Thursday, 26 August 2010

Jorge Luis Borges: Labyrinths

Jorge Luis Borges has a tremendous reputation among slightly odd people (I think I first encountered him during my efforts to read everything JG Ballard ever wrote, from classics to curiosities to shopping lists), so he’s been on my radar a while, without my ever having read anything by him. He was fairly notable for his essays and poetry, too, but I concentrated on his short stories and what Labyrinths classifies as ‘parables’, which, thankfully, ain’t exactly New Testament material. 

So after meandering through this greatest hits collection, I’ve come to the conclusion that ole’ Borges was a bright fellow. I found myself reading a surreal series of short stories packed with ideas about reading, writing, metaphysics, identity, and all that sort of thing. Some of them even had plots and characters, too. 

This was a difficult review to write, for there was a temptation to go through each individual story in great, dreary depth. The stories are compact, but dense, and their weightiness inspires serious discussion and efforts at criticism. They are strange and alluring, and, like Calvino’s Invisible Cities, another collection of miniatures that veer away from character and plot, weirdly inspiring. Their lack of conventional story structure makes them more into catalysts for thought than tales that are fun to read. Dialogue is rare; prose is dense and technical:
‘Let us imagine Droctulft sub specie aeternitatis, not the individual Droctulft, who no doubt was unique and unfathomable (all individuals are), but the generic type formed from him and many others by tradition, which is the effect of oblivion and memory.’
That’s from ‘Story of the Captive and the Warrior’, and it’s not atypical. There is no clear distinction between the prose of Borges’ essays and his stories. ‘Theme of the Traitor and the Hero’, as well as being a story, insists that it is actually a description of a hypothetical story. ‘Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius’ is presented as an academic article about the discovery or invention of a fictional, theoretical alternative world. I could say they are stories presented as non-fiction, but perhaps it would be more fitting to describe them as non-fiction about things that, purely by chance, happen not to be true. 

Sometimes this is deviously effective, giving bizarre, fascinating ideas a sense of depth and history. ‘The Garden of Forking Paths’, a twistedly philosophical spy thriller, uses framing statements to wedge itself firmly into reality, even as its main narrator develops a dream-like atmosphere of inverted oriental exoticism. It begins:
‘On page 22 of Liddell Hart’s History of World War I you will read that an attack against the Serre-Montauben line by thirteen British divisions (supported by 1,400 artillery pieces), planned for 24 July 1916, had to be postponed until the morning of the 29th.’
But once it gets going you hit this:
‘The road descended and forked among the now confused meadows. A high-pitched, almost syllabic music approached and receded in the shifting of the wind, dimmed by leaves and distance. I thought that a man can be an enemy of other men, or of the moments of other men, but not of a country: not of fireflies, words, gardens, streams of water, sunsets. Thus I arrived before a tall, rusty gate.’
At other times, though, this mixture of styles is frustrating, as beautiful ideas are presented raw, rather than developed into full fictions of equal lustre. Admittedly, the full fictions aren’t what Borges sets out to do, but it’s what I sometimes wish he had done. ‘The Lottery at Babylon’, for instance, has a truly entrancing premise which it constructs magnificently, but there is no story to it: it is nothing but concept. 

I was saddened by these conceptual tales precisely because of the genius that so clearly lurks behind them. Throughout the collection I bumped into ideas and images that found their way into my mind, and have stayed with me since reading, particularly ‘The Circlular Ruins’, ‘Funes the Memorius’, ‘Death and the Compass’, and ‘The Immortal’. The last of these, with its deserts and cities of madness and confusion, made me understand Ballard’s adoration: Borges too does with words what surrealists like Delvaux and de Chirico did with the echoing and mysterious spaces of their canvasses. Check out this marvellously ominous slice of atmospherics from ‘The Immortal’:
‘In the depths of a corridor, an unforeseen wall halted me; a remote light fell from above. I raised by confused eyes: in the vertiginous, extreme heights I saw a circle of sky so blue that it seemed purple. Some metal rungs scaled the wall. I was limp with fatigue, but I climbed up, stopping only at times to sob clumsily with joy. I began to glimspe capitals and astragals, triangular pediments and vaults, confused pageants of granite and marble. Thus I was afforded this ascension from the blind region of dark interwoven labyrinths into the resplendent City.’
Ah, look - ‘labyrinths’. This collection’s title is no casual naming. Borges concocts his own vocabulary of symbols, an interlocking set of terms of mazes, cities, libraries, religious terms and arcana. This vocabulary, this style, so fine and elaborately constructed, adds to the oneiric  atmosphere that contrasts with the stories’ other, more technical approach to prose. This strange combination of techniques does not invite the reader in, but once you’re there, reading actively, it’s hard to escape. There are stories I would like to read again and again to unravel all their layers of meaning and symbol, to get to grips with their questions about the nature of reality and perception. 

Equally, though, if you’re not in the right mood, frame of mind, or even mode of transport, you can scrabble through a few dusty pages and feel that you’ve gained nothing at all. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that those tales I have mentioned as becoming inhabitants of certain corners of my mind are among the most ‘complete’ in this collection – the ones that are most similar to conventional short fiction, often playing with the form of the detective story, but using that genre’s clues and twists for metaphysical comment as well as, or instead of, plot development. My favourites, probably unsurprisingly, were those furthest from the frustrating high-concept miniatures. 

Perhaps this is a preference for which I should condemn myself: maybe I’m just too much of a square to really appreciate this stuff, or just not up to the task of reading with sufficient depth. Perhaps I am a sluggish moth battering itself, uncomprehending, against a great literary light. But if so I do not think I am alone, and sadly I suspect it will be only a small group, to be envied and respected, that will love the more theoretical elements of Borges. But even so, you should read some, just to experience it. They are different, ingenious, and certainly brilliant. The question is whether you care for the form that brilliance takes.


  1. Alec, I just wanted to let you know that I do read your oddments - so this is not going out into nowhere.

    Have you read the Gospel According to Mark by Borges, it's an excellently wicked story? I discovered it through the New Yorker short story podcasts (, which you might find interesting if you concern yourself with what makes a short story work.

  2. Hallo! I thought I saw some visits from your university, and reckoned it was pretty likely to be you. Thank you for persisting in reading! It might become more interesting soon now that the course is about to start.

    Haven't read that one, but I've now listened to it via the New Yorker, and see what you mean. He's amazing at managing to combine twist endings with depth and originality, rather than just going 'ha! X was a Y all along!'.

    Interesting hearing one out loud, too - I might have to investigate some more of these podcast things. I like that they're basically radio with a trendy modern name, but I rarely think of actually putting one on.