Many short stories succeed because they plunge us into the feeling and texture of another's life, showing us the dilemmas they face and their attempts to resolve them. The stories of Jorge Luis Borges are of another order altogether, at once mystical and philosophical. He creates some memorable characters , but his fascination is with infinity and eternity, imaged in recurring labyrinths, mirrors, doubles and obsessions. A typical Borges story, such as "The Garden of Forking Paths" at first offers you an innocent "Drink Me" cup of setting and character, but soon you're looking at the world from a new and startling perspective. Instead of going down a rabbit hole, you are lifted up among the clouds, looking down at humanity from the viewpoint of a Gnostic angel.
If you've never read the Argentine master -- librarian, scholar of world literature and languages, and university lecturer-- here's what awaits you in "The Garden...". First you meet a shady Chinese character, Hsi P'eng, spying for the German side in WWI, adrift in Europe, and in mortal fear of a British operative tracking him down. His plight intrigues, but we soon learn that his background is even more interesting; his grandfather spent much of his own life creating both an endless labyrinth and a huge novel. Upon his death, there is no sign of the labyrinth, and P'eng can make no sense of the novel, in which characters die only to reappear without explanation in the next chapter.
P'eng locates the one man who understands this puzzle from the past, and who informs him that the novel and labyrinth are the same. The novel's seemingly chaotic structure results from its writer exploring every possible outcomeof each situation, rather than selecting only one. Two characters fight; in the next chapters, one lives, the other dies; both live; both die; and so on. Also, the true theme of the novel can only be the one word which is never used in it, which the reader must deduce by seeking deliberately clumsy circumlocutions in the text.
Yes, Borges in his uncanny way has anticipated hypertext fiction, in a story written decades before HTML code appeared. But more impressive is how it induces a spiritual vertigo that recalls for readers all the choices and possibilities that have shaped our own lives. I won't spoil the tale by telling you the ending, except to say that P'eng chooses one turn in his personal labyrinth that has far-reaching effects.
Many good short story writers make us feel deeply. Borges' gift was to also make us think and wonder, to comprehend the universe as a vast and manifold idea both delightful and terrifying. He does this in compressed fictions with elegant style ("It seemed to me that the humid garden which surrounded the house was infinitely saturated with invisible persons") of only a few pages each. Genius.
Causes John Oughton Supports
PEN International, Amnesty International, League of Canadian Poets, POR AMOR, Greenpeace