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The Alternate Universe of Jorge Borges
Some call him the 20th century's most important writer. While I certainly am not qualified to draw such a conclusion, I will say that J.L. Borges is one of the most fascinating author's that I have encountered. I'm no literary expert, but I've dabbled in great works of literature for a while. I've read Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Austen, Shakespeare and many more. My first read of Borges's work, Labyrinths, however, is a collection of short stories that has revived my passion for literature. In his truly original and compelling work, Borges creates an alternate universe of his own. For those of you who have never read his work, I am truly envious, the first encounter with the work of J.L. Borges is an unforgettable one.
A Humble, Narrow Entryway
A Humble Entryway
This was a book I initially agreed to read for a book club. If I hadn't have made the commitment to read the stories in front of a group of people, I might not have finished the book. I have to admit that it took me a while to get into his stories the stories. Before I began to read the book, I had read many reviews on J.L. Borges' work and expected something that would grab me by the shirt-collars. When you hear things like "magical realism" you expect something fanciful and imaginative. However, when I started reading the first story, I found it a bit dry and it seemed to read like it was, itself, an entry in an encyclopedia. It took me a couple of tries before I finally came to understand what the "5-star" reviewers were talking about.
J.L. Borges' genius lies in his subtlety and humility. Instead of grabbing you by the shirt collars and pulling you in, he toys with modern notions of realism and scientific rationalism. He presents his stories as they are unburied artifacts being scientifically examined by an emotionless narrator. He is precise in his narration of dates, grid locations and geometrical patterns to represent a reality that is clearly defined but of infinite depth. In the story "Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius", he examines an alternate reality of imagination, psychology and wonder from the steely cold mindset of a rationalist utterly baffled by an other's point of view. In this way he seems to be poking fun at the modern mindset that is stuck in an "either" "or" way of thinking. In the process he shatters many modern assumptions with contradictions and paradoxes that leave you feeling helpless in the face of mystery yet also filled with wonder in contemplation of such a rich and complex universe.
Many readers may be put off by his lack of emotional impact, by the dry and removed narration. After making it through a couple of stories, however, I found that the entryway into J.L. Borges' imagination is a simple, narrow way that leads to a completely alternate universe. This alternative reality is so vast and so baffling, that one cannot help but feel vulnerable and helpless. It is this lack of control, this inability to define rationally what one encounters that one truly encounters another. Instead, the mundane, shallow emotions that are so accessible in much of popular entertainment become dry and boring. It is through wonder that one can truly see another for what it is, and this wonder can only be accessed by contradictions and paradoxes that leave one entirely baffled and helpless to define one's own reality.
A Librarian's Dream
Librarian in Paradise
Borges once said, "I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.” While for most people, it is hard to imagine how being in a library can usher one into the ineluctable delights of paradise, Borges' stories make it at least possible to conceive. He is not a writer that creates maudlin characters or scenarios in an attempt to emotionally manipulate you into seeing his point of view. In fact, his point of view is almost absent which leaves the reader to enter into the stories in a more direct and involved way. You can't just sit back and let Borges do all the work in these stories. He writes in a way that truly great writers do, he creates a tension in which the reader must engage in contemplation of the mysteries and complexities that he relates. He irritates your sense of order and "how things should be" which challenges you to broader perspectives.
There is also a mythical resonance to his stories, although you have to undergo the tedium of his precise narration as it proves itself incapable of fully defining the universe it attempts to describe. Although, if you are an attentive reader, there are many sentences in the beginning of stories like "Tlon, Uqbar and Orbis Tertius" that would make you pause. For example, "The mirror troubled the depths of a corridor in a country house..." This is an intriquing sentence, laden with meaning, but I had to read through the whole story in order to appreciate it. There is a light at the end of the seemingly endless tunnel of details that Borges portrays, however, he first has to do away with that conventional notion of reality.
Many call Borges' style post-modern. The father of the modern novel, James Joyce, for example utilized a stream-of-conscious narration and rewrote the structures of the past by using the self as the ultimate frame of reference. The modernists believed in the power of human beings to shape reality. Post-modernists, in contrast use fragmentation, paradox and the unreliable narrator to play with the incomprehensible nature of the universe.
Many of Borges' literary conventions portray this playfulness. For example, the thing that drew me into the stories the most were the twists at the end. I found myself rereading the story in a new interpretive light after I would get to the last paragraph. It reminds you of a Hitchcock movie. J.L. is the master of surprise, you never know what to expect.
If you have trouble staying interested in his stories, read "Circular Ruins" first. This is one of my favorites and it is one of his more readable, crowd-pleasing stories. I also liked "Averroes Search" because I felt as if I was suddenly hit by a Mack truck at the end. Those readers that like detetive stories may appreciate "Death and the Compass". For me, you just have to find the right story that appeals to you and that will be your entryway into the imagination of J.L. Borges.
There is a lot of variety in the conventions and literary devices he uses. The essays at the end gave you some insight into J.L. Borges' thinking. They are very readable and interesting.
I would recommend this book to others but I would also caution them. J.L. Borges' style is truly creative and inventive. It takes a while to appreciate what he is doing. If you are a person that doesn't like to have your expectations thwarted, you will be utterly frustrated by his writing.
Double Take Trailer
Did You Know?
- Labyrinths is one of Harry Potter's (aka Daniel Radcliffe's) favorite books.
- Borges lived under the Peron regime in Argentina and their police informers were sent to many of his lectures.
- His second marriage was to his personal assistant a couple of months before he passed away.
- While most known for his short stories, Borges also wrote poetry and translated works from authors such as: Edgar Allan Poe, Franz Kafka, Hermann Hesse, Rudyard Kipling, Herman Melville, André Gide, William Faulkner, Walt Whitman, Virginia Woolf, Sir Thomas Browne, and G. K. Chesterton.
- Reviewing imaginary works, an invention that Borges commonly uses, was something he read in Thomas Carlyle's Sartor Resartus, a review of the work of a non-existent philosopher.
- If you think that many of Borges' stories remind of a Hitchcock film, the film "Double Take" was based on a story by Borges. The movie, according to IMDb, "brings to light a kinship" between the two men.