Friday 2 September 2011

B is for Borgesian

Google’s doodle on the 24th of August celebrating Borges’ 112th birthday greatly pleased me since I have always felt the Argentinian writer never got the credit he was due. The fact that he never won the Nobel prize confounded me, just as it did the author himself: “Not granting me the Nobel Prize has become a Scandinavian tradition; since I was born they have not been granting it to me,” he once remarked.

I was first introduced to the works of Jorge Luis Borges during an ‘Interactive Narrative’ module in Trinity College Dublin. I was blown away by the required reading text of ‘The Garden of Forking Paths,’ not just for its experimental narrative or its magical realism (my favourite genre back then) but for how the story eerily encompassed so many issues I was concerned with at the time. I got chills while I read a reference to the Irish historical period I was researching: the description of Richard Madden, the “Irishman in service of England” in the year 1916 of all years; one of the most turbulent in my country’s history, one that set in motion the long, violent and tragic process of Ireland gaining independence from Britain.

The mention of Dr Yu Tsun’s ‘resources,’ among them a red and a blue pencil – for years ‘my’ signature writing implements, ones that always seemed to evoke interest from others for some reason. I knew these parallels were sheer coincidences; however a small part of me liked to think that I was co-creating a sort of collaborative fiction with the deceased writer, that there was a sort of hive mind at work; not constricted by time, just like the forking paths he described in the story. It was as though one of those different yet equal paths through the networks of time had found itself in me, the reader…

After reading ‘The Garden of Forking Paths,’ such improbable and delusional notions seemed somehow plausible. Only the best fiction could induce such an immersive response in a reader; but for speculative fiction, the barre is raised even higher, as the author has to present unreal concepts convincingly. No better writer than Borges to successfully accomplish this however; anyone who can formulate the universe into hexagonal library rooms (as he did in ‘The Library of Babel’) is clearly adept at presenting the most complex ideas in a succinct and compelling way.

These days I am somewhat more objective about my love for Borgesian literature. Borges’ legacy is so widely encompassing it is hard to quantify its numerous and varied facets; but here are the areas that stand out for us in his vast contribution to literature:

Magical Realism and Surrealism

Borges’ work is full of monsters, alternate histories and fantasies, surreal stories that undermine traditionalist structures by their very eschewing of realism. Even if on the surface they may seem to be pure fantasy, Borges stories often twist reality (as in many entries in The Book of Imaginary Beings or A Universal History of Infamy), subvert it to comic effect, or warp reality in an absurdist manner, creating a new world which is then taken deadly seriously, literally, and in doing so reveals the absurdity of our own socially-constructed reality.

Experimental narratives

Borges is known for his postmodern story structures; meta-fictions that address issues of writing, art, creativity and lying, implying that reality itself is as constructed as our stories and myths. He writes pieces that illustrate the social and historical contingency of writing, such as ‘Pierre Menard, Author of the Quijote’ (a theme he also addresses in the essay ‘Kafka and his Precursors’, further blurring the distinction between fiction and criticism).

Other experiments with narrative form include ‘The Theme of the Traitor and the Hero’, a story disguised as the précis of a novel (also involving revolutionary Ireland!), or hoaxes such as his fake book reviews, which combine creation with the mischievous and postmodern wit that was his particular genius. If inventing stories is a form of lying, then what greater lie than to pretend not to be creating a story at all?


It is hardly surprising that Borges was a librarian. His love of books and learning is omnipresent in his writing, with motifs such as the library (‘The Library of Babel’), the encyclopaedia (‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius’) recurring with reassuring regularity. There is a circularity in a story about books destined to be printed in books, written by a man who will never read them by himself (Borges became blind mid-way through his career), but whose whole life was surrounded by them. Almost every novel, story, or film centered around a mysterious book or based in an antiquarian bookseller feels Borgesian to me.

Borgesian stories in 'The Future Fire'

Given the great man’s range, we should think a bit about what would make a short story written today “Borgesian”. Recent authors who deserve this soubriquet might include mischievous and postmodern writers such as Umberto Eco and Salman Rushdie, cheeky and not afraid to be clever, always confounding expectations; writers such as Isabelle Allende and Ursula K. Le Guin who have adopted the sheer beauty and poetry of writing as core to everything they do; authors who exhibit the wicked inventiveness and bibliophilia in their twisted works, like Jonathan Carroll, Neil Gaiman and Clive Barker; absurdist fantasists like Rhys Hughes; and writers of mercilessly mocking, political meta-narratives like Joanna Russ. Many other authors who work in the genres of magical realism, surrealism, postmodern/metafiction, fantasy have drawn from the infinite library of Borges’ inspiration. These writers have helped to make our reception of Borges what it is today: as he himself said in ‘Kafka and his Precursors’, “every writer creates his precursors.”

At another level, every author who lets their writing, while beautiful and exciting, reflect an undiluted political sensibility, could be deemed ‘Borgesian.’ Although Jorge Luis Borges himself was a social conservative, and we at TFF tend to a more progressive and speculative approach, his sensitivity to the social and political relevance in all stories, without needed to slap the reader in the face with it, is something we admire and encourage.

If you have written something “Borgesian” in any of the senses above; or if you want to try something unusual in structure or format or medium; or if you want to write a story that is disguised as a book review, as an exchange of blog posts, as a social media phenomenon; or if you want to publish a fake review of a nonexistent book in a reviews blog or a nonfiction section... Call us. I mean it—we are especially fond of this type of thing. (It’ll have to be good, as everything does, but we really are willing to be playful.)


Djibril said...

It's really hard to pin down what we mean by Borgesian, and you've done a great job here, Regina, by highlighting points such as bibliophilia and his cheeky, experimental games. As you know, Bruce and I have always cited Borges as one of our principal inspirations for the founding of TFF. Borges was arguably more of a philosopher and literary critic than he was a speculative fiction writer; rather like Nietzsche, he wrote in a creative, paradoxical way that was meant to educate the reader, to *show* his conclusions and beliefs more than to explain to scholars and bibliographers where in the critical tradition he placed himself. (Although both of course did that too.)

It's probably no surprise to any reader of TFF that I would argue a science fiction writer is as much as sociologist as she is a mere entertainer or literary creator. We can be more or less overt about the fact that we're playing games with the reader; can focus to a greater or lesser degree on the sheer beauty and poetry of the language (not that the two are mutually exclusive--it can be a sheer delight to recognize when an author is playing with you). At the end of the day we recognize, with ol' Jorge, that no writing is complete without mixing medium and message in a messy cephalopodaean embrace of delight and intensity.

Rhys said...

Borges, Calvino and Lem were the greatest writers of the 20th century, to my way of thinking; and without Borges the other two would not have existed in the form that they did.

I have just been asked an intriguing question: "Would you also agree (to paraphrase Borges), that we would not respond
to Borges the way we do without the other two (Calvino and Lem)?"

Yes, perhaps so. This would be a case of a self-fulfilling retroactive prophecy perhaps? Or something along those lines!