How to Read Borges

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I remember the first time I came across a Jorge Luis Borges short story. I was fifteen years old and, for many years, I had refused to read literature in Spanish. Growing up bilingual (and having more access to the Spanish language), I thought that my American Lit courses in high school were far more interesting than my Spanish Lit classes, but there was something about Borges that just made me fall in love with the Spanish language. He assembled stories in such a specific way that I couldn’t help myself from becoming mesmerized by his writing.

The short story was far shorter than any other short story I had ever read. “Borges y yo” featured a conversation between the narrative Borges and the real Borges. This encounter between the two selves of Borges opened my eyes to the richness and beauty of modern literature.

Fast-forward a decade and so much has changed! I have a PhD minor in Latin American literature, have taught Borges to undergrads a number of times, presented academic papers on his short stories, and have reread his works hundreds of times, including the story, “Borges y yo”, that introduced me to his literary repertoire.

However, I don’t think I’ve ever figured out a way to read Borgesian literature. His literature is so strange, confusing, and jarring at times, yet its allure will always capture my attention. I want to explore the ways in which we can approach his short stories, for better or for worse:

  1. Obsessions: Borges is obsessed with the same number of artifacts that make an appearance in his literary works over and over again: Mirrors, Reflections, Tigers, Secret Societies, Libraries, Mazes, Labyrinths, Encyclopedias, and so on. As a scholar, I have fallen in love with these same artifacts and will forever be indebted to Borges. When you start to read Borges, you need to understand that the philosophical reflections on these objects have to do with Borges’s own perception of the world.
  2. Detective Stories: I was inspired to write this post due to the fact that I’m teaching a Global Detectives course this semester. Borges was obsessed with detective stories. From Edgar Allan Poe’s Inspector Dupin to GK Chesterton’s Father Brown mysteries, he identified the fact that the world is a philosophical mystery. However, his criticism is that, unlike Dupin and Poirot, there is no real solution to the mystery. In fact, perhaps the mystery is better left unsolved.
  3. Combination of Literary Forms: Borges writes in such a specific way. His writing style obviously ranges from his beginnings as an avant garde poet to a successful fiction writer. His short stories may read like academic essays, his academic essays can be read as fiction and his prose style is definitely poetic. As soon as you identify these common threads, you have a distinct connection to his writing style.
  4. Philosophy: Borges was an avid reader and he seemed to favor German and American philosophy. With allusions to Martin Heidegger and John Dunne, Borges delved into ideas of time, dreams, and being throughout his literary works.

This isn’t meant to be an in-depth guide for Borges, but rather a way to identify what makes his fiction so peculiar. How does he manage to evoke such complex feelings? What is the recipe for his literature? What changes do we perceive in his speculative fiction that don’t show up in our world?

These all may be rhetorical questions, but after many years of studying Borges, I still don’t have a one-sentence answer to any of them. Borges, as an author, exploits the Spanish language in such a concise complex way…and, perhaps, that’s the shortest answer I could ever give you.

 

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