Pierre Menard and Jack Malik

I very much enjoyed the new film Yesterday, a romantic comedy with a crudely drawn science-fiction premise — What if The Beatles never existed, but one lone musician still remembered their songs — but I felt disappointed at how philosophically tame it was. At various points perplexing questions are raised about the authorship of the Beatles songs in this alternative reality.

One of my favourite short stories is Borges’s “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quijote“. In Borges’s best pseudo-academic prose it recounts the life of French author Pierre Menard, whose most important (and least known) works are “chapters nine and thirty eight of the first part of Don Quijote, and a fragment of chapter twenty-two”. The life project of Menard, it seems, was to write a modern Don Quijote. Not to write a new version of the novel, and not to copy the original, but to write the same novel, from a modern perspective. That is, he wants to lead himself, through his intellectual and life experience, to write the same words that Cervantes wrote three and a half centuries earlier. The narrator then proceeds to analyse Menard’s Quijote, and compare it to Cervantes’s version. The (very serious)’ joke is that the words are identical, but the interpretation is radically different, because of the context in which the words are being written.

Occasionally this comes up, at least in a jokey way. When Jack headlines a concert in Moscow, and pulls out Back in the USSR, his patron Ed Sheehan remarks on how interesting it is that he refers to the political structure of Russia before he was born. But that is presented as just an awkward moment, that passes. (No mention is made of the more inexplicable first line of the song “Flew in from Miami Beach BOAC“.) Similarly when he is asked to explain the personal history behind “Hey, Jude”. But then there is his “research trip” to Liverpool, where he visits Strawberry Fields, Penny Lane, and the grave of Eleanor Rigby. He is observed by two mysterious characters, who later reveal themselves to have also somehow retained the memory of The Beatles, and who express their approval: “You can’t write about what you haven’t experienced.” There might have been a Pierre Menard moment there, where Jack finally writes Strawberry Fields, not out of his memory, but out of his new inspiration.

But it is not to be. This is really a romantic comedy, and secondarily a nostalgic wallow in Beatles tunes, not a Borgesian philosophical fiction. Jack is never anything but persistently literal-minded about the alternate reality, even though it would be perfectly sensible for him to see The Beatles as fictional characters in his mind, through whom the inspiration for songs is being transmitted to him. He never really forgets his audience in our reality, so he is limited in his ability to wander.

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