by Gustavo Turner

The first time I became aware of Borges it wasn’t Borges at all, but a TV comic who had a show in Argentina in the early 1980s (where and when I grew up), a humorist whose main shtick was to impersonate the voices of well-known politicians and other entertainers while wearing loads of rubber prosthetics on his face. I’m not sure how effective the disguise was. Even at the time, it looked slightly crude, but this was a time before Argentine televisual craft had caught up with the developed world. Explosions, for example, were signified by a loud sound and a shower of confetti falling from the studio rafters. The man in charge of these primitive FX went by the pseudonym “Trentuno” and many people my age still remember the confetti explosions and their mastermind fondly.

The comedian/impersonator under the thick rubber noses, jowls, ears, etc., was named Mario Sapag. The surname and his own swarthy features pretty much ensured he would be known, as he was, as “El Turco Sapag,” “Sapag the Turk,” though this imprecise appellation could refer to any Argentine of swarthish and more or less Middle Eastern descent, including the children and grandchildren of Syrians, Lebanese, North Africans, Sephardic Jews of different lands, Persians, Druzes, Muslims, and even actual Turks. Mario Sapag was probably the best known “Turco” in Argentina in the early 1980s, though he would eventually relinquish that claim to Carlos Menem, who was elected president in 1989 and ruled until the end of the millennium. I’m pretty sure Sapag impersonated Menem on his TV show, and I think he used fewer prosthetics than usual.

One evening I was having dinner with my parents and we were watching Sapag’s show, Sapag’s Thousand and One, I believe it was called, referring to his multiple transformations and disguises and only very tangentially to The Arabian Nights, Arabs being also considered, no doubt to their dismay, Turcos. The commercial break ended and the camera showed a dimly lit studio, while the soundtrack played classical music, or maybe something by Piazzolla—for a gimmicky show such as Sapag’s, this atmosphere was unusually culturosa, the pejorative term used among my relatives and other members of the lower-middle classes to refer to anything smacking of highbrow pretension. The TV then showed a well-known radio and television announcer, Antonio Carrizo, who often interviewed people in similar bare sets. There were several shows like that around the same time—dark stages, progressive instrumental theme music, a sober announcer—which I guess would be best described here and now as “the Charlie Rose format.”

Carrizo was a kind of bridge figure—my grandma would say he was “un hombre muy culto,” but his cultivation was redeemed from being culturosa by his championing of tango on his daily AM radio show, La Vida y el Canto, (“Life and Song”). Thus, Carrizo could be trusted by the TV-watching masses, and his interviews could deliver to them figures like Borges or Piazzolla, who were much more respected—and often revered—by everybody than actually appreciated or understood.

This particular evening, however, Carrizo was not helming his own show but being a willing accomplice in one of Sapag’s skits. El hombre muy culto who also loved tango was interviewing not Borges but Mario Sapag, El Turco of the thousand and one disguises, sitting there in front of him under several pounds of latex affixed to his face to make him look like Borges, or, to be more precise, like Borges would have looked like if he had been one the puppets from the British show Spitting Image.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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Gustavo Turner’s first book, The Play Is Lost, is forthcoming from the Penguin Press.

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