We go highbrow for this week’s edition of Why You Should Read… Today I want to welcome a giant from the world of book blogging, someone who needs little introduction: Larry from OF Blog of the Fallen. As is his wont, Larry has chosen to talk about one of those authors who have been an influence on those writing in modern times: Jorge Luis Borges.
Jorge Luis Borges was one of the greatest 20th century storytellers. An Argentine short story writer, poet, and essayist, Borges’ stories have been read by millions of readers across the globe in dozens of languages. But why should a fantasy or SF reader read Borges’ works?
I recently spent about five weeks in late June/July writing commentaries on about three dozen works of his that have been published. In several of those commentaries, discussing his major short fiction works (The Universal History of Infamy, Ficciones, The Aleph, Dreamtigers, Brodie’s Report, The Book of Sand, and Shakespeare’s Memory), I focused on several areas where Borges influenced recent Anglo-American fantasists. Ever read any of Gene Wolfe’s stories where the protagonists seem to be in a sort of textual labyrinth? Wolfe has cited Borges as an influence on his work? Ever read China Miéville’s novella, The Tain, where mirror creatures escape their prisons and take over the world? That story riffs off of short pseudo-encyclopedic entry in Borges’ The Book of Imaginary Beings. Fans of Jeff VanderMeer’s Ambergris stories know that at the heart of Ambergris lies the Borges Bookstore, and that Borges isn’t American football coach Al Borges.
What is it about Borges’ stories that influenced these talented writers? After all, Borges never wrote a solo story that was much longer than 10,000 words. One key to understanding Borges is the realization that he had a fertile imagination, one that would ask “what if” to some of the more strange situations that could be imagined. What if one could try to read Judas’ mind? Would we see a different origin to that most infamous betrayal? What if someone could have a truly unforgettable memory? Funes the Memorable is in turns an answer to that and one of the more subtly horrific stories one could ever read. What if the Cabala had some elements of truth to it? What if there were a library full of infinite books and the possibilities of books? Or what if there were a single book with infinite pages, with no beginning or conclusion?
Are you beginning to become a bit more curious now? Couple those intriguing situations with short, direct, and yet evocative prose. Borges did not create characters as much as he allowed readers to become the characters. In one famous story, “Pierre Menard,” he had the titular character attempt not the copying of Cervantes’ Don Quixote, but instead for Menard to become Cervantes, writing Don Quixote anew in the 20th century, with so many subtextual meanings contained within that fact. His stories often feel like dreams, and this is most especially true in his 1960 story, “Dreamtigers,” which at barely a page is one of the most moving representations of the power of dreams that I have ever read.
Too often people praise Borges as being a “genius,” forgetting that such labels can make several readers feel as though they would have to climb a literary Mount Everest to understand what is transpiring. Borges’ writings are not like that. If anything, his ”genius” is that he created so many wonderful stories that are at their hearts just simple musings that you or I might have during a daydream. It is not hard at all to follow what is being said, as he writes beautifully, but in a very clear and direct prose that is devoid of florid speech. Instead, Borges allows us to complete the dots, cross the T’s, and to forge our own understandings of what has transpired. It is this ability of us completing and interpreting his written-down prose/dreams that makes for a rather unique reading experience, one that is fantastical in so many senses of the word. Borges wrote fantasies, not those set in a sub-created imagined place, but instead those that exist as remembrances of dreams, dreams that have the power to move us still. If you’ve ever had a vivid dream and tried to share it with another, if you’ve ever wanted to allow your imagination to wander unfettered along dreamscapes, then Jorge Luis Borges is the author for you.