Borges and his labyrinthine library of ideas

Christopher Chan

Once in a while I come across a writer with a voice and mind so unique that I don’t know how to categorize or describe him. All I can say is that he is amazingly good. Jorge Luis Borges is such an author. He was a quiet, scholarly Argentinean whose writing career spanned over half a century. Scores of critics and scholars dub him Latin America’s greatest writer. I would like to explain more about Borges, but I know very little about his life. This is not from lack of research. I have read dozens of mini-biographies about Borges, but each one has a radically different interpretation of his life and values. Every political and artistic group wants to claim him as one of their own.

I must only provide a few undisputed facts about his life. Borges was blind for most of his life, and many of his stories were dictated to a stenographer. He worked in a library for a long time. Self-promotion was almost anathematic to him. Even when writing societies from all over the world were showering him with awards, many of his colleagues had no idea that he was a writer. He despised the political trends of his day. He was one of the Peron regime’s most vociferous opponents. His scathing attacks of the iniquities of the Perons take the reader miles beyond the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical. Because of his dissent, he was fired from his beloved library job and was offered a position as a chicken inspector in its place. And he really loved to read.

There are three primary volumes of Borges’ work translated into English: Collected Poems, Collected Non-Fictions, and Collected Fictions. I have only read Collected Fictions, but I hope to read the other two very soon. Collected Fictions contains every short story that Borges ever published. And I do mean “short.” The longest story is twenty pages, but most are only three to five. A few are only two brief paragraphs. Despite their succinctness, they each have their own compelling tale to tell. There isn’t a bad story in the bunch.

One of my favorite stories isn’t so much a narrative as a description. In this tale, Borges describes the ultimate library. The building is so huge that no one knows exactly how big it is, or even how many rooms there are. The only thing that is known is that it contains every book ever written and every one that will ever be written. No plot, no surprises, just brilliant writing.

Borges was known for experimenting with genres, mixing mystery stories with metaphysics and similar stunts. Biography, fantasy, history, and thriller tales are also given strikingly original approaches. The ordinary and the conventional were never sufficient, but Borges is never different just for the sake of being different.

Borges was simultaneously utterly original and a loyal devotee of many great writers of the first half of the twentieth century, Shaw and Chesterton being two of the most prominent. References to the great masters pepper the stories, and fans of these authors can also treat the stories as an Easter egg hunt. Borges was recognized as a genius and innovator in his own day, although many of today’s writers fail to recognize their debt to him.

Borges has to be read differently from most other writers. The stories are short but dense, yet also very readable. One should read a Borges tale carefully, paying close attention to his trademark images and the steady crescendo of suspense. Often, the final paragraph, or even the final line, contains a surprise that turns the entire story topsy-turvy. I reiterate that the disclosure is there for more than just shock value. Once the revelation is made clear, one should reread the story and appreciate Borges’ careful structure. Then one ought to read another story in order to compare it. You may say, “Chris, you spend all of your leisure time with your nose in a book and deconstructing stories when you could be partying and/or developing a severe alcohol dependency problem. I pity you.” Oh, yeah? Well I say that if you can’t find the time to savor the joys that Borges brings, I pity you.