Borges is often referred to as the father of magical realism; while the genre owes an enormous debt to the author, magical realism can be found in the writings of Kafka and Tolstoy – from the 1800’s and a whole other continent. That said, one cannot begin a serious study of magical realism without appreciating Borges’ genius.
He has many tells as an author, and one quality that stands out above others, is that the majority of his stories are a puzzle. They are not easy, and often take many re-readings to appreciate the magnitude of his themes. Favorite motifs include labyrinths (Garden of the Forking Paths), an invisible creator (Library of Babel), libraries, dreams, existentialism, philosophy and questioning who is really running the show (Lottery of Babylon). He loves to incorporate myth and legend, and to make up his own mythology and histories, to the point of inserting meta-commentary from imagined third parties. To be blunt, Borges is wholly unique, and deciphering his symbolism is no easy feat. In fact, Borges himself said, “I have felt my stories so deeply that I have told them . . . using strange symbols so that people might not find out that they were all more or less autobiographical.”*
Who is Borges, exactly? On the surface, we know that he lived with his mother for most of her ninety nine years, and in fact did not bother to marry until she passed away, and only weeks before he died himself. He studied the history of his country, Argentina ardently, and fell unto depression with the Peron’s rise to power. It is not accident that The Lottery of Babylon a thinly veiled warning against giving your power away to “the company” coincided with the Peron’s regime. He worked as a translator and librarian and ultimately, went blind. Although for many years Borges loathed to discuss politics, his attitudes towards fascism, Nazism and the Perons was well known. At a time when Argentina became sympathetic to the Nazis, Borges was vocal. Some insinuated that he was Jewish; in a move that I find admirable, he published an essay titled “Yo, Judio.” Borges was not Jewish, but artfully pointed out that he would be proud to be one.
Some argue that he is more of a surrealist, and there is definitely merit to that category. However, if you operate from Faris’ concept of magical realism, Borges definitely fits into that genre, as well – he incorporates myth and legend, often has doubles/mirror characters, distorts time, and most importantly, combines the mundane with the fantastical. When you consider this definition, Borges definitely meets the requirements of a magical realist.
Where to begin on your Borges journey? This is tricky because his stories really fall into several categories – sometimes fantastical, sometimes false histories, sometimes puzzles or mysteries. I believe this is a good starter list, but in order to truly to him justice, I intend to do a post with stories organized according to theme/motifs on a later date.
Disclaimer: There is absolutely no shame doing a little research on each story before hand, as it may help you “see” the details more clearly, and appreciate the effort he puts into each tale. The stories are deceptively simplistic, and seeing the details can be tricky.
- The Library of Babel – a universal library with all of the knowledge possible. This one has many layers to peel back. Somebody actually made a website to mimic the library – you can find it here
- The Book of Sand – read this after the Library of Babel, and then reread this one until you can draw the connection. This makes me wonder how much the other stories in Borges’ universe lines up. It also has connections to another one of his stories, The Zahir. Someone made an interactive website based on the book here
- The Garden of Forking Paths – where you learn that there are multiple streams of time possible.
- The Lottery of Babylon – who is the company? Why were they so quick to give their power away?
- The Zahir– this is about an object that creates obsession.
- The Aleph – anyone who gazes into the Aleph can see everything in the universe.
- The Dead Man – This is one of his gaucho stories, but introduces you to the idea of the metaphorical labyrinth. Everything is inevitable…