Murder and mind games: The Cambridge Companion to Jorge Luis Borges
A new companion to the work of the great fabulist conveys the richness and depth of his writing
On display: a cutout of Jorge Luis Borges at a book fair in Buenos Aires. Photograph: Daniel Garcia/AFP/Getty
The Cambridge Companion to Jorge Luis Borgess
Cambridge University Press
In a story called The Dead Man the Argentinean author Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986) writes about a character who emerges from a shabby working-class district of Buenos Aires to challenge for the leadership of an elite gang of cattle-rustlers on the Argentine-Brazilian border, as well as for the affections of the incumbent boss’s girlfriend.
The aspiring thug, however, does not realise that his boss has already seen through his scheming, allowing him to dwell under the illusion that the leadership of the group is potentially in his grasp.
He eventually gets his comeuppance when the boss humiliates him in front of the rest of the gang by insisting that he kiss the girl, whom he has lusted after for months. He suffers the ignominy of total defeat and realises not only that he will never become the leader of the gang but also that his every manoeuvre had been read accurately all along. He is now obliged to carry out a farcical caricature of victorious possession as a prelude to being shot.
Borges’s inspiration for this story was his own fascination with the world of hoodlums and gangsters and an acquaintance with a Buenos Aires big shot called Nicolas Paredes. But the stories for which he is most famous – and which led Susan Sontag to declare in 1982 that “there is no writer living today who matters more to other writers than Borges” – are of a very different genre, being philosophical thought experiments such as The Library of Babel or The Garden of Forking Paths.
Composed mainly in the late 1930s and early 1940s, these often posit the existence of strange metaphysical other worlds in which the normal rules of life do not apply, or in which we are invited to speculate about what things might be like if some strange fact turned out to be the case.
The key conceit in the story Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius, for example, is the notion of a universe in which there are no material objects. In Funes and His Memory it is the idea of a man who can remember literally everything. The core fantasy in another story, The Aleph, is a tiny orb in which we can witness scenes from the entire universe, while The Library of Babel is about a world in which every book it is possible to write has been written.
With justification, Borges’s work has been deemed highly intellectual, esoteric and ethereal, and the fact that many of his short stories are disguised as essays, or rather the fact that he blurs the boundaries between fictional and factual writing, has added to his reputation as a difficult and, allegedly, detached and inhuman, writer. Nonetheless, as generations of readers have enjoyed the stories, and as they have inspired so many other works – from paintings and sculptures to Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, to the 1999 film The Matrix – we may take it that Borges continues to have something to say about the way we are and the way we live.
Violence and philosophyThe two ambiences that characterise Borges’s work – the visceral, daunting world of easy violence and machismo, and the highly reflective, academic world of philosophical theorising and theological speculation – created for Borges the tension that exists in many of his short stories, poems and essays. He avoided the tedium of writing novels, preferring to imagine that a novel already existed and then to write a critical commentary on it.
Some pieces had elements of both worlds in them. This is the case in Death and the Compass, for instance, a little story that helped change the history of the detective genre, in which a Poirot-style sleuth figures out where and when a murder is to be committed by detecting what he sees as a pattern of killings based around the four letters of the name of God in the Kabbalah.
But the detective, Erik Lönnrot, fails to realise that he himself is the intended victim and goes to the location in question at the time he correctly predicts the next murder will take place. Ever the arch-intellectual, Lönnrot then expresses his admiration for the murderer’s cleverness and concedes that he has been outwitted, only asking his killer that, if they ever meet again in another life, he use a simpler labyrinth in which to trap his victim.
In fact intellectual preoccupations and casual killings come together in many of Borges’s stories, including The Garden of Forking Paths, set during the first World War. In it, a Chinese man working as a spy for Germany must convey to his military bosses back in Berlin the name of a French town called “Albert”, where the British forces have stored their artillery, in order to enable the Germans to bomb the town.
The spy, Yu Tsun, reckons the best way to achieve this, in the days before computers or the ready availability of telephones, is to kill a renowned English sinologist called Stephen Albert. By murdering Albert, and surrendering to the police, he gets his own name into the newspapers alongside that of Albert, confident that his boss in Berlin will work out the coded message and know what town to target.
The ploy works, and the Germans bomb the right town. In the course of the assassination, however, Yu Tsun has an intriguing intellectual conversation with his intended victim, discussing an enigmatic novel left by one of Yu Tsun’s ancestors that anticipates the theory of multiple universes.
Borges, as well as being profoundly knowledgeable about literature, was fascinated by the advances in mathematics in the early 20th century, especially by mathematical abstractions such as notions of the infinite. In this Cambridge Companion, Floyd Merrell outlines the way Borges’s stories reveal a concern with nominalism and realism that reflects modern mathematicians’ investigations of those phenomena, as well as exploring the links between the stories and scientific advances such as quantum theory.
In The Aleph, for example, the paradox of the tiny sphere within which the entire universe is visible is that the person who observes the sphere is also part of the universe that he can now observe in toto. Merrell quotes Erwin Schrödinger to the effect that, in the context of quantum physics, “subject and object are only one. The barrier between them cannot be said to have broken down . . . for this barrier does not exist”, and juxtaposes this with a conversation between Shakespeare and God that Borges invents in another of his stories. Shakespeare laments the fact that, having created a universe of characters, he realises that he himself is nobody, a kind of nonperson, to which God replies that he has the same problem: “I dreamed the world as you, Shakespeare, dreamed your own work, and among the forms of my dream are you, who like me are many, and yet no one.”
Borges himself was often depicted as standing aloof from social and economic realities. Borges’s controversial interventions in public debates in the late 1970s and early 1980s did not help endear him to liberal or left-oriented critics and commentators, especially when he appeared to approve of the military juntas that had seized power in South American countries in that period, including the repressive regime of the venal Gen Pinochet in Chile.
Humanist approachBut if we attend to what his artistic works convey, rather than his poorly thought-out political pronouncements, we see a fundamentally humanist approach to such issues, and can detect an acute anxiety about the dangers of totalitarianism. He was an ardent opponent of Peronism, and suspicious of the populism associated with it, tinged as it was with anti-Semitism and pro-Axis sentiments. He had little time for Argentineans who expressed support for the Hitler regime, and to it he opposed a genuine admiration for Germany and German culture, of which he had a profound knowledge.
The breadth of the current Companion is wide, and it contains essays that address postcolonial, Jewish and Islamic themes in Borges’s work, as well as examining particular volumes of his poetry and short stories, and even certain intriguing Irish connections. Some of the most prominent experts on the writer contribute to the book, and although they take divergent approaches and offer varying interpretations, they convey, in mostly jargon-free language, the richness and depth of Borges’s writings.
As a result, this volume serves as an intelligent and stimulating guide to the work of one of the most influential authors of the 20th century.