Jorges Luis Borges and why you should read him.

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Last summer I downloaded the Collected Fictions of Jorges Luis Borges, and read most of it either in the campus grounds of the Chinese university that I was studying in at the time (<山师>山东师范大学,济南) or by the banks of the Yellow River (the famous 黄河) in Jinan, Shandong province.

I first became interested in South American writing some years ago, when I read One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967) and Love in the Time of Cholera (1985), both by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I loved the magical realism, and the fusion of fantasy with historical events (e.g., the 1928 “banana massacre” in Columbia) Well, Borges is part of the inspiration behind Marquez, and Neil Gaiman if that helps to persuade you. Remember the infinite, imaginary library that I referenced at the end of my first post? It turns out that maybe I should have credited Borges, not Gaiman, with its creation, in Borges’ mind, The Library of Babel contains books which are continuously refreshed with every reading, that is, the influence of every person that has read them, and the impression that the book makes on its readers. In a “perhaps infinite number of hexagonal galleries”, the “Library of Babel” is in fact its own universe, known as The Library.

As I was in China, I was especially drawn to Borges’ Garden of the Forking Paths (1941), which has been described as “an early genre blender”, combining a detective story, a parable, and philosophical references to Time itself. The story traces the tale of a Chinese spy and a labyrinthe. Borges’ short stories each contain moral lessons, sometimes with religious overtones, but more often, referencing classical and non-Christian texts as well as Catholicism. For example, from The Zahir (1949) a tale about a coin engraved with some initials, we learn that;

“Nothing is less material than money…money is abstract, I repeated, money is future time. It can be an evening in the suburbs, it can be the music of Brahms, it can be maps, it can be chess, it can be coffee, it can be the words of Epictetus teaching us to despise gold”. (see also Elizabeth Hyde Stevens’ fantastic article; “Borges and $: The Parable of the Literary Master and the Coin”, June 2016)

A good example of where Borges was able to weave historical characters into his work is the story of The Theologian in Death, in which the 16th century Protestant reformer Melanchthon is the protagonist. Borges was extremely well-read, and spent decades as a librarian, as well as translating literary classics from a variety of cultures, a maelstrom of learning which heavily influenced his own outpourings. Borges’ The Wizard who was made to Wait borrows heavily from One Thousand and One Arabian NightsThe Mirror of Ink is set in Sudan, mentioning an Egyptian tax collector and Venetian paper. Borges was not afraid to blend myths from across the world, as well as mixing fact with fiction. Reading into the metaphors and elaborate illusions contained in his stories is an education in itself, on folklore and local traditions as well as mind-bending takes on established historical events.

In short, if you are interested in the line between philosophy/theology/literature and magical realism, then this is about as good as it gets. If you like South American literature, or parables about historical characters and events, then you’ll really enjoy this. Furthermore, if what you really want is something that you can read and download for free, to pass some sunny afternoons at home or abroad, then this is ideal.

 

“I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library” – Jorge Luis Borges, 1955

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