I was first introduced to Borges’s works shortly after reading Gabriel García Márquez, Isabel Allende, Mario Vargas Llosa, Pablo Neruda, Adolfo Bioy Casares, Luis Sepúlveda and Arturo Pérez-Reverte. I was somewhat familiar to the versatility of the Hispanic and Latino-American prose, so I had grasped that Jorge Luis Borges would not be an easy read.
His worldwide fame is primarily due to his short stories and literary essays. His short story collections The Universal History of Iniquity, Fables, The Aleph, and The Sand Book strike with a sparkling laconism. The major metaphors are mirror and dream. According to him, sleep is the oldest artistic activity of people, and when we dream, we are the Creator, the play, the spectator and the author.
Unlike most writers whose work is based on their own alloy of experience and culture, the main source of inspiration for Jorge Luis Borges were books. Proof of this is his collection, The Universal History of Iniquity, composed of the retold stories of actual villains, bandits, and crimes drawn from documentary stories that Borges had turned into literature with a lot of artistic imagination, talent and magnificent style. He himself says that he “has been spoiled with forging and misinterpreting foreign stories” when creating a single story. Despite the fact that he published his first work of prose in 1935, Borges remained a poet. Though clairvoyant, his tongue is laconic, with carefully chosen, often meaningful and highly expressive words. The stories are tight, subordinate to a rhythm that allows only the necessary, and eliminates everything unnecessary. The narrative is intense and engages the reader with characters, both fascinating and repulsive, with the cinematic visuals of the descriptions and the overflowing between the real and the invented.
The Universal History of Iniquity marks the beginning of a new literary strand – magical realism, according to the critic Angel Flores, who first introduced this term. Thus, the great Argentine writer paved the way for the rise of Latin American literature in the second half of the 20th century, whereby Latin writers created their masterpieces. Borges retained the place of the revered and leading talent amongst them. In the words of the Nobel Laureate Mario Vargas Llosa: “After Cervantes, Borges is the most significant writer in Spanish.”
Even for the non-observant reader, it is easy to notice that literature is one of the leading themes in the writings of Jorge Luis Borges. A glimpse of his work shows that most of his essays or stories often concern literary questions either as a commentary on specific manifestations of it or in the form of more abstract reflections. Indicative in this respect is the way in which the Argentinian writer has titled his collections; it is enough to mention Ficciones and Artificios – titles that Morris Blanche defines as: “the most honest names that literature can receive.”
We should not be surprised; therefore, that Borges directly identifies the universe with a library or as he calls it: “The Library”. To him, people are librarians as is witnessed in the short story ‘The Library of Babel’ story. The universe, as well as the library, is eternal and comprehensive. The awareness of this provokes both the excitement of the conclusion that theoretically there are answers to all questions, and the despair of the discovery that the probability of finding them is zero.
It is enough that a book is possible for it to exist. Inadmissible is only the impossible.
‘The Library of Babel’ brings us to another, no less interesting, conclusion – if there are all possible books in the library, then all possible books are already written. The notion of originality is meaningless; all future books are doomed to simply cite the already existing ones. Significant in this respect is that much of Borges’ work is built in the form of a parody or analysis of actual or fictitious literary specimens.
Lacking their own identity, the possibilities of literature seem as though they are not exhausted, if not at least narrowed. Yet it would be undesirable to blame Borges in such a pitfall; moreover, it would be extremely unfair, especially if one takes into account his ideas, set out in another one of his short stories ‘Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote’.
The Don Quixote novel, which Menard creates, is “more insightful” and “infinitely richer” than the Cervantes novel. The difference, however, is not due to inconsistencies between the two texts (there are none), but due to other factors of linguistic and non-Germanic nature – that is, between the writing of Cervantes’ Don Quixote and Menard’s “three hundred years have unforgettably passed, filled with the most complex events. Among them (…) Don Quixote himself.” Literature is determined not only by its linguistic nature, but also by its historical, social, cultural, and ideological context. The change of either is sufficient to create a new artwork. “One literature differs from the other (…) not so much because of the text as because of the reading of it: if I am given the opportunity to read any present page – this, for example – as it will be read in the two thousandth year, I would know what literature will be in the two-thousandth year,” the Argentine writer argues in his ‘A Note on (toward) Bernard Shaw’. We should not forget, however, that interpretation is always personal. Therefore, of the utmost importance to the context, Borges also adds the key role of the reader’s personality; its importance is also emphasized in the story ‘An Examination of the Work of Herbert Quain’, where the reader of a detective novel is prompted to read once again the story he was just told, and thus, unlike the detective, he succeeds in reaching the right decision.
The variety of tracts, and hence of books, is further augmented by another Borges metaphor – ‘The Book of Sand’, which contains different pages at each of its deployments. Every reading depends on the already accumulated reader experience. Awareness of the creativity of an author is a kind of measure, a prism through which the texts are read. From there, the Borghese understanding, set forth in Kafka and his predecessors, is that every writer creates his predecessors by himself.
Returning to ‘An Examination of the Work of Herbert Quain’, we cannot help but emphasize the remarkable literary experiments that are being presented there by the fictional author Herbert Quain: the novel April, March, which describes three moments, each branching out the other three preceding it, completely different from each other, and each of the nine novels thus created has a different (symbolic, supernatural, detective, etc.) character; the two-act heroic comedy ‘The Secret Mirror’, in which both acts act in parallel, the characters are the same but with different names, and one of them appears in the second act as being the author of the first.
The novel April, March is identical in its structure to the labyrinth-like book The Garden with Branching Paths. Both are subordinate to the idea of the existence of many contradictory possibilities in space and in time. Borges does not impose one but offers the reader all.
In turn, ‘The Secret Mirror’ (another story by the fictional author Herbert Quain) for its part has for its object itself. The quote of literature this time is directed at itself. The ultimate formal manifestation of this self-referential is the circular book described in The Garden with Branching Paths. This is a book whose last page matches the first one. Thus, the concepts of beginning and end, of “before” and “after” are meaningless; literature takes the form of an eternally repetitive cycle.
A special case of this circular book is the tale Borges repeatedly mentioned of ‘One Thousand and One Night’, in which Shahrazad begins to tell the story of ‘One Thousand and One Night’, which contains the story of the story of ‘One Thousand and One Night’… ad infinitium. John Bart accepts this as an attempt to exhaust the possibilities of literature. However, the opposite viewpoint that this is another attempt to enrich the possibilities of literature should not be overlooked.
Herbert Quain’s play ‘The Secret Mirror’ is also interesting with another, rather worrying circumstance: the hero abandons his traditionally assigned role as a passive object to usurp the functions of his own author. Once the hero takes the place of the author, logically and inevitably we come to the conclusion that the author, in turn, has no choice but to take the place of the hero. Such an exchange of functions, with the opposite sign, is also observed in the short story ‘The Circular Ruins’, where the magician who dreamed his creation turns out to be a creation dreamed of by someone else.
These subject-object shifts have a particular danger, which is particularly evident in the questioning of the identity of both the author and the reader.
Undeterred by his position as a creator, the writer virtually loses his identity; he is split between being a creator and the creation. He then appears under his real name “Borges” in his own works (‘The Other’ and ‘August 25, 1983’) and came to the confession: “I do not know who (of us both) is writing this page” (‘Borges and I’).
In turn; the secure, comfortable position of the reader, perceiving himself as an external, fictional subject, is also shaken. Borges explains the phenomenon as follows: “Why is it disturbing that Don Quixote can be a Don Quixote reader, and Hamlet, a spectator of Hamlet? I think I have found the reason: “such reversals suggest that if the fictional characters can be readers or viewers, we, their readers or viewers, may well have been invented” (‘The Quite Magic of Don Quixote’).
However, the replacement of the actual by fiction can be both frightening and irresistibly attractive, as is the case with another Borges’s story. In ‘Tlion, Uckbar, Orbis Tertius’, together with the narrator, we witness how the fictional planet Tlion invades the reality which gradually turns into Tlion because “he just wanted to give up” to the well-built Tlion maze who, unlike the human’s world is “invented by humans” and “destined to be understood by humans”. It is noteworthy that the opposition here is not built on the real/false axis, but according to the not intended for people/invented and intended for people axis. The apparent preference for the latter is due to the irrepressible desire for protagonism, which we cannot fail to connect to the detective-reader from the first novel by Herbert Quain, whose title (The God of the Labyrinth) brings him to the position of a god.
Still, the important question remains: What is it that is being seen through the gap, peering through the abyss beyond the Abyss, in the hidden or revealed words? What is seen is not death, but Nothingness in the library, its null and its destruction, the human presence of the one who writes in an attempt of overpowering the library beyond the Library. The mind of those stories is nearly always a mind that lives in and through books. This is because Borges the writer is, fundamentally, a reader. Labyrinths, mirrors, dreams, doubles – so many of the elements that appear over and over in Borges’s fiction are symbols of the psyche turned inward. At the end, Jorge Luis Borges, to me, is the extreme enigma of life.
I would like to leave you with one of my favorite short stories from the great Librarian – Borges. The story is called ‘Delia Elena San Marco’ and it is from Dreamtigers, as translated by Mildred Boyer:
“We said goodbye on a corner in Once. From the other sidewalk, I turned to look back; you too had turned, and you waved goodbye to me.
A river of vehicles and people were flowing between us. It was five o’clock on an ordinary afternoon. How was I to know that the river was Acheron the doleful, the insuperable?
We did not see each other again, and a year later you were dead.
And now I seek out that memory and look at it, and I think it was false, and that behind that trivial farewell was infinite separation.
Last night I stayed in after dinner and reread, in order to understand these things, the last teaching Plato put in his master’s mouth. I read that the soul may escape when the flesh dies.
And now I do not know whether the truth is in the ominous subsequent interpretation, or in the unsuspecting farewell.
To say goodbye to each other is to deny separation. It is like saying “today we play at separating, but we will see each other tomorrow.” Man invented farewells because he somehow knows he is immortal, even though he may seem gratuitous and ephemeral.
Delia, we will take up again–beside what river?–this uncertain dialogue, and we will ask each other if ever, in a city lost on a plain, we were Borges and Delia.“
Nesrin Nazlieva is a Psychology student at Erasmus University. She decided to follow the example of her predecessors who, back in 1460, left the Karamanid beylik and immigrated to Bulgaria. Instead of Bulgaria, however, she chose the Netherlands. Her short story with a not so short title ‘The Story of a Wanderer Who Traveled the World in Search of His Hat’ earned her a second place in one of the most prestigious national literary contests in 2015. When she is not glued to a book, she spends time working out in the garden, learning Spanish, and trying very hard not to be the worst player at Ludo.