The Holy Trinity of Narrative Techniques in Borges’ Fiction and the Deconstruction of Literature
In Catholic mythology the Holy Trinity is three gods that function together to show one true God. In Borges’ fiction there are three literary devices that make up the Borgesian holy trinity. The first piece of this trinity is framed narrative, a technique he uses to deconstruct narrative techniques and plot. The second piece is persona and first person narration, this he uses to deconstruct character and narrator. The final piece is his use of fantasy worlds that are eerily similar to our own, this technique he uses to deconstruct setting. Borges uses these three devices to deconstruct plot, setting, and character and thus deconstruct fiction itself.
Though Borges has a fairly large body of work spanning genres and topics, many of his short stories can be divided into two categories: story within a story and fantasy worlds.
“Ficciones contains several instances of Borges’s two best-known contributions to the art of narrative: the illusory book-within-another-book and the fantasy world that reflects earthly reality—fictional devices that, though employed previously by other authors, achieve a rare and classic perfection through Borges’s mastery of language and form” (Bell-Villada 79).
Upon examination of Borges’ work, frequent use of these techniques become clear. Because Borges is a literary critic, we know that he’s clearly put them in his work with some intention in mind.
A third device that Borges uses frequently is that of persona. Borges creates a persona of himself, which he inserts into the narrative as the storyteller. Borges’ persona uses first person point of view to tell the story. This device is a powerful one on it’s own, asking readers to question who is the storyteller in the narrative. While this device is arguably one of Borges’ most frequently used devices, many of his stories have a first person narrator that is unidentified; so it cannot be definitively stated that “Borges” is the narrator for all the stories. This is why the persona piece of the Borgesian holy trinity also includes first person narrator.
Jorge Luis Borges
One of Borges’ most common devices is the framed narrative. One of the best examples of this is in his story “The Shape of the Sword.” The narrative begins with a mysterious man with a scar recounting the story of the communist Vincent Moon to the persona of Borges. By the end of the man’s story it is revealed that he is Vincent Moon (Borges 71). Borges’ use of framed narrative in this story asks the reader to redefine who the narrator of the tale is. As it is a framed narrative, the first part of the narration is told by Borges the persona, who then is told the tale of Vincent Moon by Vincent Moon. By giving the reader two narrators Borges forces the reader to question who the real narrator is.
Framed narrative also allows Borges to explore different layers of storytelling within his work. By using framed narrative Borges is essentially creating a simple game of telephone. The story originates with Borges, the first person narrator tells the reader a recollection of the narrative, and then Vincent Moon gives the reader a first person account of what happened. Here Borges is asking the reader to question the reliability of the narrators. If the information is passed through so many people before it reaches the reader, are they getting the most accurate account or have details been lost along the way? Accuracy in narration is a subject that Borges explores frequently in his work.
Borges takes the framed narrative technique even further by making it “book-within-a-book” as Bell-Villada calls it (126). There are instances, such as “The Shape of the Sword” where Borges follows traditional narrative and has a narrator who is telling a story and then the narration is passed to a different character that tells a different story. However, there are also examples of Borges’s handing the narrative to another text entirely. An example of this is “Three Versions of Judas” The text is the story of Nils Runeberg’s study of Judas. However, it is interspersed with quotations from various articles that it is assumed that Runeberg (or his collegues) have written. We know that these texts do not exist in the real world, however they make appearance in the narrative as fact anyway. In fact the entire text is structured to read like an essay on Runeburg, the narrator even speaks to this at one point “Those who read this article should also consider that it registers only Runebergs’s conclusions,” (Borges 96). This is yet another way for Borges to redefine the mode of storytelling. Borges creates an entire fictional text to insert within his book to tell Runeberg’s story. This is also another way for Borges to redefine fiction. By giving the reader an essay and calling it a work of short fiction Borges forces the reader to adjust their expectations for what a piece of fiction is.
By creating fictional texts to use as the medium for his storytelling Borges is able to weave a fictional world into his narrative even though the fictional world is a reflection of our own. Borges does this quite often; he weaves together various aspects of his holy trinity of literary devices. This gives his narratives more depth and complexity. Borges the character works often within a framed narrative, while Borges the author takes pleasure in creating a setting that seems familiar and yet is completely different from what we expect it to be.
Deconstruction is something Borges does frequently within his work, and “Three Versions of Judas” is no exception. The subject matter of this supposed article would be quite shocking to a Christian reader, as Borges uses this format to attempt to deconstruct theological debate: “Through the conventional format of a scholarly article, with trappings such as footnotes, foreign language titles, recondite historical data, and authentic biblical citations, Borges makes ingenious use of some of the contradictions of church doctrine” (Bell-Villada 125).What’s also really significant here narrative wise is Borges’ defense of a traditional villain. Borges turns the traditional cop/ criminal narrative on its head by defending the criminal (Bell-VIllada 126). Instead of having Runeberg’s article defend Jesus and further vilify Judas, he writes his piece in defense of Judas. This is another way for Borges to deconstruct character. He points out that what is considered “good” is based on a matter of perspective and that if a defense can be written about Judas than perhaps he isn’t a criminal after all. It forces the reader to redefine a common trope in the literary cannon.
While Borges’ framed narratives are, for the most part, set in a reality that is familiar to our own, his fantasies bring to the page a world that is completely different and yet somehow similar to our own. Borges uses this technique for several purposes, he is able to use the fictional world to help show his readers things about our own world that we can’t see because we’re a part of it. He also uses this device to deconstruct literature.
“The Library of Babel” is one of Borges’ most well known stories. Though it takes place in a fictional world, and it has all the requisite features of a narrative, it’s difficult to categorize it as a story. The narrative lacks the “richly drawn” (Vanetta) characters that readers expect, nor does it really have any action. The narrative comes across more as a fictional essay than a story (Vanetta).“Not all of Borges's fictions follow an essay format, but ‘The Library of Babel’ and similar works show his willingness to forego any of the traditional assumptions about what makes a story a story in favor of whatever suits his purposes” (Vanetta). Borges uses all the devices readers expect in a fictional narrative: an elaborately created world, a creative dilemma that the characters must overcome, and a dramatic narrator. What Borges then does is turn all of these things on their head to create a piece of short fiction that is essentially an essay that deconstructs religion and explores the human psyche.
“The Library of Babel” isn’t the only fantasy land that appears in Borges’ stories. In a number of his narratives Borges is able to create a vivid fictional world. The focus of the story shifts from the richness of the narrative to the richness of the world that Borges has created. The reader is forced to shift their expectations for what to expect of a traditional narrative. Thus Borges deconstructs fiction itself. He redefines what the reader ought to expect of his story. Borges doesn’t write to confuse his readers, merely to push boundaries of what fiction is and how it can be defined. By spending so much of his narrative creating a fictional world that is incredibly detailed Borges creates an alternate reality for his readers and asks them to question reality and redefine narrative. By using a framed narrative he asks readers to question who is telling the story, the author or the librarian. By ignoring traditional plot devices and character traits Borges asks the reader to redefine fiction in their minds and push the limits of what can be defined as fiction.
The Library of Babel
Many of Borges’ short stories never have an identified narrator, though they still speak from a first person point of view. By writing from a first person point of view Borges is able to ask the reader to question narration. Who is telling this story and how does the reader know they can trust the storyteller? This also brings up the question of the importance of the author, because Borges creates a persona of himself who acts as the narrator of many of these stories and sometimes as a character within them. He identifies his persona so casually when he does that it’s easy to be lured into the assumption that every unidentified narrator is Borges the Persona, however it’s important to remember that Borges cannot be identified as the narrator unless Borges the author signifies him as so.
Borges addresses this conundrum in his essay “Borges and I.” One Borges, discussing his relationship with the other Borges, writes the short essay. It is important to take the title of the narrative into consideration. It is impossible, as Borges states at the end of the essay, to tell who has written the narrative: “I do not know which of us has written this page” (Borges 247). The reader doesn’t know if the narrative is Borges the man talking about Borges the persona or the other way around. The text could easily be read either way. Is impossible to go into the work and definitively say that any commentary is Borges the persona or Borges the man. When the reader reads “I shall remain in Borges, not in myself” (Borges 246) it is impossible to tell if it is meant to be read as Borges the man saying that his legacy will live on through his written work, and by extension, Borges the Persona. Or if it is meant to be read that Borges the Persona will live on through Borges the man’s imagination.
“It is true that Borges--an author who has accustomed us to seeing him in the ludic exercise of erasing the limits not only between imagination and experienced realities but also between opposing concepts--finally blurs the distinction between the characters, the writer Borges and the vital I, in the concluding sentence of the text” (Zubizarreta).
Borges is bringing up the question of the roll of the author, a question that has boggled the minds of critics since the beginning of time, and blurring the line between the author and the persona. By doing this he’s deconstructing the roll of the author in a way. Though hr makes the point that it is impossible to separate the author from the text completely, he also notes that there must be a distinction between the two.
Though Borges seems to agree somewhat with Roland Barthes that the writer cannot exist within their own work. Just as Barthes says that “the writer enters his own death as writing begins” (2) Borges seems to enter his own madness as he mingles with his own persona. Borges takes what Barthes is saying, that a writer and his work are two separate things, and explores what happens when these two things intermingle. Though Borges and Barthes seem to disagree on whether or not the author dies, they both agree on the mode of storytelling: “narrative is never undertaken by a person, but by a mediator, shaman or speaker, whose ‘performance’ may be admired (that is, his mastery of the narrative code), but not his ‘genius’” (Barthes 2). In the case of “Borges and I” this performance is taken on by Borges the persona.
What is interesting about the essay is what the two Borges’ are discussing. “The narrator speaks of a Borges as someone who is only interested in the acclaim of being a recognized author rather than having any true investment in the craft itself. It is a somewhat sorrowful account of the narrator who tells of his slow and inevitable surrender to the demands of the ego” (Faucher 160). One Borges is completely obsessed with the acclaim of authorship while one Borges is obsessed with the craft. In the end the message seems to be that one cannot live without the other. In order to be successful an author must engross himself in the craft but also be aware of his acclaim. Perhaps “Borges and I” is not only a piece discussing the role of the author but a piece of advice to other authors.
Borges himself was a critic so the use of some of these techniques must come with some authorial intent. “A writer decides that a certain sign shall stand for a certain thing with which it is not usually connected” (Hart 493) Does Borges mean to use the sign signifier model on himself? When the reader encounters Borges the persona on the page are they meant to call upon Borges the man as the signifier? If so then clearly Borges can’t be completely eliminated from his own work, otherwise why bother intentionally creating a persona of yourself for the purposes of storytelling. Borges is doing with himself what he does with his fictional worlds. He creates someone that appears familiar to us, Borges, and yet he shows us that there is a clear distinction between man and persona. Borges the persona is merely a reflection of Borges the man he will never be as complex and three dimensional as the author. Borges the persona is merely the reader’s Virgil guiding them through the labyrinth that Borges the Author has created.
“Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” is the masterful bringing together of Borges’ holy trinity of techniques. The narrative takes place in a fictitious world which is reminiscent of our own, Borges uses Bell-Villada’s “book-within-a-book” device, and the narrative is told from first person point of view using his persona which gives that feeling of oral tradition. “[Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius] sets forth nearly all of his key ideas, preoccupations, mannerisms, stray notions, and conceits—and therefore the most ‘Borgesian’ of all Borges’ work” (Bell-Villada 134). This work is the perfect marriage of the holy trinity of Borges’ devices.
The narrative begins by describing an entry in an encyclopedia: “I owe the discovery of Uqbar to the conjunction of a mirror and an encyclopedia” (Borges 3). The narrator and a friend look for an entry on Uqbar to find that there is none and search through documents to find it. This device seems rather similar to the device used in “Three Versions Judas” in that Borges is making the central text of the narrative a fictitious text. The encyclopedia entry is just a jumping off point for Borges, throughout the narrative things begin to get stranger and stranger as Borges the persona tries to uncover the secrets of Tlon, Uqbar, and Orbis Tertius. Borges the author eventually explodes the idea of the fictional world into the “real” world of the narrative by having the fictional world of Tlon begin bleeding into Borges’ world, thus bleeding the fictional world with the real one.
Borges doesn’t stop his text within a text with the encyclopedia entries, Tlon itself is a text: “An initial point of note is that Tlön is a planet invented by means of language. In effect, the secret society writes Tlön into being: its existence begins as entirely textual, as the product of written descriptions and explanations collected within a series of encyclopedias” (Seargeant). Borges brilliantly blurs the line between text and reality by having Tlon bleed into the real world by the end of the narrative. Tlon is the product of the imaginations of a number of men in this secret society. Borges establishes it as a fact, from very early on in the narrative that this world doesn’t exist in reality. Yet the end of the narrative tells the reader that Earth is beginning to function as Tlon.
The narrative revolves around the exploration of this world that the reader is told from the get go doesn’t exist. Yet Borges creates an incredibly intricate set of rules for the language of Tlon. He spends so much of his narrative exploring Tlon that the reader is forced yet again to question what a fictional narrative is. Like “The Library of Babel,” “Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” reads like an essay rather than a story, yet we classify it as the later. Once again Borges plays with the idea that academic writing can be considered fiction by using an academic text as the base for his story.
The narrative bounces back and forth as Borges uncovers a secret society that created Tlon, Uqbar, and Orbis Tertius as a mental exercise. The reader is told that the worlds are purely fictional and exist only in the heads and incorrect encyclopedias of the members of this secret society. However at the end of the narrative artifacts from Tlon are found on Earth. Earth starts to become more like Tlon and Borges the narrator seems unconcerned, he decides his time is better spent translating a piece of literature he has no intention of publishing. Not only is Borges asking the reader to question what is the setting (is it earth? Is it Tlon? Is it both?), he is asking the reader to once again question reality. Can a fictional world exist alongside the real world? Is the world that Borges the persona exists in a fictional world, therefore making Tlon a fictional world within a fictional world? How is the reader to determine what is real? Thus Borges the author puts the reader in the same position as Borges the persona, unable to determine what is fact and what is fiction. One of Borges’ greatest skills in literature is his ability to blur the lines between reality and fiction, something he does time and time again to deconstruct literature.
Aside from the obvious fantasy of the fictional world of Tlon, Borges creates a sense of fantasy in the narrator’s “real world”. The reader is introduced through the narrator to a secret society who created Uqbar as an intellectual exercise, it was later expanded from the country of Uqbar to the planet of Tlon. This is where Borges becomes a virtuoso in blending reality and fantasy. Initially the reader is left fairly vague about the existence of Uqbar, yet once the rising action begins the reader becomes aware that the whole thing is just a mental exercise and doesn’t exist. In a postscript, dated 7 years after the events of the narrative, that the narrator states that Earth is becoming Tlon: “The contact and the habit of Tlon have disintegrated this world” (Borges 18). What takes it even a level further is that the post script is dated for after the publication of the story, thus claiming that this event is forthcoming. This is Borges’ real skill, his fantasy worlds aren’t inhabited by dragons and damsels in distress. His fantasy worlds are places that seem familiar to the reader until Borges subtly tweaks something, and then they seem foreign and strange: “This ‘intrusion of the fantastic world into the real one’…is the very crux (indeed, the pivotal point) of most of Borges’s major fiction” (Bell-Villada 137). This is how Borges deconstructs what a setting is and what is defined as a fantasy world.
Borges’ use of framed narrative in this story helps not only create a sense of fantasy but execute some truly excellent twists. Borges combines his ability to expertly execute framed narrative with his ability to create detailed and fantastical worlds to tell an amazing story that deconstructs language and reality. The final piece of the puzzle that really makes this piece a brilliant one is his use of persona.
The Garden of Forking Paths
The narrator of this story is Borges the persona. The reader follows him through all his discoveries. The narrative begins like any other oral story that you’re told by a friend:
I owe the discovery of Uqbar to the conjunction of a mirror and an encyclopedia…the event took place some five years ago. Bioy Casares had dinner with me that evening and we became lengthily engaged in a vast polemic concerning the composition of a novel in the first person, whose narrator would omit or disfigure the facts and indulge in various contradictions which would permit a few readers…to perceive an atrocious or banal reality. (Borges 3)
Borges does two things with his narrator here. Firstly he establishes the facts of the story just like any good narrator. He gives us a timeframe, 5 years ago, and a setting, Bioy Casares’ house. However Borges also sneakily introduces the idea of the narrator being an unreliable one. As only Borges can do, he does this so subtly one might not even catch it until a second or third reading of the narrative. The detail is slipped so casually into the narrative, as a passing discussion between Borges and Casares. Borges also briefly references a mirror, a symbol for the reflective nature of Tlon and Earth and a foreshadow for the final events of the narrative.
In this first paragraph of the narrative Borges not only establishes himself as the narrator of the story but he also sets up the main conflict for the reader: the struggle for defining reality. Borges as the narrator is also a contributing factor to this discussion of reality as well. As stated before it is rather difficult to separate the persona from the author. Thus Borges writes in another layer of complexity. Not only does the reader question whether or not Borges is a reliable narrator; Borges also forces the reader to question who is actually telling them the story. Once again Borges brings up the authorship/persona question mentioned earlier.
Another story that similarly asks the reader to question reality is “The Garden of Forking Paths.” Similarly Borges employs his three favorite devices, though he leans more heavily on framed narrative and persona, to create a narrative that deconstructs plot. The narrative begins with a few paragraphs from an unnamed first person narrator describing a book where this story is supposedly written:
On page 252 of Liddell Hart’s History of World War I you will read that an attack against the Serre-Montauban line by thirteen British divisions…planned for the 24th of July, 1916, had to be postponed until the morning of the 29th…the following statement, dictated, reread and signed by Dr. Yu Tsun…throws an unsuspected light over the whole affair. The first two pages of the document are missing. (Borges 19)
This narrator never speaks again. He simply acts as the establisher of facts, as many of Borges’ unnamed first person narrators do. Borges’ works, as much as they ask the reader to question their reality and truthfulness, are always begun by establishing important facts of location and time. Though he will inevitably twist these established facts and prove them to be false by the end of the narrative, Borges always wants his reader to have some idea where and when they are. This is part of his ability to twist the reader’s perception of where and when they are. He always begins with established facts and then subtly tweaks reality while maintaining those established facts.
The first paragraph as well also establishes Borges’s text within a text. The reader is meant to understand that the following story is meant to be a document in a history book. This is further reinforced by another one of Borges’ other oft-used devices, the footnote. At the bottom of the first page there is a footnote about Runeburg, a man murdered before the events of the narrative take place. However the footnote appears to be more like Borges’ own interpretation of the events of the story scribbled in the margins of the text than an actual helpful note intentionally placed by the author of the history book, despite bearing an “editor’s note” (Borges 19) indication at the end of the note.
This serves the reader a few purposes. First and foremost it reestablishes the text within a text/framed narrative set up of the story. However it also establishes the narrator of the statement as unreliable. It is stated that Runeburg is murdered or arrested, basically he disappeared before the events of the story. However the footnote tells the reader that Runeburg was murdered by Captain Madden.
What becomes very significant for deconstruction in the story is the events of the story. The narrator escapes Captain Madden, who it is assumed has come to his house to murder him as well, and makes his way to Dr. Albert’s house where he learns about the Garden of Forking Paths. Just as in the novel of the narrator’s ancestor, the narrator of the story runs into forks in the path of life. All of his choices seemingly by chance take him to Ashgrove station, where he arbitrarily hears of Dr. Albert, and then randomly decides to visit him where, it just happens that Dr. Albert is a scholar of Ts’ui Pên. Ts’ui Pên, the reader will learn, is the narrator’s ancestor who wrote an incredibly confusing book. In the book the hero, whenever he encounters a choice or a fork in the road, takes both. In one chapter he may die, yet in the next he might be alive.
This is where Borges is able to masterfully deconstruct plot. It is assumed in traditional narrative that when a character makes a choice, that is the end of that choice. Once a decision is made the plot moves forward from there. However Ts’ui Pên rejects this idea and asks what happens if a character can take both? What if the author eliminates choice and makes the character take every opportunity. Suddenly the reader is forced to examine the narrator’s own journey. It was his specific choices that led him to Dr. Albert and Ts’ui Pên’s book, however random they seemed to be. Furthermore by the end of the narrative the reader learns that the narrator has killed Dr. Albert as a code to his allies to bomb the city of Albert.
If any of Borges’ stories are trick stories, “The Garden of Forking Paths” is the trickiest of them. Though all the narrator’s steps in the story are seemingly random, they create an intricate plot that seems completely plotted out. Thus Borges asks the question of who is in control of the narrative, the characters or the storyteller. If all of the narrator’s actions were random how is the reader to believe that he was able to land in Dr. Albert’s house and successfully tell his allies to bomb the city of Albert. The reader must fully embrace the idea of “The Garden of Forking Paths” and examine the narrator’s journey to Dr. Albert’s house.
At several points in the narrative the narrator is forced to encounter a choice. He either chooses the road that leads him to Dr. Albert, or he chooses the road that leads him away from Dr. Albert. The narrator happens to make all the right choices. It is here that Borges is able to deconstruct plot into what it really is, a series of choices for the characters in the narrative to make. Either they make the choice to further the narrative or they don’t. Obviously the characters must make the choice to further the plot, or nothing would happen and the narrative would fall apart. So in actuality, though they seem random, the narrator’s actions are not random at all. He is forced to make the choice to further the narrative. Thus Borges proves that there cannot be random choices in literature that the plot controls the characters and forces them to make the choice to go forward. Had the narrator gotten on a different train or gotten off at a different stop the story would be entirely different. He would no longer be on the path that leads him to Dr. Albert, the entire narrative would be changed.
Borges asks readers to question what they define as literature. Plot and setting are deconstructed as well as reality itself. As Foucault says: “Writing unfolds like a game that [ieu] that invariably goes beyond its own rules and transgresses its limits” (206). This is something that Borges does time and time again. Borges’ ability to transgress the limits of what we define as literature is one of his greatest strengths. The definition of what a story is or isn’t is brought up time after time. Borges creates a mental labyrinth for the reader to pick their way through, using his persona Borges as a guide, to ask his readers to critically analyze his work. Borges’ narratives serve as an example of the literary critic turned author seeking to educate their readers by telling them that there are boundaries to be pushed within literature. The setting, the plot, the characters, they are all up for discussion and critical analysis. The reality and truth of the narrative cannot be trusted, and most of all, a narrator cannot always be seen as reliable. Through his holy trinity of literary devices Borges creates a labyrinth of questions that force the reader to examine and question reality.
Jorge Luis Borges and his Cat
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--“The Garden of Forking Paths”Labyrinths. New York: New Directions Corporation, 2007. 19-29. Print.
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