. At sunset he allowed himself
to be brought to the window. He carried pride
to the extreme of pretending that the blow
which had befallen him was a good thing.
. . . Twice I saw him behind the iron grate
which sternly delineated his eternal imprisonment:
unmoving, once, his eyes closed; unmoving
also, another time, absorbed in the contemplation
of a sweet-smelling sprig of lavender cotton.
time I had begun, not without some ostentation,
the methodical study of Latin. My valise
contained the De viris illustribus of Lhomond,
the Thesaurus of Quicherat, Caesar's Commentaries,
and an odd-numbered volume of the Historia
Naturalis of Pliny, which exceeded (and still
exceeds) my modest talents as a Latinist.
Everything is noised around in a small town;
Ireneo, at his small farm on the outskirts,
was not long in learning of the arrival of
these anomalous books. He sent me a flowery,
ceremonious letter, in which he recalled
our encounter, unfortunately brief, "on
the seventh day of February of the year '84,"
and alluded to the glorious services which
Don Gregorio Haedo, my uncle, dead the same
year, "had rendered to the Two Fatherlands
in the glorious campaign of Ituzaingó,"
and he solicited the loan of any one of the
volumes, to be accompanied by a dictionary
"for the better intelligence of the
original text, for I do not know Latin as
yet." He promised to return them in
good condition, almost immediately. The letter
was perfect, very nicely constructed; the
orthography was of the type sponsored by
Andrés Bello: i for y, j for g. At first
I naturally suspected a jest. My cousins
assured me it was not so, that these were
the ways of Ireneo. I did not know whether
to attribute to impudence, ignorance, or
stupidity the idea that the difficult Latin
required no other instrument than a dictionary;
in order fully to undeceive him I sent the
Gradus ad Parnassum of Quicherat, and the
February, I received a telegram from Buenos
Aires telling me to return immediately, for
my father was "in no way well."
God forgive me, but the prestige of being
the recipient of an urgent telegram, the
desire to point out to all of Fray Bentos
the contradiction between the negative form
of the news and the positive adverb, the
temptation to dramatize my sorrow as I feigned
a virile stoicism, all no doubt distracted
me from the possibility of anguish. As I
packed my valise, I noticed that I was missing
the Gradus and the volume of the Historia
Naturalis. The "Saturn" was to
weigh anchor on the morning of the next day;
that night, after supper, I made my way to
the house of Funes. Outside, I was surprised
to find the night no less oppressive than
mother received me at the modest ranch.
told me that Ireneo was in the back room
and that I should not be disturbed to find
him in the dark, for he knew how to pass
the dead hours without lighting the candle.
I crossed the cobblestone patio, the small
corridor; I came to the second patio. A great
vine covered everything, so that the darkness
seemed complete. Of a sudden I heard the
high-pitched, mocking voice of Ireneo. The
voice spoke in Latin; the voice (which came
out of the obscurity) was reading, with obvious
delight, a treatise or prayer or incantation.
The Roman syllables resounded in the earthen
patio; my suspicion made them seem undecipherable,
interminable; afterwards, in the enormous
dialogue of that night, I learned that they
made up the first paragraph of the twenty-fourth
chapter of the seventh book of the Historia
Naturalis. The subject of this chapter is
memory; the last words are ujt nihil non
iisdem verbis redderetur auditum.
the least change in his voice, Ireneo bade
me come in. He was lying on the cot, smoking.
It seems to me that I did not see his face
until dawn; I seem to recall the momentary
glow of the cigarette. The room smelled vaguely
of dampness. I sat down, and repeated the
story of the telegram and my father's illness.
now to the most difficult point in my narrative.
For the entire story has no other point (the
reader might as well know it by now) than
this dialogue of almost a half-century ago.
I shall not attempt to reproduce his words,
now irrecoverable. I prefer truthfully to
make a résumé of the many things Ireneo told
me. The indirect style is remote and weak;
I know that I sacrifice the effectiveness
of my narrative; but let my readers imagine
the nebulous sentences which coulded that
began by enumerating, in Latin and Spanish,
the cases of prodigious memory cited in the
Historia Naturalis: Cyrus, king of the Persians,
who could call every soldier in his armies
by name; Mithridates Eupator, who administered
justice in the twenty-two languages of his
empire; Simonides, inventory of mnemotechny;
Metrodorus, who practised the art of repeating
faithfully what he heard once. With evident
good faith Funes marvelled that such things
should be considered marvellous. He told
me that previous to the rainy afternoon when
the blue-tinted horse threw him, he had been
- like any Christian - blind, deaf-mute,
somnambulistic, memoryless. (I tried to remind
him of his precise perception of time, his
memory for proper names; he paid no attention
to me.) For nineteen years, he said, he had
lived like a person in a dream: he looked
without seeing, heard without hearing, forgot
everything - almost everything. On falling
from the horse, he lost consciousness; when
he recovered it, the present was almost intolerable
it was so rich and bright; the same was true
of the most ancient and most trivial memories.
A little later he realized that he was crippled.
This fact scarcely interested him. He reasoned
(or felt) that immobility was a minimum price
to pay. And now, his perception and his memory
in a glance, perceive three wine glasses
on the table; Funes saw all the shoots, clusters,
and grapes of the vine. He remembered the
shapes of the clouds in the south at dawn
on the 30th of April of 1882, and he could
compare them in his recollection with the
marbled grain in the design of a leather-bound
book which he had seen only once, and with
the lines in the spray which an oar raised
in the Rio Negro on the eve of the battle
of the Quebracho. These recollections were
not simple; each visual image was linked
to muscular sensations, thermal sensations,
etc. He could reconstruct all his dreams,
all his fancies. Two or three times he had
reconstructed an entire day. He told me:
I have more memories in myself alone than
all men have had since the world was a world.
And again: My dreams are like your vigils.
And again, toward dawn: My memory, sir, is
like a garbage disposal.
on a blackboard, a rectangular triangle,
a rhomb, are forms which we can fully intuit;
the same held true with Ireneo for the tempestuous
mane of a stallion, a herd of cattle in a
pass, the ever-changing flame or the innumerable
ash, the many faces of a dead man during
the course of a protracted wake. He could
perceive I do not know how many stars in
things he told me; neither then nor at any
time later did they seem doubtful. In those
days neither the cinema nor the phonograph
yet existed; nevertheless, it seems strange,
almost incredible, that no one should have
experimented on Funes. The truth is that
we all live by leaving behind; no doubt we
all profoundly know that we are immortal
and that sooner or later every man will do
all things and know everything.
voice of Funes, out of the darkness, continued.
He told me that toward 1886 he had devised
a new system of enumeration and that in a
very few days he had gone before twenty-four
thousand. He had not written it down, for
what he once meditated would not be erased.
The first stimulus to his work, I believe,
had been his discontent with the fact that
"thirty-three Uruguayans" required
two symbols and three words, rather than
a single word and a single symbol. Later
he applied his extravagant principle to the
other numbers. In place of seven thousand
thirteen, he would say (for example) Máximo
Perez; in place of seven thousand fourteen,
The Train; other numbers were Luis Melián
Lafinur, Olimar, Brimstone, Clubs, The Whale,
Gas, The Cauldron, Napoleon, Agustín de Vedia.
In lieu of five hundred, he would say nine.
Each word had a particular sign, a species
of mark; the last were very complicated.
. . . I attempted to explain that this rhapsody
of unconnected terms was precisely the contrary
of a system of enumeration. I said that to
say three hundred and sixty-five was to say
three hundreds, six tens, five units: an
analysis which does not exist in such numbers
as The Negro Timoteo or The Flesh Blanket.
Funes did not understand me, or did not wish
to understand me.
in the seventeenth century, postulated (and
rejected) an impossible idiom in which each
individual object, each stone, each bird
and branch had an individual name; Funes
had once projected an analogous idiom, but
he had renounced it as being too general,
too ambiguous. In effect, Funes not only
remembered every leaf on every tree of every
wood, but even every one of the times he
had perceived or imagined it. He determined
to reduce all of his past experience to some
seventy thousand recollections, which he
would later define numerically. Two considerations
dissuaded him: the thought that the task
was interminable and the thought that it
was useless. He knew that at the hour of
his death he would scarcely have finished
classifying even all the memories of his
two projects I have indicated (an infinite
vocabulary for the natural series of numbers,
and a usable mental catalogue of all the
images of memory) are lacking in sense, but
they reveal a certain stammering greatness.
They allow us to make out dimly, or to infer,
the dizzying world of Funes. He was, let
us not forget, almost incapable of general,
platonic ideas. It was not only difficult
for him to understand that the generic term
dog embraced so many unlike specimens of
differing sizes and different forms; he was
disturbed by the fact that a dog at three-fourteen
(seen in profile) should have the same name
as the dog at three-fifteen (seen from the
front). His own face in the mirror, his own
hands, surprised him on every occasion. Swift
writes that the emperor of Lilliput could
discern the movement of the minute hand;
Funes could continuously make out the tranquil
advances of corruption, of caries, of fatigue.
He noted the progress of death, of moisture.
He was the solitary and lucid spectator of
a multiform world which was instantaneously
and almost intolerably exact. Babylon, London,
and New York have overawed the imagination
of men with their ferocious splendour; no
one, in those populous towers or upon those
surging avenues, has felt the heat and pressure
of a reality as indefatigable as that which
day and night converged upon the unfortunate
Ireneo in his humble South American farmhouse.
It was very difficult for him to sleep. To
sleep is to be abstracted from the world;
Funes, on his back in his cot, in the shadows,
imagined every crevice and every moulding
of the various houses which surrounded him.
(I repeat, the least important of his recollections
was more minutely precise and more lively
than our perception of a physical pleasure
or a physical torment.) Toward the east,
in a section which was not yet cut into blocks
of homes, there were some new unknown houses.
Funes imagined them black, compact, made
of a single obscurity; he would turn his
face in this direction in order to sleep.
He would also imagine himself at the bottom
of the river, being rocked and annihilated
by the current.
effort, he had learned English, French, Portuguese,
Latin. I suspect, nevertheless, that he was
not very capable of thought. To think is
to forget a difference, to generalize, to
abstract. In the overly replete world of
Funes there were nothing but details, almost
equivocal clarity of dawn penetrated along
the earthen patio.
it was that I saw the face of the voice which
had spoken all through the night. Ireneo
was nineteen years old; he had been born
in 1868; he seemed as monumental as bronze,
more ancient than Egypt, anterior to the
prophecies and the pyramids. It occurred
to me that each one of my words (each one
of my gestures) would live on in his implacable
memory; I was benumbed by the fear of multiplying
Funes died in 1889, of a pulmonary congestion.
Note: The Eastern Shore (of the Uruguay River);
now the Orient Republic of Uruguay. (Return
to top of page.)
by Anthony Kerrigan
by Jorge Luis Borges, edited by John Sturrock
(original publication 1942; English translation,
Grove Press, 1962; rpt. by Alfred A. Knopf/Everyman,