Where new writing finds its voice


Matthew Battle

Jorge Luis Borges
Penguin, 2000

Written and published during the late nineteen thirties and early forties, the Argentinean writer Jorge Luis Borges methodically produced, over a span of some nine years, a collection of stories that have become amongst the most infamous and influential of the last decade. Later compiled under the ironically generic title Fictions, this collection brought the hitherto unknown writer international fame.

These narratives, many little more than six pages long, explore subjectivity, relativity and temporality; each one teems with ideas that subvert preconceived ideals of the short story. The result is a collection of pieces that range from philosophical mock reviews to fable-like romps through rural Latin America replete with gauchos and knife fights.

One of the earliest stories in this collection, and indeed one widely regarded as one of Borges’s best, is ‘Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote’ in which he illustrates the impossible task of the writer to transcend his own work. Borges argues that the written word, and thus humans themselves, are products of their past. He recalls the theories of twentieth-century French philosopher, Henri Bergson who argued that the present continually informs the past and the future, so that they ‘are constantly created and recreated’ within it.

‘Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote’, then, written in a faux memoir style, compares two identical sections of the Quixote. One, the original, written by the Cervantes, credited with weaving together the now mythical pages of the first ‘modern’ novel, Don Quixote; and the other, Borges’s fictional author, Pierre Menard. In what way can two identical pieces of writing differ, the reader may enquire? Infinitely so, says Borges, as his shamanic powers conjure up social structures and ambiguities, perhaps previously indiscernible to the reader, whilst the didactic narrator informs us that the three more centuries of history preceding Menard’s version create an infinitely richer and more meaningful text.

Not all of Borges’s stories are as overtly philosophical, however his fascination with time and subjectivity are always prevalent. Using his vast knowledge of philosophical theories and Greek mythology, not to mention numerous other influences and references ranging from the Kabbalah to Nordic fables, he plays with reality and in turn the reader, at once opening up and offering the universe to us whilst ironically exposing the labyrinthine constructs that confine us.

Even when drawing on well-established western genres like detective and spy fiction, as in ‘The Garden of Forking Paths’ and ‘Death and the Compass’, Borges’s metaphysics undermine the confines of the genre. The former, for instance, runs as a spy story in which the protagonist flees his captor whilst, in turn, hunting and killing a man named Albert in order to signal to Berlin ‘the secret name of the city to be attacked’ (the city’s name is Albert). But through the story’s representation as a manuscript and its cyclical and labyrinthine images, both in metaphor and content, the text becomes ‘A labyrinth of symbols’ reminiscent of Nietzsche’s Eternal Return.

Similarly ‘Death and the Compass’, despite its obvious similarities with Chesterton, takes the detective story into a philosophical realm in which the detective is led to his own murder and is, arguably, killed by himself.

However perplexing and mysterious these stories seem, they’re never anything less than expertly crafted and poetically written pieces that, for these reasons alone, deserve their acclaim. But Borges’s stories were not only aesthetically pleasing. He was a philosopher, one who expressed his theories within his chosen form so effectively that his influence will be endlessly felt by readers who are willing to deconstruct their preconceived ideas, and venture forth into a volatile world full of circles and labyrinths.