Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges

Penguin Modern Classics, 1986, 282 p (including vi p Preface by André Maurois and ix p Introduction by James E Irby.) Edited by Donald A Yates and James E Irby. Translated variously from the Spanish in the publications Ficciones (1956,) El Aleph (1957,) Discusíon (1957,) Otras inquisiciones (1960) and El Hacedor (1960) by Donald A Yates, James E Irby, John M Fein, Harriet de Onis, Julian Palley, Dudley Fitts and Anthony Kerrigan. Preface translated by Sherry Mangan.

 Labyrinths cover

As well as the preface and introduction the book contains twenty three works described as FICTIONS, none of which is greater than sixteen pages long, along with ten ESSAYS, mostly short but the last and longest of which is seventeen pages, eight PARABLES, never more than two pages, and a one page Elegy which is laid out as a poem. In his introduction we are told Borges once claimed that “the basic devices of all fantastic literature are only four in number: the work within the work, the contamination of reality by dream, the voyage in time and the double.” All are displayed here among multiple invocations of circularity, of obverse and reverse, mirror images, separateness and wholeness and – a few times – an indication of the significance of fourteen instances of an object or concept. The pieces here show that Borges was formidably well read and he is never afraid to display that learning; indeed defiantly unapologetic about it to the extent that his trust of the reader requires no apology. The reading experience is not straightforward – Irby’s Introduction says the original Spanish texts do not flow smoothly and we should therefore not expect the English translations to do so – the text demands concentration.
Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius is a tale about an elusive entry in the Encyclopædia Brittanica about the non-existent city of Uqbar and another relating to the orderly world of Tlön which has its own idiosyncratic language and philosophy.
The Garden of Forking Paths has a passage which illustrates the “many worlds” theory of quantum mechanics but prefaced it by decades. A man called Yu Tsun comes to an English estate where he finds the legacy of his ancestor Ts’ui Pên who withdrew from life to write a book and construct a labyrinth. The book is the labyrinth and the labyrinth is the book – the garden of forking paths. All this is wrapped up in a spy story, wherein Yu Tsun has to find a way to communicate his information through the fog of war to the German High Command of the Great War. It’s stunning.
The Lottery in Babylon is an account of how life in that city came to be dominated by chance as mediated through a Company which may or may not exist.
Pierre Menard, Author of the “Quixote” is a list of the written works of that author and an examination of his magnum opus the Quixote, a rewriting of Cervantes’s novel undertaken by immersing himself in seventeenth century Spanish and imagining himself as Cervantes. Nevertheless the story goes on to contend that even though the texts of the two books are identical Menard’s version is “almost infinitely richer.” The story also asserts that “there is no exercise of the intellect which is not, in the final analysis, useless.”
In The Circular Ruins a man crawls from a river onto land and then into a circular ruined temple where he sets out to dream a man. Eventually he succeeds but the story has more to come.
The Library of Babel is a complete universe made up of hexagonal galleries interconnected by passageways. Its uniformly formatted volumes contain every possible combination of twenty-five orthographical symbols; 22 letters, the comma, the space and the full stop.
Funes the Memorious was a man from Fray Bentos who could remember everything, but was unfortunately an invalid.
The Shape of the Sword is apparently a tale related to Borges by the “Englishman from La Colorada” (who was actually Irish) and concerns how he got his facial scar during the Irish Civil War.
Theme of the Traitor and the Hero is reported rather than told. It is a schematic outline of a story about a revolutionary hero who is in fact a traitor to the cause but whose unmasking would do damage to it.
Death and the Compass is a crime story revolving around revenge, geometry and the Tetragrammaton.
The Secret Miracle tells of the bargain which writer Jaromir Hladik makes with God the day before his execution by the Nazis to allow him to finish his play The Enemies.
Three Versions of Judas elaborates on the theories of one Nils Runeberg regarding Judas Iscariot as being a reflection of Jesus; theories excoriated by orthodox theologians but then revised to being a reflection of God.
The Sect of the Phoenix is a description of one of those secret societies which are so secret – and universal – even its members don’t know they belong to it.
In The Immortal a man hears of the city of the Immortals; both it and immortality itself said to be reached by drinking the waters of a certain river. Somewhere beyond the bounds of Africa he finds the city, a labyrinthine oddity built on the ruins of the one of the ancient Immortals. There he meets a thousand year-old Homer but yearns again for mortality.
The Theologians contrasts the wheel and the cross, the straight path of Jesus against the circular labyrinth followed by the impious, the Histriones and the thoughts of John of Pannonia.
Story of the Warrior and the Captive draws parallels between the story of Droctulft, a barbarian who died defending Rome, and an Englishwoman abducted by South American Indians who had come to accept what Borges calls “a savage life.” The story contains the wonderful phrase “that reluctant blue the English call grey.”
Emma Zunz is the tale of the elaborate revenge of the woman of that name on the man who committed the crime for which her father was exiled.
The House of Asterion is another labyrinth, with all of its parts repeated many times.
Deutsches Requiem is a courageous act of literary ventriloquism in the form of an apologia pro vita sua of a German from a distinguished military family as written the night before his execution for crimes committed as subdirector of Tarnowitz concentration camp. He is proud of his Nazi philosophy, proud of his anti-Judaic (and therefore anti-Jesus) beliefs, proud of destroying the Bible for ever, proud of forcing the Allies into, in order to win, being the Nazis’ image.
Averroes’s Search relates to his difficulty in fathoming Aristotle’s use of the words tragedy and comedy as these did not exist in Arabic. An addendum outlines Borges’s own difficulty in comprehending Averroes.
The Zahir relates the thoughts of the narrator (Borges mentions himself in this context, but these fabular tales are never so straightforward) about the relatively small denomination coin of that name – note obverses and reverses again – he picked up in change and how he could not stop thinking about it. It carries on to description of the effects of other similarly mesmerisingly fascinating objects and whether they are thereby close to God.
In The Waiting a man takes on the identity of his enemy, Alejandro Villari, as a means to avoiding his revenge. Every night he dreams that Villari comes to kill him.
The God’s Script contains the thoughts of an Aztec priest tortured and imprisoned by the Spanish. He sees God as a wheel encompassing everything that was, is, or will be, all things interlinked – including his torturer.

Here Borges considers The Argentine Writer and Tradition and decries calls for such writers to stick to only Argentine themes as these would be less Argentine for it; the Chinese Emperor Shih Huang Ti who built the Great Wall but also ordered all books published prior to his reign be burned so that history would start with him; the history of cosmogony as manifested in the infinite spheres; how Don Quixote is magical precisely for its realistic treatment of the world; Paul Valéry as the symbol of the perfect poet; how each writer creates his (or her, but Borges did not include ‘her’) own precursors by modifying the past and the future; the many ways of illustrating Zeno’s paradox; how attempts to understand the world are undermined by lack of self-knowledge; that Bernard Shaw’s later works educe almost innumerable persons or dramatis personae; and produces A New Refutation of Time a title which, as Borges notes, contains its own contradiction.

The PARABLES are of a piece with the Fictions and the Essays, finely wrought but compressed into at most one and a half pages.

Pedant’s corner:- In the Introduction; “Perhaps the most striking characteristics of his writings is their” (either ‘characteristic’, or, ‘are’,) snobbism (what is wrong with the word snobbery?) Otherwise; a missing full stop (x2,) Cervantes’ (x 2, Cervantes’s – used in this form later, twice,) dilacerated (not misshapen teeth. The surrounding text argues for ‘lacerated’,) gradins (gradines,) demiurgi (x2, demiurges,) eucalypti (x3, eucalyptuses,) connexion (connection,) the text could be read as implying that “the armoured vanguard of the Third Reich” first entered Prague in March 1943 (they actually invaded in late 1938,) “military tribute of one of Rome’s legions” (tribune,) Histriones’ (Histriones’s,) strategem (stratagem,) Guzerat (normally ‘Gujarat’ in English.) “Nor is it banal to pretend that the most traditional of races renounce the memory of its past” (renounces,) hexametres (hexameters,) Scopenhauer (Schopenhauer.)

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