Today’s post is the latest in a series I like to call, “I know what would be fun. I’ll take decades and decades of existential literary theory and interpret and distil it to the size of a blog post!” This week I want to talk about a writer who is closely connected with literary theory: Jorge Luis Borges.
The first thing to know about Borges is that he’s a great storyteller. Actually, the first thing to know about Borges is his name. As you will have gathered from the title, it’s pronounced “Horhay Luis Borhaze”. Yes, you can read that again. So … if you take nothing else away from this blog post, you at least have a putdown to use against any pretentious literary types who rhyme “Borges” with “Gorgeous”!
The second thing to know about Borges is that he’s a great storyteller. Let me throw some random lines at you from his story, “Three Versions of Judas”:
“In Asia Minor or Alexandria, in the second century of our faith, when Basilides disseminated the idea that the cosmos was the reckless or evil improvisation of deficient angels …”
“Valerius Soranus died for having divulged the hidden name of Rome …”
There’s a novel in each of those lines alone. But, Borges is a very interesting writer in that he never wrote a novel, only short stories. Indeed, he said that he couldn’t write novels. But his short stories are amazingly finely-constructed pieces of work and – because they’re so short and so concise – he manages to pack some amazing lines in like those quoted above. Many of his short stories contain lines and ideas that would fill a number of novels.
Borges was fascinated with the idea of labyrinths and literary trails and detective work. It is for this reason that he is so beloved of literary theorists who talk about “post-structuralism” and “semiotics”. But it is also for this reason, I think, that he would be of interest to a much wider readership. Because he is in the business of world-building. He creates these amazingly detailed worlds, whether the story takes place in an imaginary library or on an imaginary world. (Are you a fan of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings or any of those types of fantasy books? Are you one of those readers who checks the map at the back of the book every few pages to see where the characters are now? Then you’d love Borges’ worlds.)
On the subject of fantasy, while Borges is often seen as a “literary” writer, or a “magical realist”, his stories contain a lot of fantasy and even Science Fiction. One story “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” is about how a a massive conspiracy of intellectuals attempt to create (and bring into reality) an imaginary world; another, “The Library of Babel” is about an infinite library that must contain every coherent book that was ever written, as well as every incoherent scribble!
One writer who would have been influenced by Borges is Umberto Eco, a writer who is very much fascinated by similar literary conceits as Borges. Indeed, Eco’s medieval detective story, The Name of the Rose, has at its centre the idea of labyrinths and features a labyrinthine library, tended by a blind monk named Jorge of Burgos. Here’s the labyrinth from the movie:
And here’s another amazing labyrinth designed and constructed by the artist Michelle Lord and inspired by another Borges’ story, ‘The Immortal’:
“I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.” Jorge Luis Borges
(Images: Click the pics for credits)
If you enjoyed this post, you can subscribe to the blog by entering your email address in the box on the left hand sidebar. Thanks!