Inverarity (inverarity) wrote,

Book Review: Labyrinths, by Jorge Luis Borges

One-line summary: A collection of short stories and other writings by an author woefully unfamiliar in the English-speaking world.


Goodreads: Average: 4.46. Mode: 5 stars.
Amazon: Average: 4.5. Mode: 5 stars.

If Jorge Luis Borges had been a computer scientist, he probably would have invented hypertext and the World Wide Web.

Instead, being a librarian and one of the world's most widely read people, he became the leading practitioner of a densely layered imaginistic writing style that has been imitated throughout this century, but has no peer (although Umberto Eco sometimes comes close, especially in Name of the Rose).

Borges's stories are redolent with an intelligence, wealth of invention, and a tight, almost mathematically formal style that challenge with mysteries and paradoxes revealed only slowly after several readings. Highly recommended to anyone who wants their imagination and intellect to be aswarm with philosophical plots, compelling conundrums, and a wealth of real and imagined literary references derived from an infinitely imaginary library.

Cross-posted to bookish and books1001.

Before reading this book, I was vaguely aware that Jorge Luis Borges was a big name in Latin American literature, often associated with the "magical realism" school made famous by Gabriel García Márquez, but I had no idea that he was equally an admirer of Edgar Allen Poe and H.G. Wells. Most of his fiction is considered modernist and/or magical realist (if I'm being vague with terms, it's cause I wasn't a Comp Lit major and all I know of literary theory is what I skim off of Wikipedia), but going through this collection, I found stories that could easily be classified as sci-fi/fantasy as well, albeit with a spin that makes them reminiscent of yet totally different from Borges's early contemporaries like Wells, Lovecraft, and Derleth.

Borges has a lot of recurring themes. There's a labyrinth of some kind to be found in almost all of his writing. Most of his stories manifest some form of Zeno's paradox. He often comes back to the idea of time being only now -- the past and the future don't exist. He extends this idea to memories, to space. Libraries and books have magical, mythical properties. He likes tigers (or jaguars, or leopards). He uses symbolism and metaphor in ways that will twist your head around.

Labyrinths is a collection of his short stories -- for which he was most famous -- essays, and parables. It's something anyone who likes any of the other authors I've just mentioned should enjoy, and yet it's easy to see why Borges has been neglected by Lovecraft and Poe fans who would probably eat him up if they knew who he was. Until the 1960s he was practically unknown in the U.S. and rarely translated into English, but even since then, he's been kept tightly in the box labeled "Latin American literature," which is rarely opened by anyone outside of academic departments. Which is a shame, because I would have eaten Borges up when I was teenager reading everything I could find by Lovecraft, Derleth, Howard, and Poe... even though I probably wouldn't have understood a lot of his writing. It must be said that Borges isn't a pulp fantasy writer, and his stories are heavier, more literary, and, I suspect, inevitably lose something in the translation. But the horribly dense preface by André Maurois of the French Academy, followed by an equally dense introduction by Borges's translator, James E. Irby, doesn't help, practically flashing a warning sign at genre fans: "Keep out! This is high-falutin' literary shit here, we don't want no fannish riff-raff putting your grubby little fanboy fingers on these pages!"

The latest edition adds an intro by science fiction author William Gibson, so somebody finally wised up. But I found my local library's yellowed copy deep in the "Latin American writers" section, and at Borders, let's face it, the "Literature" section is a ghetto people pass by on the way to all the pretty tattoed vampire-people. Just think how many more readers Borges would have if he was sitting between Bloch and Burroughs on the SF&F shelf.


As far as I know, Borges never wrote a full-length novel, and most of his stories are quite short (less than ten pages). So this book has dozens of them. Am I going to comment on every single one of them? Why yes, yes I am. Haven't you come to expect long-ass teal deer book reviews from me by now?

Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius

This peculiar story details the language, philosophy, culture, and religion of the fictional country of Uqbar on the fictional world of Tlön which has been created and documented in a series of books by a secret society of intellectuals. These books are described by the narrator as he goes about trying to track down the real and the unreal concerning Tlön. It reminded me of Mark Z. Danielewski's House of Leaves, another odd, multi-layered story about a meticulously-documented fiction. (I suspect the resemblance is not coincidental: in House of Leaves, labyrinths are a recurring theme, and after reading this book I'd be surprised indeed if Danielewski is not a Borges fan.)

The Garden of Forking Paths

This story started out as an almost-normal mystery/thriller: Yu Tsun, a Chinese professor of English living in Britain during World War I, is also a spy for Germany. Pursued by a British officer, he flees to the house of Dr. Stephen Albert, who turns out to be familiar with one of Yu Tsun's ancestors, who was writing a novel and constructing a labyrinth before he was murdered. At this point things get even more complicated, but among other things the story veers into a discussion of what veteran sci-fi fans would call "alternate timelines," the idea that every decision or random event creates different branches along the path of time, which leads to more branches, and so on. Then you get a "Wait, what?" twist ending.

The Lottery in Babylon

In mythical Babylon, a lottery was created, at first just like lotteries we are familiar with, where you buy a ticket for a chance to win a prize. But soon the lottery governed every aspect of life in Babylon, governed by the Company which managed it. Which may or may not have existed. Is the lottery a metaphor for free will vs. determinism? Random chance? God? Like many of these stories, it's hard to summarize without explaining it completely, but this was both a creepy and thought-provoking story.

Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote

This is a satirical literary "review" of the work of (fictional) French author Pierre Menard, who wrote a word-for-word duplication of Cervantes' Don Quixote. The review includes elaborate literary references to real and fictitious works, reminding me again of House of Leaves. The great joke of this piece is the author's claim that Menard's copy is a work of greater genius than Cervantes' original, but there's an even greater irony wrapped within the joke. And probably a few others that I missed.

The Circular Ruins

A magician travels to a ruined temple in the jungle, and sets out to create a real person in his dreams. This is another freaky story with a twist ending that comes a little closer to Poe/Lovecraft fantasy.

The Library of Babel

The universe (which others call the Library) is composed of an indefinite and perhaps infinite number of hexagonal galleries, with vast air shafts between, surrounded by very low railings. From any of the hexagons one can see, interminably, the upper and lower floors. The distribution of the galleries is invariable. Twenty shelves, five long shelves per side, cover all the sides except two; their height, which is the distance from floor to ceiling, scarcely exceeds that of a normal bookcase. One of the free sides leads to a narrow hallway which opens onto another gallery, identical to the first and to all the rest.

This story is a literary mindfuck for mathematicians, or a mathematical mindfuck for librarians. It's P = NP? fanfic. It's science fiction about the infinite monkey theorem. It's Gödel, Escher, Bach in eight pages.

It's also inspired some of the coolest illustrations.

Funes the Memorious

A man suffers a paralyzing accident, after which he becomes capable of perfect recall and perception. A one-line summary doesn't do justice to all the concepts Borges packs into this short-short story, like information theory and constructed languages and the nature of memory and perception and cognition.

The Shape of the Sword

This is one of the more straightforward stories, though like most of Borges' stories, it ends with a twist. The narrator tells a story (to Borges) about a man named Moon, a Marxist dialectician who joins a group of Irish Republican soldiers who save his life. It would be difficult to say more without spoilers.

Theme of the Traitor and the Hero

This story starts out as a sort of meta-story -- Borges describes a potential story, which he sets arbitrarily in Ireland, about a man who discovers that his great-grandfather, a hero, was actually a traitor. He is killed in a manner similar to that of Julius Caesar, and goes about trying to make his death a mirror image of Caesar's, thereby demonstrating that all of history is duplicative.

This story was supposedly the basis for an obscure Italian film called The Spider's Strategem, (which, if you are so inclined, you can watch here).

Death and the Compass

This is a bizarre (typically Borgesian) murder mystery that begins with the murder of a rabbi. The detective in charge, Erik Lönnrot, rejects the obvious explanation, that there was a room full of gems next door to the rabbi:

"Possible, but not interesting," Lönnrot answered. "You'll reply that reality hasn't the least obligation to be interesting. And I'll answer you that reality may avoid that obligation but that hypotheses may not. In the hypothesis that you propose, chance intervenes copiously. Here we have a dead rabbi; I would prefer a purely rabbinical explanation, not the imaginary mischances of of an imaginary robber."

Using this sort of logic, Lönnrot starts studying the Tetragrammaton. More murders follow, and Lönnrot becomes convinced that he can predict the next one using kabbalistic principles. Lönnrot's nemesis, the master criminal Red Scharlach, eventually enters the story, leading to a darkly ironic confrontation. In a labyrinth, naturally.

This story was made into a 1996 film by Robert ("Repo Man") Cox, starring Peter Boyle and a pre-Who Christopher Eccleston. Being the only Borges-based movie I could find on Netflix, naturally I had to watch it.

It is very weird, a rather low budget production, putting the story in a Brazil-like near-future dystopia, yet remaining largely faithful to Borges's original story. Cox talks about the making of the film here. I like that he named the atheist editor of the Yidische Zaitung (who is nameless in Borges's story) "Alonso Zunz." (See Emma Zunz, below).

The Secret Miracle

Jaromir Hladik is the author of an unfinished drama (unfinished/imaginary literary works are another common theme in Borges's stories) when the Nazis enter Prague, and arrest him for his Jewish ancestry and pour encourager les autres. He prays to God to allow him to finish his work before he is executed. His prayer is granted... in a typically Borgesian way.

Director Christopher Nolan cited this story as one of his inspirations for Inception.

Three Versions of Judas

Another fictitious literary critique about a fictitious author's fictitious works -- this time, it's a fictitious Swedish author named Nils Runeberg who wrote three heretical reinterpretations of the role of Judas. I found this story somewhat less entertaining, as I missed the satire, and thus it would have read like a real piece of literary critique if I didn't know it was fictional (such as the fact that Borges cites Jaromir Hladik, from The Secret Miracle). But the actual "versions" of Judas in Runeberg's (non-existent) books are rather interesting and theologically intriguing. It's hard to tell if Borges had his tongue in cheek here, but I think he was actually exploring themes that I largely missed.

The Sect of the Phoenix

This story was fantastical but neither magical nor disturbing like some of his other fantasy short stories. It's more of a riddle, about a secret society that has existed since the beginning of civilization and which requires only a simple ceremony that its lowest-ranking members can perform to induct a new member. The sect is paradoxical -- it exists everywhere, it has no liturgies or books or tenets, and nothing unifies its members except the "Secret" they all have in common but which they've forgotten.

(I would take the Wikipedia page which purports to give the answer to the story's "riddle" with a grain of salt -- it's certainly a plausible explanation, but I'm not sure Borges meant it to be that straightforward.)

The Immortal

This was one of the most Lovecraftian of all the stories in this book. As the narrator recounts his quest for immortality, he describes trekking through deserts in search of the lost City of Immortals, which he finds, surrounded by a tribe of troglodytes:

It abounded in dead-end corridors, high unattainable windows, portentous doors which led to a cell or pit, incredible inverted stairways whose steps and ballustrades hung downwards. Other stairways, clinging airily to the side of a monumental wall, would die without leading anywhere, after making two or three turns in the lofty darkness of the cupolas. I do not know if all the examples I have enumerated are literal; I know that for many years they infested my nightmares; I am no longer able to know if such and such a detail is a transcription of reality or of the forms which unhinged my nights. "This City" (I thought) "is so horrible that its mere existence and perdurance, though in the midst of a secret desert, contaminates the past and the future, and in some way even jeopardizes the stars. As long as it lasts, no one in the world can be strong or happy." I do not want to describe it; a chaos of heterogeneous words, the body of a tiger or a bull in which teeth, organs and heads monstrously pullulate in mutual conjunctions and hatred can (perhaps) be approximate images.

Remind you of anything?

The Theologians

Another story much like Three Versions of Judas: it presents several fictitious heretical sects, and goes into sufficient detail about the "historical" figures and their beliefs and symbolism that one could be fooled into thinking it's an essay about real Christian heresies.

The Story of the Warrior and the Captive

Here, a parallel is drawn between a barbarian who died serving Rome, and an Englishwoman who was captured by Argentine Indians and chose to stay among them. More of an essay about civilization and the ties of society in the form of a short story, but the images -- Droctulft dying in the cause of Ravenna, and a thousand years later, a blue-eyed blonde Indian woman at an Argentine trading post -- make it more effective than a simple discourse about "What is civilization?"

Emma Zunz

Emma Zunz avenges her father's death by framing her victim for her own rape. Emma is actually quite a cunning and cold-blooded femme fatale, which surprised me as Borges mostly ignores women in his stories. In 1954, Borges wrote the screenplay for the film version: Días de Odio (Days of Hate):

There have been several movies made of this story -- none of them in English, and none of them, alas, available on Netflix. But you can find some of them on YouTube:

Or, if you prefer, a five-minute short starring the Sims . (It looks like an authentic recreation to me, but I don't speak Spanish.)

The House of Asterion

The narrator, Asterion, introduces himself and his house with a riddle, the answer to which is revealed at the end. It is, in fact, a retelling of a well-known myth. (Hint: remember Borges's favorite image.)

Deutsches Requiem

This is a narrative by Otto Dietrich zur Linde, a Nazi who has been sentenced to death for his part in running a Nazi concentration camp. Linde is not only unrepentant, but he writes an elaborate, twisted justification for the Nazis' crimes and his own lack of compassion. Oddly, it reminded me rather strongly of Ayn Rand's denunciation of altruism, though I'm sure that's not what Borges had in mind at all.

Averroes' Search

This story had something of a fairy tale feel to it, though it was actually another piece of fictional literary analysis about Abulgualid Muhammad Ibn-Ahmad ibn-Muhammad ibn-Rushd (aka Averroe), an Arab scholar who has trouble translating Aristotle's concepts of "tragedy" and "comedy." The story dips a bit into theology and linguistics.

The Zahir

The Zahir is a coin which comes to obsess the narrator. It turns into a disquisition about all coins, and obsessions, and perceptions of reality.

The Waiting

A very brief third-person tale about an unnamed man who adopts the name "Villari." It turns out that he is waiting for the real Villari -- the ending is, once again, a dark twist.

The God's Script

Here Borges delves into fantasy and speculative linguistics again. The narrator is a priest whom we are told once sacrificed victims with an obsidian knife, but now is imprisoned in a dungeon in a cell next to a jaguar. In the course of the story, he describes the God's script, the means by which all concepts can be expressed, which slowly he constructs in his mind during his long imprisonment, until he claims to know the formula of fourteen random words which will make him all powerful. All he has to do is utter them aloud, and he will be free.


The next part of Labyrinths consists of a number of essays by Borges, on topics ranging from Argentine literature to mythology. Most of these essays are mostly quite short (only two to three pages) and while some merit a discussion longer than the original essay, I'm going to spare you a summary of each one and just list them, as my summaries could only be woefully simplistic -- even Borges's essays are well worth reading for their full flavor and complexity. Warning, though: his essays are even more intellectual and thought-provoking than his short stories, but also less entertaining, and harder to digest. (About halfway through A New Refutation of Time, I started flashing back to some of my more miserable undergraduate reading assignments. It was interesting, but in a "my-eyes-are-glazing-over-am-I-stupid-or-is-this-just-some-funky-shit?" kind of way.)

  • The Argentine Writer and Tradition

  • The Wall and the Books

  • The Fearful Sphere of Pascal

  • Partial Magic in the Quixote

  • Valéry as Symbol

  • Kafka and His Precursors

  • Avatars of the Tortoise

  • The Mirror of Enigmas

  • A Note on (toward) Bernard Shaw

  • A New Refutation of Time


Labyrinths concludes with a series of parables -- not quite short stories, I'd almost call them drabbles, each one posing a brief scenario or problem in the same mythic, dreamlike prose of some of his more fantastic fictions. They hit all the themes Borges has covered in the preceding stories and essays -- infinity, literature vs. myth, cosmology, time -- all in ways that no lesser writer could explore in a few hundred words.

Verdict: This collection is not light reading. Even the shortest stories will require your full attention. But it's literary mind candy that spans science fiction, fantasy, horror, detective mysteries, literary critique, philosophy, theology, linguistics, and epistemology. I am frankly not sure I absorbed more than a fraction of what Borges was putting out, man -- it was, like, totally radical. Should you read this? Yes! It made my brain hurt, but in a good way. It also made me wish I could read Spanish in the same way that Haruki Murakami makes me wish I could read Japanese -- I am sure there is a lot that is lost in the translation.

This was the first book I completed for the books1001 challenge, and you can see this and other brilliant reviews there. We have 111 participants now, dedicated to reading and reviewing every book on the 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die list by the end of the year. Come join us!
Tags: books, books1001, fantasy, highly recommended, jorge luis borges, literary, reviews, science fiction


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