Literary Shelf

The Binoculars of Borges

"Time is the substance of which I am made.
Time is a river which sweeps me along, but I am the river;
it is a tiger which mangles me, but I am the tiger;
it is a fire which consumes me, but I am the fire.
The world, unfortunately, is real;
I, unfortunately, am Borges."

No Latin American writer of twentieth century has achieved such iconic status as the Argentinean writer Jorge Luis Borges (Pronounced as Bor-Hess. 1899-1986). This year marks the 110th birth Anniversary of this legendary writer. During his life, Borges wore many hats. He was, variously, a poet, an essayist, a short-story writer, a librarian, and, for a short time, a poultry inspector. As a hauntingly original essayist and short story writer, his three or four dozen short stories and essays is mentioned in the same breath with the tomes of Thomas Mann or James Joyce. This blind octogenarian (His was a particular kind of blindness, grown on him gradually since the age of 30 and settled in for good after his 58th birthday) became a legend in his own time so much so that ‘Borgesian’, eventually became a common neologism like the adjectives “Orwellian” or “Kafkaesque” .

In his life, Borges was an extremely shy person and possessed an exceptional modesty that makes him endearing. Though a supreme writer, he always underrated his writings as an escape from the boredom of a blind man. I can vouch his humility from reading the countless interviews that appears in the book , “Conversations with Borges”. His face lights up when anyone praises his work; yet he habitually conveys the deep stillness of a man with few illusions about himself or the world. He also conveys sweetness and wisdom, those refinements of perception that sometimes accompany old age. "Beside real short story writers," he says, "my stories hardly exist."

Perhaps no writer of modern times was as bookish and multilingual as Borges. His aristocratic upbringing, cosmopolitan outlook and exposure to different cultures gave him a universal mind. As a precursor of the "Magical Realists", he ingeniously mixed philosophy, fact, fantasy and mystery in his stories. They are written in dense and challenging prose. Unlikely images and situations are woven into a richly complex tapestry that arouses questions of identity and the self, of reality and the possibility for dreams.

Intellectual Labyrinths , time, space, infinity, memory, mirrors (Borges delights in the multiplicity of things; he is fascinated with mirrors because they multiply) and libraries are some of the principal themes in his works. Borges' stories take place in a world that is half commonplace, half fantastic. Dreams occur within dreams; time loses its significance. What counts is momentary impulse and observation.

Economy, grace, humor and precise sounding historical and referential details and ingenious plots are hall marks of his style. The great Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa in his “Letters to a young Novelist” lauds Borges as the greatest prose stylist in Spanish language. He says, “Borges’s style is unmistakable and functions extraordinarily well, giving life and credibility to a world of sophisticated intellectual and abstract ideas and curiosities. In this world, philosophical systems, theological disquisitions, myths and literary symbols, reflection and speculation, and universal history are the raw material of invention. Borges’s style adapts itself to its subject matter and merges with it in a powerful alloy, and the reader feels from the first sentences of his stories and of many of his essays that these works have the inventive and sovereign quality of true fictions, that they could have been told in this way, in this intelligent, ironic, and mathematically precise language-not a word too few, not a word too many-with its cold elegance and aristocratic defiance, privileging intellect and knowledge over sensation and emotion, playing with erudition, making a technique of presumption, eluding all sentimentality, and ignoring the body and sensuality”. Vargas Llosa says that Spanish was suddenly "purified," "intellectualized" by the inimitable prose style of Borges.

Among his stories, my personal favorites are, “The Aleph”, “Garden of Forking Paths”, “Death and the Compass”, “Pierre Menard”, “The secret Miracle” and “The Circular Ruins”. Let us dwell on the themes in some of them . In his story “Funes the Memorious”, a gaucho is confined to bed for the rest of his life after being thrown by a horse. He hardly cares. The fall has miraculously sharpened his perception so that his memories are boundless: "He knew by heart the forms of the Southern clouds on the 30th of April, 1882, and could compare them in his memory with the mottled streaks on a book in Spanish binding he had only seen once and with the outlines of the foam raised by an oar in the Rio Negro the night before the Quebracho uprising." Borges contrasts this world of heightened perceptions due to total memory with the real world of clumsy generalizations.

Another famous story titled “The Aleph” tells about a point in space that contains all other points. Anyone who gazes into it can see everything in the universe from every angle simultaneously, without distortion, overlapping or confusion . The story explores his fascination with infinity. And in an imaginative murder mystery called ‘The Garden of Forking Paths’, considered as one of his best, time is envisioned as a complex network of planes on which spatial events may occur independently of one another—unless, of course, the planes happen to intersect accidentally.

Burges’ fictional universe was born from his vast and esoteric readings in literature, philosophy, and theology. He sees man's search for meaning in an infinite universe as a fruitless effort. In the universe of energy, mass, and speed of light, Borges considers the central riddle time, not space. He believed in an infinite series of times, in a growing, dizzying net of divergent, convergent and parallel times. This network of times which approached one another, forked, broke off, or were unaware of one another for centuries, embraces all possibilities of time.

In the story “Death and the Compass”, murders in the four corners of Paris are matched to the four Hebrew letters of the name of God. The killer in this story leaves clues indicating religious motives: a distortion of kabalistic tradition in which murders reveal the divine name, letter by letter. Seeing that the first three murders form an equilateral triangle on the map and took place at regular intervals, the detective Erik Lonnrot pinpoints the time and place of the final murder, only to discover he has been set up for a trap: A common outlaw has lured Lonnrot there to murder him. The detective knows this but he is so fascinated by the pattern that he goes anyway, thus solving the mystery of his own murder.

One of Borges’s most famous stories ,‘The Circular Ruins’, unfolds a pitch-perfect fable of riddling existence in the twentieth century . A wizard retreats from the world to a location that possesses strong mystical powers: the circular ruins. There, the wizard tries to create another human being from his own dreams. Sleeping and dreaming longer and longer each day, the magician dreams of his young man becoming educated, and wiser. After time, though, the wizard can no longer find sleep, and he deems his first attempt an inevitable failure. After many sleepless nights, the wizard dreams of a heart; vaguely at first, but more and more clearly each night. Years pass and the wizard creates the boy piece by piece, in agonizing detail. The wizard calls upon the god Fire to bring his creation to life. Fire agrees, as long as the wizard accustoms his creation to the real world, and that only Fire and the wizard will be able to tell the creation from a real human. His creation is sent to a distant temple of the god Fire, and becomes famous as, because it is not real, it can walk through fire unharmed. The wizard hears of this, but at length he awakes to find the ruins ablaze. As he ultimately walks into the flaming house of Fire, the wizards notices that his skin does not burn. "With relief, with humiliation, with terror, he understands that he too was a mere appearance, dreamt by another.

The color and grace of his stories lies in his use of marvelous adjectives . For example, look at the line , “No one saw him disembark in the unanimous night” which is the opening line in the story ,“The Circular Ruins”. What an odd adjective, “unanimous”. It is so odd, in fact, that one is sorely tempted to put something like “all-encompassing”, so as to make it “comprehensible” to the reader. Similarly many such weird adjectives and adverbs , violent and unexpected metaphors such as “"the readers at their studious lamps", “nebulous grey beard”, “concave hands”, “immortal monkey”, “Clouds of smoke which rusted the metal of the nights” are sprinkled in his fiction and poetry . Disparate imageries and clinical contextual details in describing a place sometimes create a surreal landscape reminiscent of a Dali. The overall effect of his language is simply magical.

The unemphatic style of Borges often achieves effects with a single exploding word or phrase, dropped almost as though off-handedly into a quiet sentence: "He examined his wounds and saw, without astonishment, that they had healed." This laconic detail "without astonishment", coming at the very beginning of "The Circular Ruins", will probably only at the end of the story be recalled by the reader, who will, retrospectively, see that it changes everything in the story; it is quintessential Borges. Borges' writing has often been called intellectual, and indeed it is dense with allusion. But it is also simple: the sentences are almost invariably classical in their symmetry, in their balance.

To conclude, Borges was a world-class artist-a brilliant, lyrical miniaturist, an uncomplicated genius who could pose the great questions of existence on the head of a pin. Reading him might alter the way you look at everything, including yourself. The perfection of his language, the extent of his knowledge, the universalism of his electrifying ideas, the originality and inventiveness of his fiction, and the beauty of his poetry still continue to enchant the literary minds all over the world.


More by :  P. G. R. Nair

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