UCLA literature professor Efrain Kristal still remembers how fascinated, yet unsettled, he felt at 17 after reading his first book of short stories by the late Argentine master Jorge Louis Borges, whose philosophical fiction mixes fact and fantasy and sometimes crosses the line into literary hoax.

What was this college freshman to make of the numerous allusions to authors, languages, historical events and places that sounded strange? Why did his head spin as he read Borges’ book and contemplated such impossibilities as a man whose perfect memory wouldn’t allow him to forget a single detail of anything he observed? Or a fictional encyclopedia that gradually imposes itself on reality?

“Every one of the stories felt accessible at one level and mysterious at another,” Kristal recently recalled. “I felt like I was entering into a world with a logic of its own that I was not fully grasping, and I hoped that sooner or later I would figure out this writer.”

Little did Kristal know that in a used bookstore in Berkeley he had stumbled upon a quest that would occupy him for the next four decades. Now chair of UCLA’s comparative literature department and a professor of Spanish literature, Kristal will deliver insights gleaned from this pursuit in the 118th Faculty Research Lecture, which will be held May 13 in Schoenberg Hall.

“At least in narrative fiction, [Borges] is the Spanish-language writer who has had the greatest impact in recent history on world literature — and for good reason,” said Kristal. 

Borges (1899-1986) inspired Latin American practitioners of magical realism and other innovators, including Gabriel García Márquez, Isabel Allende and Carlos Fuentes with his love of creating fantastical, impossible worlds. At UCLA, Kristal has published widely on Borges.

“I’ve been blown away by what he knows about Borges,” said Herbert Morris, a former UCLA dean of humanities who hired Kristal in 1992 from Harvard.

But Kristal also teaches and writes about a wide range of Latin American topics. The veteran teacher, for example, is considered the world’s leading authority on his fellow Peruvian, Nobel Prize-winner Mario Vargas Llosa.

Kristal’s talk will address the shadow war cast over the life and writings of the Argentine whose family found itself comfortably stranded in neutral Switzerland during World War I, whose translations introduced the Spanish-speaking world to German expressionist poetry from that era and who later monitored the rise of Nazism with dismay.

“People haven’t really paid attention to the great significance of war in his writings,” said Kristal. “Yet this is an element of his literary world that is ever-present in his oeuvre.”

A lifelong love of literature

Kristal credits his father, an electrical engineer who wrote plays and television scripts, with imbuing him with a lifelong love of literature. When, as a child, Kristal grew bored of storybooks, his father read him Greek mythology and then “The Odyssey,” “The Iliad” and “Don Quixote” as bedtime stories. “He started a literary conversation for me that has never ended,” Kristal recalled.

Kristal’s mother, meanwhile, instilled a devotion to education. Discouraged by her parents from pursuing a career in music or medicine, Laura Teper de Kristal enrolled in college after Kristal and his younger sister started school. Because no Peruvian institution of higher education offered graduate degrees in psychology, she packed up the family and moved from Lima to San Diego to pursue the degree there. Kristal was 11 at the time and just learning to speak English.

Within a year of their move, Kristal’s father died from a heart attack. Still steadfast in her plan to pursue a doctorate in San Diego, Kristal’s mother decided to sell the family home in Peru, but a military dictatorship there froze international bank transfers. Ensuing hyperinflation gobbled up proceeds from the sale and the rest of the family’s nest egg.

“We came from a middle-class background in Peru, which is very comfortable, but here …” Kristal said, his voice trailing off. “The whole thing was somewhat traumatic.”

Kristal worked after school and during summers as a dishwasher and busboy in restaurants and on a grounds crew in Balboa Park. Just when it felt like things couldn’t get any worse, they did: His mother was diagnosed with cancer and given six months to live. Ultimately, she managed to fight off the inevitable long enough to complete her graduate degree, land a tenure-track teaching job at UC San Diego and make her mark as an advocate for the health needs of California’s growing Latino population.

“My mother was pretty extraordinary,” Kristal said. “She instilled this sense of confidence that things were going to be fine. Maybe it was just a fantasy, but it worked for my sister and me.” (Kristal’s sister became a hospital administrator in Massachusetts.)

For more information of Kristal’s family background.

The lure of comparative literature

As an undergraduate, Kristal right away found his calling in comparative literature, which married his love of languages and literature. Already fluent in English and Spanish, Kristal mastered French and Latin in college. He picked up German while completing a master’s degree in philosophy in France. Later, he finished a Ph.D. in Spanish and taught himself Italian, aided by a love of opera — a passion shared by his wife Romy Sutherland Kristal, a former diplomat who teaches courses at UCLA in film and art. 

Today, Efrain Kristal teaches and writes about literature from a wide range of cultures and aesthetics, the branch of philosophy concerned with art. He enjoys teaching a popular course on Dante, Shakespeare, Cervantes and the self-taught 17th century Mexican poet Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. The polyglot’s core specialization is translation theory and the role translating has had on the creative process of writers who translate. In Borges’ writing, for instance, Kristal can trace the influence of not just the World War I German poets, but such writers as Edgar Allan Poe, Franz Kafka, William Faulkner, Virginia Woolf and Walt Whitman, all of whom the Argentine introduced to Latin America.

“Borges is not a self-contained writer,” Kristal said. “He’s a writer who wants you to go out and read other writings in order to come back to his stories. The more you read around them, the richer they become. They’re in dialogue with other works of literature.”

“Jorge Luis Borges and War,” which is the 118th Faculty Research Lecture, will be held at 3 p.m. on May 13 in Schoenberg Hall. All are invited to this public talk. RSVP by May 6 at specialevents@support.ucla.edu. Information: (310) 825-4868.

Kristal discusses Nobel Prize winner Mario Vargas Llosa.