Knowing too much

Into the Looking-Glass Wood

Alberto Manguel <em>Bloomsbury, 273pp, £20</em>

"There are passages of Ulysses," wrote Henry Miller, "which can be read only in the toilet if one wants to extract the full flavour of their content." This quote was included in Alberto Manguel's A History of Reading, an exhaustive study to burden the biggest of coffee-tables or to bury beneath the magazines in the bathroom. Manguel's latest offering, Into the Looking-Glass Wood, a collection of 22 essays, is more portable and continues the Argentinian writer's fascination with the printed word. Its title comes from Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking-Glass, in which Alice discovers a forest of unnamed objects and inhabitants. Manguel takes Alice's moment of wonder and wordlessness as analogous to the act of reading. "The task of naming belongs to every reader," he explains. Yet he rarely resists the temptation to do the naming himself. He doesn't wear his erudition lightly, and he's keen to impress us with his cosmopolitanism: "after a conversation with the Cuban writer Severo Sarduy in Paris . . . and later, when I made my home in Canada . . ." If Manguel was a gallery guide you'd have to kick him in the shins every now and then to tell him to stop showing off and get on with it.

Although the book feels like a publisher's hotchpotch of academic essays (with footnotes), political articles and literary anecdotes, there is enough here to justify the venture. "Borges in Love" is an enchanting look at the tortuous love-life of the famously short-sighted writer of Labyrinths. Manguel, his friend, used to accompany the old man to the cinema and narrate the film because Borges, by then, could barely see at all. Even so, he was forever enthralled by "the mystery of women". Manguel relates how Borges's search for his dream-lover was ultimately unsuccessful, both in life and on the page, one reflecting the other.

Elsewhere, in "The Blind Photographer", Manguel attacks the Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa for the disparate views he expresses in his fiction and journalism. "There are two Vargas Llosas. The first is the great novelist, the storyteller . . . The second is an anti-revolutionary, an advocate of Thatcherism, a defender of President Menem's shameful amnesty for those responsible for the disappearance of thousands of civilians during Argentina's military dictatorship." Manguel teases out the reasons why this particular writer's mirror has cracked.

The most moving article, "In Memoriam", is a tribute to those who disappeared in Argentina. Manguel confesses to cowardice: he fled to Europe. Of his friends who stayed behind, two were shot dead at a petrol-station, one was killed and sent in a mailbag to his parents, another committed suicide. It's a powerful essay, a poignant reminder of a writer's social responsibility and a further indictment of Vargas Llosa's misguided journalism.

Manguel's thesis, if he has one, is that imagination is a liberating power in itself. "In the end," he writes, "words are all we have to defend ourselves with" - and this is no less true if, like Borges, you are defending yourself from an unhappy marriage than it is if you're defending your rights against a military junta. The prose is sometimes flattened by the author's learning, but Into the Looking-Glass Wood makes up in wisdom what it lacks in warmth.

This article first appeared in the 26 April 1999 issue of the New Statesman, The great Balkan lie