Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Borges, Jorge Luis

(1899-1986) Argentine poet, librarian, essayist and short-story writer, a central figure in the explosive growth of Latin American literature; he was also central – since the 1960s, when he began to appear widely in translation – to 20th-century literature as a whole. His importance to fantasy is seminal, though he wrote no novels and relatively few of his short stories settle themselves with any security of tenure in anything remotely resembling the Secondary Worlds or Crosshatches common to modern fantasy. His huge influence on writers of fantasy and sf lies, like Gene Wolfe's, in his deeply inventive and suggestive manipulation of certain Symbols, which include the fictional Book, the Double, the protagonist who is the Dream of another, the Library, the Imaginary Land, the Labyrinth, the Mirror . . . But his profound sense of Belatedness – his sense that everything he wrote was a plagiarism or Parody of earlier texts, and that no Story could be told again, merely aped – led him never to tell any tale in which the entrapments and labyrinthine illusions of Reality are genuinely penetrated by the Hero. In JLB's work, there are no genuine Portals out of the maze of the world. In this he reflects a deeply gnostic sense (> Gnostic Fantasy) that to exist in the world is to have fallen from the Pleroma, or Primordial Being. All JLB's symbols represent Bondage, for not one of them can truly guide any protagonist out of here.

JLB was a precocious child, publishing scattered poems and stories by the teens of the century. His first published book – Fervor de Buenos Aires ["Passion of Buenos Aires"] (coll 1923 chap; rev 1969) – was poetry; his last containing original material – La cifra ["The Cipher"] (coll 1981) – was likewise. In his prose pieces the line between fiction and nonfiction early began to dissolve, and it is sometimes difficult without extra-textual perspectives to determine whether an essay (complete with scholarly apparatus) is only seeming to describe a real book, a real person, a real country, or whatever. But the essays assembled in Inquisiciones ["Inquisitions"] (coll 1925) and Otras inquisiciones (1937-1952) (coll 1952; exp 1960; trans Ruth L C Simms as Other Inquisitions 1937-1952 1964 US) are impressively acute studies, several of which concern the English-language writers – like G K Chesterton and H G Wells – for whom JLB felt the greatest admiration, though he could not imitate the first's faith or the latter's attempts to bestride the world.

Historia universal de la infamia (coll 1935; rev 1954; trans Norman Thomas di Giovanni as A Universal History of Infamy 1972 US) hovers between "genuine" nonfiction and essays on figures like Billy the Kid – "El asesino desinteresado Bill Harrigan" (here trans as "The Disinterested Killer Bill Harrigan") – which imperiously mythologize their subjects (> Magic Realism). The book also contains "Hombre de la esquina rosada" (1933; here trans as "Streetcorner Man"), JLB's first adult tale. His greatest fictions followed soon, eight of them being assembled in El jardin de senderos que se bifurcan ["The Garden of Forking Paths"] (coll 1942), which became Part One of Ficciones (coll 1944; exp 1956; trans Anthony Kerrigan et al 1962 US/UK). The 1944 edition of Ficciones (the 1956 edition is little changed) is one of the most important books of short stories published this century. Part One contains Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius (1941 Sur; trans Alastair Reed; new trans James E Irby 1983 chap Canada), "El acercamiento a Almotásim" (1935; trans Kerrigan as "The Approach to al-Mu'tasim"), "Pierre Menard, autor del Quixote" (1939; trans Anthony Bonner as "Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote"), "Las ruinas circulares" (1940; trans Bonner as "The Circular Ruins"), "La Lotería en Babilonia" (1941; trans Kerrigan as "The Babylon Lottery"), "Examen de la obra de Herbert Quain" (1941; trans Kerrigan as "An Examination of the Work of Herbert Quain"), "La biblioteca de Babel" (1941; trans Kerrigan as "The Library of Babel") and "El jardin de senderos que se bifurcan" (1941; trans Helen Temple and Ruthven Todd as "The Garden of Forking Paths"). In addition to some essays, Part Two (augmented in 1956) contains "Funes el memorioso" (1941; trans Kerrigan as "Funes the Memorious"), "La forma de la espada" (1941; trans Kerrigan as "The Form of the Sword"), "La muerte y la brújula" (1941; trans Kerrigan as "Death and the Compass") and "El Sur" (1953; trans Kerrigan as "The South").

Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius, which may be JLB's most famous single story, adduces apocryphal evidence from Johann Valentin Andreae (1586-1654; > Rosicrucianism) and others (including Adolfo Bioy Casares, who is purported to discover a mysterious encyclopedia) to argue for the existence of Uqbar, an Imaginary Land (somewhere towards the western side of Asia) whose literature in turn refers only to further imaginary lands like Tlön. Later, volume 11 of a second encyclopedia is discovered: A First Encyclopedia of Tlön, 1001 pages long (> Arabian Fantasy), describes an entire planet called Tlön (Uqbar is never mentioned again) for whose inhabitants ideas – metaphysics is a branch of fantastic literature – create Reality, "which is a kind of amazement". Meanwhile, it turns out that a society of Secret Masters on Earth not only generated the entire Encyclopedia (through which Tlön has been created) but is now preparing a new edition, written in a language of Tlön and tentatively called Orbis Tertius, whose writers (or "demiurges") will by this means transform Earth (> Fantasies of History) into Tlön, which is "a labyrinth plotted by men, a labyrinth destined to be deciphered by men". For there is no God; we are here, in a circular ruin, dreaming one another.

The other tales in the volume have a similar self-reflective density and air of entrapment. "Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote" describes the creation of a text identical to Miguel de Cervantes's but which (being written at a different point, even by a man totally immersed in his version of Cervantes's life and world) cannot be the same book. In "The Circular Ruins", a Wizard dreams a man into Reality only to discover that he, too, is being dreamed. "The Library of Babel" describes a Library which contains all possible combinations of words, but which is beyond human access. "Death and the Compass" depicts the ratiocination of a detective as a predetermined threading of a Labyrinth at whose heart awaits his Double and inevitable murderer. "Funes the Memorious" describes a man who, incapable of forgetting anything, can experience no new thing.

The stories assembled in JLB's next collection, El Aleph ["The Aleph"] (coll 1949; exp 1952), have been translated in various volumes, including Labyrinths: Selected Stories and Other Writings (coll trans various 1962 US; rev 1964) ed Donald A Yates and James E Irby, which also includes much of Ficciones, and The Aleph and Other Stories 1933-1969 (coll trans JLB and Norman Thomas di Giovanni 1970 US). "The Aleph" and "El Zahir" (here trans as "The Zahir") both deal with Magic objects that contain the whole Universe within them (> Little Big). "La casa de Asterión" (1947; here trans as "The House of Asterion") tells the story of the Minotaur from his own viewpoint. "El immortal" (1949; here trans as "The Immortal") complexly unveils a figure who may be Homer as well as other writers: a centurion who is on a Quest for the labyrinthine "City of the Immortals" (> City) which "contaminates" the future, and who is encased in Immortality, a terrible form of Bondage.

Later volumes – like El hacedor (coll 1960; trans Mildred Boyer and Harold Morland as Dreamtigers 1964 US), El Informe de Brodie (coll 1970; trans Norman Thomas di Giovanni as Doctor Brodie's Report 1972 US) and El Libro de Arena (coll 1975; trans Norman Thomas di Giovanni as The Book of Sand 1977 US) – tend to reiterate, sometimes in a more "realistic" vein, the pressing, subtle, pessimistic gnosticism of earlier work. A new note is perhaps struck in "Utopía de un hombre que está cansado" (trans in The Book of Sand as "Utopia of a Tired Man"), in which an old man (like JLB then) Timeslips into a desolate future where the will to make up realities has somehow desiccated, and then returns to the 20th century with a painting so faint it can hardly be deciphered.

With Adolfo Bioy Casares and Silvina Ocampo (1903-1993), JLB edited Antología de la literatura fantástica (anth 1940; rev 1965; again rev 1976; trans as The Book of Fantasy 1988 UK), whose 81 stories and fragments demonstrate the cosmopolitanism of the three editors, who were at the centre of Argentine literary life for many years.

JLB himself spoke to the century. [JC]

other works (selected): Seis problemas para don Isidro Parodi (coll 1942; trans Norman Thomas di Giovanni as Six Problems for Don Isidro Parodi 1981 US) with Bioy Casares; Manual de zoologia fantastica (1957; exp vt El libro de los seres imaginarios 1967; trans di Giovanni of exp, plus further revs, as The Book of Imaginary Beings 1969 US) (> Bestiaries); Antología personal (coll 1961; trans Anthony Kerrigan as A Personal Anthology 1967 US); Crónicas de Bustos Domecq (coll 1967; trans di Giovanni as Chronicles of Bustos Domecq 1976) with Bioy Casares; Borges: A Reader (trans coll 1981 US); Atlas (coll 1984; trans Kerrigan 1985 US).

Jorge Luis Borges


This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.