Libraries and Labyrinths

Jorge Luis Borges

Good (well, not so good, really)  Irish-Catholic that I am, I have an abiding belief that everything happens for a reason. That includes large gaps in the various timelines of my life. As gaps go, the 30 years or so between first picking up Ficciones and actually reading it may represent a personal best.

About that first encounter: I wish I could say it was driven by intellectual curiosity, a deep knowledge of world literature or even the recommendation of a professor who recognized a certain sort of soul. Alas, I was just trying to impress a girl.

In the event I didn’t get the girl, which I now recognize was a good thing. What I got instead was a reason to explore Latin American literature and  a love that continues to this day of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Mario Vargas Llosa.

Jorge Luis Borges, on the other hand, scared me to death. No matter what I picked up–Ficciones,  LabyrinthsAleph & Other Stories–I quickly put down.

There was seemingly no good reason for this behavior. Some authors , mostly 19th century and before, give me stylistic fits. I know, for example, that I am supposed to revere Henry James. But reading him can be such a slog that any pleasure I ought to get from it is overwhelmed by the labor involved.

At first glance, though, Borges presents no such bar. The style is noticeably modern, devoid of ornamentation, almost flat on the page. The tone, too, is not unfamiliar. Anyone having read Kafka would recognize the voice of the distanced yet involved observer. So something else must be going on.

Maybe it was the form. As a young man, I abhorred short stories. Like art films, I knew there was a lot going on. And, as with art films, I knew I was missing a lot. I hate being left out and so I did the safe thing–I took myself out of harm’s way and became an adherent of the novel. That didn’t work out so well which is a tale for another day.

The wisdom of hindsight tells me my failure was attributable to two things. The first was the erudition. Borges–famously (in the shorthand used to identify writers) the blind, Argentinian librarian –seems to presume a level of education among his readers that I just didn’t feel up to. The truth is, except for college professors and writers, no one gets paid to read, understand and remember what’s come before. I struggle with this and against the poseurs who are comfortable faking it.

The second was the indeterminacy. I used to seek answers; now I know there are only evermore questions.

Thirty years on I was ready for the master.

Make no mistake about it, Borges  is the master of a particular type of story, a type perhaps unique to him. These tales share certain traits. No tale contains all. Yet the same things recur.

All have to do with words and ideas,  their ubiquity and, paradoxically, their rarity. The narrators of these tales (mostly there are narrators, characters do exist but are almost always secondary) are forever getting lost or not finding what they seek. There are houses that contain more rooms than is possible. There are twisting paths in the dark. There are libraries that contain answers scattered throughout their volumes which are arranged, as no good librarian would allow, willy-nilly on the shelves.

Then there are the jokes, dark and somber though they may be. The scholarly short–a review of a manuscript, a microcosm of a larger event such as the Irish rebellion of 1916–is a particular favorite. In these Borges approaches, with all the seriousness of an academic, something which is entirely fictional. He upends the detective story. He plays with time and place. Often, fate overwhelms the efforts of his heroes (a word I use guardedly). Nothing is ever as it seems.

What helped me with all  this was having read a bit of the Russian writer Nikolai Gogol. Gogol is the most un-Russian of Russian writers, allowing for ambiguity where those other guys who scare me (Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky) would pile on the details. Consider these passages

First, Gogol

In the britchka was seated such a gentleman a man who though not handsome was not ill-favoured not over fat and not over thin. Also though not over elderly he was not over young. His arrival produced no stir in the town and was accompanied by no particular incident beyond that a couple of peasants who happened be standing the door of dramshop exchanged a few comments with reference to the equipage rather than to the  individual who was seated in it. (Dead Souls)

Now, Borges:

No one saw him disembark in the unanimous night, no one saw the bamboo canoe sink in the sacred mud, but in a few days there was no one who did not know that the taciturn man came from the South, and that his home had been one fo those numberless villages where the Zend language has not been contaminated by Greek and where leprosy is infrequent. (The Circular Ruins)

That’ s a lot of nos, nots and no ones for any two writers let alone the leprosy.

I think, and I probably have this wrong–anyone who read the Gide post knows I believe I  mostly get these things wrong–that Borges is a natural post-modernist. Over and over the inhabitants of these tales are stymied by language and what it means, by the laughable limits of the most ubiquitous social mechanism’s ambiguity and differences.

Borges is never going to be light reading. But he will be rewarding. I’ll get around to dusting off the other two volumes. For now, I am just going to float in the stream of ambiguity and all-knowing know-nothingness for a while longer, but not too long.


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