My infatuation with Latin American authors has grown into boundless admiration, bordering obsession. My fair share of Latin American literature so far includes Peruvian-Spanish Mario Vargas Llosa (Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, The Bad Girl), Colombian Gabriel Garcia Marquez (One Hundred Years of Solitude, Strange Pilgrims, Chronicle of a Death Foretold, Of Love and Other Demons, Love in the Time of Cholera and Dominican-American and only just becoming a hype Junot Diaz (Drown, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, This Is How You Lose Her. Amazing as they are (and indeed they are) after finishing Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges, I feel I have been reading Paolo Coelho until now (all reproach absolutely intended).
Of course, the name of Jorge Luis Borges always invoked in me a sense of something great, without ever having read something from him. For the first time ever I did it right (I think). I entered the world of Borges by reading his biography and attempting to figure out what kind of man, a person, a human being he was. And was he extraordinary! Born in Argentina, Borges moved to Europe with his family at the age of 15, spending nearly a decade living in Switzerland and Spain. Eventually he returned to his home country, feeling he doesn’t really know it or doesn’t really belong there. Borges set to himself the challenge to know or rediscover his roots, going on long walks by himself or with friends to understand and to appreciate Argentina. He was terrified by mirrors, he went nearly blind early in his life (due to an inherited illness from his father) and he was extremely foreign to and inexperienced with sexuality and women (although he did marry twice at a very old age, his second marriage weeks before he died at the age of 86). He spoke fluently multiple languages, he read Shakespeare in original at the age of 12 and he was simply put a pure genius. One, however, never to receive the Nobel Prize.
Labyrinths, a collection of short stories and essays by Borges, with its modest length of nearly 300 pages took me nearly 4 days to read. I am not ashamed to admit that probably half of it I didn’t even understand. I read and re-read and re-read certain passages and certain sentences while waiting in vain for the random people who, after their train broke down midway from Versailles to Paris, decided that the best way to get home is to walk. Along the lines. Anyway, I felt annoyed not because of the universe obviously playing games with my limited patience, but with the fact that Borges was so brilliant and so elusive. Whenever I actually grasped the meaning of what I was reading, I felt such pride only compared to the pride I felt a few days ago of actually showing some patience and persistence. Entering Borges’s world is entering a magical world, where the highly imaginative author blurs past and present, fiction and reality, knowledge and imagination. Where infinity coexists with time and space, where each and every word is carefully weighted and put in just the right place, where one is the reader, the protagonist and the writer all at once. There is everything in Borges’s fiction – philosophy, theology, physics, mathematics, our favourite paradoxes of Achilles and the turtle, the Zeno paradoxes, the infinity of the world questioned, examined, explained, only to be refuted in just the next sentence.
Among the short stories that inspired me the most:
Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote: A story about a fictional author, who recreated Cervantes’s epic novel word by word by simply immersing himself strongly into the story and the life of Cervantes, arriving at a much richer version of Don Quixote.
The Library of Babel: An infinite library of hexagonal rooms that contains the universe in the form of every coherent book that has ever been written or will ever be written. And it is still not enough.
Funes the Memorious: The fictional Borges meets a boy, who is able to recollect, remember and reconstruct every single thing that has every happened to him.
The Secret Miracle: Because a single minute can be as long as a year.
The Zahir: For an obsession can be anything. And an obsession is always bound to destroy you.
It’s a strong statement but I am convinced that every self-respecting human being should at least attempt to read something from Jorge Luis Borges. Even if you understand half of it, even a tiny little portion, it’s an enriching world of magic, a labyrinth, where you are sure you have found the exit door and you are suddenly more lost than ever, and an opportunity to enter the mindset of a pure genius of thought and logic.
Like all writers, he measured the achievements of others by what they had accomplished, asking of them that they measure him by what he envisaged or planned
…everything which can happen to a man, from the instant of his birth until his death, has been preordained by him. Thus, every negligence is deliberate, every chance encounter an appointment, every humiliation a penitence, every failure a mysterious victory, every death a suicide. There is no more skilful consolation than the idea that we have chosen our own misfortunes; this individual teleology reveals a secret order and prodigiously confounds us with divinity.
The greatest magician would be the one who would cast over himself a spell so complete that he would take his own phantasmagorias as autonomous appearances.