Jorge Luis Borges: A Maze of Surrealism

The writing of Jorge Luis Borges is like a Maze, a surrealistic maze. I read his book ‘Labyrinths’, a very good title to this collection of some of his classic short stories, essays and parables. The style of writing is unique and each of these are more complex than the previous. Borges was born in 1899, was educated in Europe and died in Geneva in 1986. Obviously he belonged to an earlier era. His education in Europe is reflected in his reading of classics that I have not even heard of. His writings continuously refer to these classic texts, characters in them and styles that are way beyond my grasp. I understand he created this style of writing referred to as the ‘hypertext fiction’. This style uses hyperlinks to refer to and move to a new context. This makes the reading difficult and complex. Imagine Borges using hyperlinks in an era long before the computer and software age! Today this is known as the genre of ‘electronic literature’. Obviously his style of writing was way ahead of the times. Unfortunately, Borges did not receive a Nobel Prize. Borges was nominated for the Nobel Prize in 1967, and was among the final three choices considered by the committee.

Borges work is no easy read. ‘Labyrinths’ contains some of his classics like ‘The Garden of Forking Paths’, ‘Tion, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius’ and ‘The lottery in Babylon’. Quixote appears often in his texts as in the essay ‘Partial Magic in the Quixote’ and in the short story ‘Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote’. The latter talks of Menard’s Quixote versus Miguel de Cervantes’, the actual author of Don Quixote. According to Borges, Menard was more subtle than Cervantes. In the essay ‘Partial Magic of Quixote’ he states ‘Cervantes takes pleasure in confusing the objective and the subjective, the world of the reader and the world of the book’. He quotes Cervantes, Shakespeare and even Valmiki’s Ramanyana to show that in these texts, the protagonist of the play or novel, are at the same time the readers of the play or novel! ‘Why does it disturb us that Don Quixote be a reader of the Quixote and Hamlet a spectator of Hamlet?’ And Borges find the reason: ‘these inversions suggest that the character of the fictional work can be its reader or spectator, and we its reader or spectator can be fictitious’. Borges philosophy of life was summed up when ‘in 1833, Carlyle observed that the history of the universe is an infinite sacred book that all men write and read and try to understand, and in which they are also written’! Now if that is not Don Quixote, what is?

While reading the essay ‘A New Refutation of Time’, I was suddenly struck by what it reminded me of. I spend about half and hour every evening on return from the University and before my Yoga class, switching channels to watch English movies. These could be British or from Hollywood. I often end up watching Sci-fi movies. In most of the stories America is in deep trouble and a He-Man comes to the rescue. These days there are She-Women too. Sometimes it is Artificial Intelligence (AI) taking over, robots becoming more human like and ruling the world/manipulating the humans, or the FBI/CIA manipulates the mind of the Agent. Now why did I go down this route while writing about Borges? Borges writings reminded me of the film ‘The Matrix’ which operates at various levels of the mind and with stories within stories. Borges writings also operate at various levels, jumping from one level to the next without warning, the genre of ‘hypertext’ fiction!

Moral of the Story: Read Borges at your own peril! It requires tremendous perseverance and sheer grit. I managed to read the entire collection in ‘Labyrinths’ from cover to cover perhaps due to the skills acquired as a ‘researcher’, of plodding through difficult text and enormous amount of data.

The mind plays tricks as well. So when you have made up your mind that the text of Borges is difficult to comprehend one tends to miss the rather simple narratives in his stories as well. A simple relatable story is titled ‘Emma Zunz’. it is a story of how a young girl avenges the death of her father. It is dramatic enough to have been made into a film. My colleague reminded me of the story in Labyrinths titled ‘Funes the Memorious’ and how impressed he was with it. So I went back and re-read it. It is the story of the boy Funes with an incredible memory. The story is narrated by a scholar of Latin and much else, who meets Funes as a child and is rather contemptuous of him. Funes is paralyzed later and at one point requests some complex Latin texts from the narrator. He obliges and when he goes back to collect them, he discovers that Funes has this incredible memory that can remember every slight movement and keep a record in his mind. He recites the texts of the book from his position on the cot on which he remains paralyzed! So much for our arrogance and conceit about the little knowledge we may posses! A very good lesson to academics who sometimes display arrogance without even a single publication on hand!

To end on a personal note on what piqued my curiosity about Borges writings? For a few months I attended weekly meetings of a ‘Writers Group’ in the British Council Library. I found myself in the company of kids aged 9+, teenagers and young adults. My writing was way too complex for them and their writing seemed juvenile to me. One young writer made, perhaps, a polite comment. She said my writing reminded her of Jorge Borges! That made me curious and I set out to explore. Having read his works it is obvious that Borges is way too profound a writer. But I think I get her point now. My text jumps about a bit, as you can see in this one, there is a lot of cross-referencing to others works or my own earlier writing. I am not exactly sure that she meant it as a compliment!

To conclude, in the essay ‘ A New Refutation of Time’, Borges ends with ‘Time is a river which sweeps me along, but I am the river; it is a tiger which destroys 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’. And I, unfortunately, am Jeemol Unni.

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