“It only takes two facing mirrors to build a labyrinth.” – Jorge Luis Borges
Labyrinths is a collection of short stories by the prolific Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges (1899 – 1986). Short stories are the cryptic crossword to the novel’s regular crossword: you have to deduce a great deal from the few clues you’re given. But, like a trailer for an upcoming movie which turns out to be more exciting than the actual full-length movie, their brevity and compactness can be exhilarating.
“Writing long books is a laborious and impoverishing act of foolishness: expanding in five hundred pages an idea that could be perfectly explained in a few minutes. A better procedure is to pretend that those books already exist and to offer a summary, a commentary.” - Borges
All of Borges’ stories take place in imaginary worlds: not science fiction, not fantasy, but rather parallel and alternative realities with their own laws of mathematics and physics; many circle back around to their beginning or spiral into fractal copies. Mirrors, stairs, secret rooms and passageways – connections between alternate realities - are common features in his alternate or fictional histories. Borges creates so many alternate worlds, with their own unique laws of time and space that we question the legitimacy and uniqueness of our own. They’re worlds almost unique to Borges, and he has essentially created his own genre.
“We accept reality so readily - perhaps because we sense that nothing is real.” - Borges
Short stories can be difficult to summarise without giving away too much of the plot. For example, in The Sacred Ruin, a man travels deep into the jungle to a long-forgotten and overgrown temple in order to dream a man into existence – only to discover in the end that he himself has been similarly dreamed into existence. Such twists illustrate the looping, fractal nature of Borges stories.
In The Secret Miracle, a man facing a dawn firing squad is able to stop time, but only so long as it takes him to finally figure out in his head the plot of his great unwritten play; in Funes the Memorious, a man receives a knock to the head and can remember the minutest detail of everything he experiences, at the expense of being able to think, for ‘to think is to make differences, generalize, making abstractions. In the teeming world of Funes, there were only details.’
In one of the more famous stories (Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote) a man attempts to rewrite two specific chapters of the classic novel Don Quixote word-for-word, but via his own experiences, resulting in two identical texts having different meaning (it’s taken me months to get my head around that, and I’m still not sure I’ve got it right). So it is with each of these stories that their meaning changes each time you read them.
“I think that the reader should enrich what he is reading. He should misunderstand the text; he should change it into something else.” - Borges
It's for this reason that if I could only take one book to a desert island it would probably be this one. These stories, despite each being only a dozen pages or less, are not quick reads – each sentence is dense in individual and relative meaning. You finish each story meditating on society’s present understanding of reality, and this new understanding informs your reading of the next story, and so on in Borges’ fractal way.
“Besides, rereading, not reading, is what counts.” - Borges
Borges’ worlds also contain many literary allusions, reflecting his encyclopaedic knowledge of literature; Borges was appointed director of the Argentine national library, despite being almost blind (a cruel fate not only for a writer but also for the voracious reader that he was, much like Beethoven going deaf). Many of his stories are centred around books - obscure, rare, lost, esoteric, forged – or bookshops and libraries.
“I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.” - Borges
His stories are liberally infused with references to philosophers and their views; as with Orwell (and similarly outspokenly anti-Communist and anti-Fascist), the reader is never talked down to but always included as an intellectual equal. His stories are essentially alternate philosophies expressed through a fantasy format (which, incidentally, is what all great science fiction works do). In fact, there is a philosophical term named after him: the ‘Borgesian conundrum’ debates whether ‘the writer writes the story, or it writes him’.
"I am not sure that I exist, actually. I am all the writers that I have read, all the people that I have met, all the women that I have loved; all the cities that I have visited, all my ancestors." - Borges
The stories are also littered with words from many languages; aside from his native Spanish, Borges could communicate in English, French, German and Latin. It’s as if his ideas were too nuanced to be expressed by only one language. And where he cannot express it in a known language, he invents his own.
“The dictionary is based on the hypothesis -- obviously an unproven one -- that languages are made up of equivalent synonyms.” - Borges
As with reading many great writers for the first time (for me Conrad, Faulkner, Nabokov), there’s a before period, where you think you already know what ‘great’ writing is, and an after period against which all other writers are forever compared. I can now proudly add Borges to that list.
I’ll leave the last word to Borges; if you sympathise with this, then you know he’s your man:
“Sometimes, looking at the many books I have at home, I feel I shall die before I come to the end of them, yet I cannot resist the temptation of buying new books. Whenever I walk into a bookstore and find a book on one of my hobbies, I say to myself, “What a pity I can’t buy that book, for I already have a copy at home.” - Borges