on 14 April 2001
This must be the best selection of writing by the mind-bending Borges; much of his work reflects his Latin-American background which can make it a little less accessible - and can be slightly heavy going sometimes to a middlebrow like myself, but Borges, bless him, does not waste words. Where some writers will stretch an idea to fill a novel, Borges will condense it. There are more mind-bending ideas in this one book than most writers come up with in a lifetime, and each one will make you see the world in a strange new light. If a story loses you, no great loss... move on to the next one and your perseverance will be rewarded with interest. If you don't read the whole book at least read 'The Lottery in Babylon', which stuns you into questioning your perception of society - 'The Zahir'-which will chill anyone who has ever had a tune stuck in their head - and my personal favourite, 'The Library of Babel', which will strike a chord with anyone who has ever been daunted by the idea of ever hoping to make sense of the universe. The stories I could get my head round were utterly brilliant - I daresay I'll say the same about the rest of them one day.
on 24 September 1998
Jorge Luis Borges is the personification of one of the most famous rules in the style guide of the magazine The Economist -- 'be succinct'. He never wrote a novel, and his stories are often very short indeed. One critic thinks of them more as plotlines than as finished stories. But what stories! Terse, pared to the bone, free of anything extraneous, yet charged with wry and detached humor, Borges takes us to amazing and often horrific universes in which literary, mathematical, scientific and philosophical riddles are made real. Here are stories exploring the nature of existence and the meaning of infinity, but which still work as powerful narratives. The plainness of the prose (I have only read it in English translation, of course) only throws the emotional impact of Borges' tales into sharper relief. In 'Kafka and his precursors', Borges lampoons the very idea of authorship, yet his own influences are clear. He is as journalistic and rational as his heroes, Wells and Poe, and has a sharp, ironic style every bit as focused as Kafka, but if anything even harder hitting. The themes sound lofty, and they are -- but the execution is much more accessible than one would think, and it often has the beauty of the abbreviated, Japanese poetic form called the Haiku: I think of phrases such as "some birds, a horse, saved the ruins of an amphitheatre". My first copy of Labyrinths was given to me by my father for something to read while I was recuperating from a medical operation. I've read it so often it's fallen to pieces, and I've had to buy a second copy. If I only ever had one book, this would be it. Like a book in one of Borges' other collections, Labyrinths looks like an ordinary book from the outside. From the inside, it's infinite in extent.
on 12 June 1998
Borges combines fiction, fact, science, imagination, and philosophy like no other. The stories in Ficciones demonstrate his unparalleled depth, each needs to be read several times to determine what transpires. He often allows for several levels of interpretation, for example 'The Garden of Forking Paths'; which perhaps serves as the best first story for one new to Borges, they will quickly learn just what they have sank their teeth into. Borges shatters such accepted notions as the linear nature of time, the limits of reality, the difference between fiction and history. He is simultaneously toying with modern man's universe and offering metaphysical theories. I don't think he is as appreciated in the US as in South America, where his influence is pervasive. Must read stories include "Theme of the Traitor and the Hero", "Three Versions of Judas" and "The Library of Babel"; indeed the entire book. His stories are even more profound in Spanish than English. This book is a must for any fan of literature.
on 18 October 2010
I am embarrassed to admit that this was my first proper exposure to Borges - though I had seen, and was intrigued by, many fragments of his works quoted by other authors, which is what eventually prompted me to pick up this book. The experience has turned out to be a mixture of joy and disappointment.
Allowance has to be made for the fact that the English translations in this collection are not those revised and approved by Borges. The sparks of stylistic brilliance occurring every now and again in this book made me wonder how different an impression I would get from the authorised translations (which, sadly, cannot be published any longer).
The majority of the stories introduce metaphysical ideas dressed as fiction, which is something that I do not care for - though this, of course, is a matter of personal preference. Some stories appear to be merely jokes of philosophic or literary nature while some closely (perhaps too closely) remind the style of Poe or Bierce. This quality may or may not be an artefact of translation; however, I certainly feel that the central premise of 'The Secret Miracle' is essentially the same as that of 'An Occurrence on Owl Creek Bridge' by Bierce. I recognised this even though I only ever read the latter story some 40 years ago, in a Russian translation - so the similarity must be real.
On the other hand, there are some true gems in this book - for example, 'Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius', whose intense poetic beauty transcends the metaphysical content, or 'Averroes's Search', which I find quite disturbing.
In the latter, a Moorish scholar writes, "with slow sureness, from right to left", a commentary on Aristotle's 'Poetics' (accessible to him only as a translation of a translation) and struggles with the meaning of the words 'tragedy' and 'comedy' that keep cropping up in this work but are not to be found in any other book in his library. The scholar tries to console himself with the thought that what we seek is often nearby, and later that day attends a learned gathering at a cleric's home. There, a theological and literary discussion takes place and a famous traveller tells, by way of an entertaining account, about a large painted house he visited in China: the house had balconies on the inside and was full of people watching other people who were wearing crimson masks and doing strange things. The whole thing is dismissed as lunacy by the listeners, including the scholar - who thus misses the revelation and remains in the dark about the meaning of the puzzling words in Aristotle: theatre and drama are unknown to his medieval Islamic world.
In the final paragraph of 'Averroes's Search' Borges reveals that his intention was "to narrate the process of a defeat ... of a man who sets himself a goal which is not forbidden to others, but is to him". Borges then ponders over his own difficulty with imagining Averroes based on the scraps of information about him found in various sources. The multi-lingual versions of people's names, book titles and place names scattered around the story also point to the difficulty of penetrating Averroes's way of thinking and understanding the world in which he lived; this mirrors the difficulty experienced by Averroes in the story. Fittingly, an extra layer of the same nature is added in the translation by the fact that the title of the Spanish-language original (La Busca de Averroes) cannot be adequately rendered in English because it has a dual meaning - "the search of Averroes" and "the search for Averroes" - and both interpretations are relevant to the story. Another aspect of the sublime irony of the whole situation is that the Western world largely owes its re-discovery of Aristotle to Averroes, who is also known as Ibn Rushd. Moreover, his commentary was read by medieval European scholars as the Latin translation of a Hebrew translation - not unlike the way in which Averroes reads Aristotle in the first place according to Borges (it is not known whether the real Averroes was able to read in Greek or Syriac).
The description of a failure to understand in 'Averroes's Search' is so compelling that it got me thinking: could it be that I miss the point of some of the stories in this collection in a similar way? I reckon that I will have to return to them one day and try again - and perhaps this time read these stories in the authorised translation if I can get hold of it.
Trying to full describe the writings of Jorge Luis Borges is like trying to explain exactly why Leonardo da Vinci's art still captivates. The man wrote works of art.
And this classic writer's brilliant, surreally exquisite works are on best display in "Labyrinths," whose plain name belies the subtle power and exquisite beauty of Jorges' short stories and vibrant essays. His intricate and atmospheric narratives are magical, rich in language, and lets us glimpse the minds of anything and anyone he can conjure up.
First there is a collection of his short stories, mostly from the book "Ficciones". He dreams up the long-lost heretical histories of a fictional world known as Tlon, and its beliefs, language and culture; he dreams up labyrinthine spy stories, a lottery that determines the way the people of Babylon are to live, a man who attempts to LIVE as Don Quixote, a man who tries to dream a new being into existence, an exploration of the eternal Library of the universe, and the mysterious Zahir.
The second round of short stories is a bit less enthralling, merely because it focuses more on "typical" stuff. But they are still pretty enthralling pieces of work -- the remembrance of the brilliantly eccentric Ireneo Funes, the story of a scar, a series of murders linked to "the secret Name," a condemned man's begs God for a year to perfect his art, a forgotten heretic, a conversation leading to revenge, the Cult of the Phoenix.
And then he produces a bunch of lesser-known works -- there are essays on Argentinian writing (or "gauchesque"), weird "refutation of time," his thoughts on literature and George Bernard Shaw, a "magic design," Zeno's paradoxes, Kafka, and other mind-bending, thought provoking topics. And there are his parables -- his odd habit of seeing himself as another person in his works, an actor with no "personality," reflections on Cervantes and the Quixote, the loss of our faces, and the death of gods.
"Labyrinth explores places where normal fiction would never go -- such as a Babylonian lottery for different places in society, corrupted by greed -- even as it imbues its eulogies, metaphysical ponderings and explanations with the tinge of reality. The things that Borges describes seem so plausible, and are given such depth and detail, that it comes as a mild shock when you realize, "Hey, he made all of this up."
Part of that is due to his unique style, full of elegant wordcraft and gently luminous imagery ("... the Night of Nights, the secret door of heaven wide open and the water in the jars becomes sweeter"). Even a stabbing is made brutally beautiful, and often dialogue is unnecessary -- the most beautiful and striking stories in here are the ones where Borges (aka the narrator) explores some invented facet of the world.
If you could criticize anything at all, it's that few of the characters -- aside from the Borges "narrator" -- are much more than walking symbols of a murky little message. But hey, you could simply see this entire book as an exploration of Borges' own imagination, and other people's as well. He happily recounts countries that are nonexistant, books that were never written, geniuses who never were.
"Labyrinths" is indeed a labyrinth -- an intricate little web that is all mirrors and mazes from inside Borges' head. Absolutely stunning.
on 5 February 2003
'Labyrinths' is a tremendously successful attempt to merge metaphysics and literature. Combining philosophy and storytelling is rarely done well (maybe Camus and Sartre are the best examples), but Borges achieves it in these stories. It is metaphysics that creates the labyrinths of the title, labyrinths of the perception of 'truth'. Despite being short, each story contains layers of deception from which there is no escape. These begin with the 'historical' gravitas given to each story by Borges' claim to have discovered a manuscript, or to be retelling fact. We are then plunged into a metaphysical fantasy in which the idea of 'the truth' becomes meaningless (or at least relative). It is the success with which Borges' achieves this, rather than the style in which he does, that is the strength of this collection. I came to Borges through reading Umberto Eco, who is shamelessly influenced by the Argentinian (in 'The Name of the Rose' Borge-esque motifs such as the labyrinth - both physical and metaphysical, false trails leading to the truth, the discovery of a manuscript, etc., are prominent, as is the monk 'Jorge of Burgos'!). Any fan of Eco should try this book, as should anyone who likes their brains to be given a little workout every now and then.
I found the non-fiction at the end a little tedious, but there is not much of this. The rest of the book is a delight. It is not hard to read, but leaves you feeling a little more clever by the finish. Do yourself a favour: read this book.
on 11 June 1998
These stories are unlike anything else I know of in literature. Borges is a completely original genius, whose erudition and playfulness is exceeded only by his love of language, and the unforgettable structure of his prose.
Like Joyce, like Nabokov, like no other writer, Borges creates his own world, which exists at an oblique angle to our own. Probably nothing I have ever read has had such an effect on my thinking as these five-page stories. They are like metaphysical poems in prose.
And they are endlessly entertaining. I must have read "The Library of Babel" and "Pierre Menard, Author of the *Quixote*" dozens of times each.
And the short essays at the end of this volume are in their own way just as entrancing. He is a magical writer -- one of the great artists of this century.
on 30 March 2001
This book is an amazing compendium of applied metaphysics. If that sounds a little dry, it is anything but. It is an exhilarating, vertiginous exploration of human experience. In 'Lottery in Babylon', for example, Borges chronicles a society that decides to introduce a national lottery. Instead of settling for rewards for the winners, however, the mysterious cabal behind the enterprise decide to inflict punishments too. Gradually the rewards and punishments become more and more elaborate, and the world more and more absurd - until you realise that it is the world we live in! Each one of these tales springs a similar, almost epiphanic, revelation. Warning: this book will make you question the nature of existence, your own identity - whether this is a genuine review or part of an elaborate scam by a manipulating organizing force. One consolation though: 'The Immortal' shows that eternal life is not all it's cracked up to be.
on 13 September 2011
I enjoy reading short stories as much as the next man - they're ideal for the train. But I may have bitten off more than I could successfully contemplate with this book. I felt woefully undereducated as I struggled with the classical references and the layers of narration within some of these stories. But those which are easily accessible, and even some which are less so, were genuinely thought provoking and definitely add to life's abundant orchard of metaphysical debate. This book is great if you're ready for the challenge, but if you prefer to eschew obfuscation, stick with Scott Fitzgerald. I'm giving it a four. That's an aspirational four, I wanted to enjoy it that much.
on 7 July 2007
I could go on praising Borges for many, many pages, but (just as he was), I will be short:
Borges' style and content are utterly original: his metaphysical themes, his detached wit and wry humour, his extremely concise writing. Borges predicted the many-worlds interpretation of quantum physics in "The Garden of Forking Paths" almost 20 years before Everett and DeWitt. Borges was writing about reader response in "Pierre Menard, Author of The Quixote" more than 20 years before it became a method of literary criticism. In his stories, he often shows off his biblically immense erudition
Every word in Borges' short stories has been carefully chosen, weighed and evaluated, and it shows: in just a few pages he manages to present varied, multi-layered themes that many other writers don't manage to fit in a novel.
His themes include, but are never limited to: the infinite, time, books and manuscripts, strange objects, the world seen from unexpected points of view, theology, and idealism.
While his main medium is the short story, he also wrote many non-fiction essays (some of the best of which, such as the exceptional "A New Refutation of Time", are included in "Labyrinths"), poetry, translations, and he excelled in the highly uncommon genre of the literary forgery.