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Labyrinths - Jorge Luis Borges

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Author: Jorge Luis Borges / Format: Paperback / Date of publication: 28 September 2000 / Genre: Romance / Subcategory: Adult & Contemporary Romance / Publisher: Penguin Books Ltd / Title: Labyrinths / ISBN 13: 9780141184845 / ISBN 10: 0141184845

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      04.03.2002 23:31
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      The cover of latest edition of this book depicts rows of people with their backs turned to the viewer. It is a cold, uninviting cover, one that should be on a Kafka or an Orwell, not a Borges. Picking up the edition that I own, you get a far better idea of what this book is about. We are looking up a spiral staircase toward a painted ceiling of heaven, or perhaps looking down the staircase, to the floor of a forgotten library. Maybe even we are looking at a mirrored floor, which reflects a staircase above us. We could be on a stairway to the heavens; we could be an infinite spiral of thought; we could be the universe itself - a grain of sand in a painted spiral shell. I love the cover of this book as much as I love the words inside, precisely because it 'is' the words inside, but in a visual form, a form I better understand. (I love the back of this book also. There is another spiral there, this time in biro, a scribble made by my partner. I'm unsure whether she was just trying to get the ink in the pen to flow and the book was the nearest thing to hand, or whether she was drawing a spiral on a piece of paper, and the pen tore through. But I like the symmetry with the cover, and the fact that it's her). I used to carry this book with me everywhere, and I don't think I would have done if its contents weren't so succinctly summarised by its cover - because though I rarely read its contents, I need to be reminded of them. I need to be reminded that there are other people who see the world as I do, and I need to be reminded sometimes to look. Borges considers fact to be inseparable from fiction. He is attracted to the philosophies, theologies and sciences of this world for their aesthetic value, not for any notion of truth. He takes an idea and extrapolates it to its logical conclusion, highlighting the tenuous relationship with 'truth' that the original idea held, while simultaneously enriching the world w
      ith the idea's poetic potential, its uncertainties, and its mystery. He is compared to Valery and to Poe, though to my mind his work has as much in common with science fiction (in the true sense of the word, as opposed to the 'fantasy in space' sense of the word). I think of the short story by Isaac Asimov in which a robot finds a way of committing murder without breaking its programmed Laws of Robotics - laws that should make the act of murder impossible. The way in which this apparent impossibility is revealed as possibility through an entirely logical series of developments, could be the work of Borges - though Borges would have made it a story about that mythical slave the Golem destroying its Cabalist master. And I suspect that had Borges indulged in hallucinogenic drugs rather than dusty libraries, he could well have written tales like Philip K Dick's 'Roog', in which we are told of the daily theft of metal urns by alien invaders only to discover that we are in fact a dog watching the dustmen collect the bins. 'Labyrinths' contains a selection of Borges short stories, and some related essays. The short stories take up the bulk of the book, and contain many of his best (though the omission of 'El Aleph' is noticeable). Here we find 'Pierre Menard, Author of The Quixote', in which Borges considers that hermeneutical problem of deciding who actually creates the meaning of a piece of writing - the writer or reader. In the story a modern reader of 'Don Quixote' sets about re-writing the book by living Cervantes life to the last detail before he writes it - the result being that "The text of Cervantes and that of Menard are verbally identical, but the second is almost infinitely richer." (Notice, incidentally, the phrase 'almost infinitely' - Borges chooses his words carefully). Menard's 'Don Quixote' is the richer book for the modern reader, as it is written by a
      modern author - the same words perhaps, but written with a modern interpretation of their meaning. That example sounds slightly absurd, but the absurdity is inherent in the idea, not a result of Borges extrapolation. Reading Borges is like watching someone unfolding a series of intricate origami creations. No matter how impressive and unique the original ideas seem, Borges reveals that all ideas, when unfolded, are all from the same sheet of paper, and equal in their falsity. This could be disheartening, nihilistic even, but Borges is neither of these things - he deconstructs not to undermine but to follow the stages in the folding, to admire their complexity, the beauty in their form, and the folds normally hidden from view. Elsewhere we have 'The Circular Ruins', which deals with the dream within a dream, the narrative itself an endless cycle, ending as it begins. We have 'Tlon, Qbar, Orbus Tertius', a mock essay on a fictitious society, which amongst other things references fictitious books in its footnotes. And we have 'The Library of Babel', the search for the Book of Books. I won't elaborate on them, as they only really make sense in their entirety, so dependent on their form is the content (besides, I'm too lazy to re-read them). But I will tell you more about the parables at the back of the book, written when he was old and growing blind. They are just a page or so in length, the necessity to dictate them encouraging him to be even more concise than usual. These I read often, as for me these are the most interesting of all - paradoxically he seems to see clearer than ever in his blindness. Take his description of classical gods in 'Ragnarok', an account of a dream, if it indeed it was a dream (it may be purely invented, though the distinction is ultimately unimportant). The gods appear one day in the library, evidently having lost their humanity through years of exile: "...low
      foreheads, yellow teeth.... thick bestial lips showed the degeneracy of the Olympian lineage. Suddenly we sensed they were playing their last card, that they were cunning, ignorant and cruel like old beasts of prey and that, if we let ourselves be overcome by fear or piety, they would finally destroy us." Borges can be dark, he can be playful, he can be pedantic. But he is always unmistakeably Borges. Or is he? My favourite piece in this book casts doubt even on that certainty, the author seeming to genuinely struggle to identify where Borges the person ends and Borges the writer begins: "I like hourglasses, maps, eighteenth century typography, the taste of coffee and the prose of Stevenson; he shares these preferences but in a vain way that turns them into the attributes of an actor.... ...Years ago I tried to free myself of him and went from the mythologies of the suburbs to the games with time and infinity, but those games belong to Borges now and I shall have to imagine other things. Thus my life is a flight, and I lose everything and everything belongs to oblivion, or to him. I do not know which of us has written this page." A few months ago, I stopped carrying 'Labyrinths’ with me, and replaced it with John Berger's 'Photocopies', so struck was I by that book's humanity and compassion. I felt it was time to learn from a book, not be reflected by it. But I felt uncomfortable with its presence - its author a better man than I, and one who made me feel too conscious of my shortcomings. That book was returned to its shelf, and I picked up 'Labyrinths' once again. It struck me when I did that there are stories here that I have not yet read, that I knew some passages inside out while others remained undiscovered. And I decided that I like it that way - after all, once I've been through all the passages, I must by definition have left the labyrinth - and I don't think I want
      to ever do that. Because I too like hourglasses, maps, eighteenth century typography, the taste of coffee... and most of all I like the prose of Borges.

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        05.10.2001 05:08
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        This extraordinary book collects together many of Borges's 'fictions' in one volume. To describe the Argentinan author as a unique innovator is a massive understatement. He seems to see the world through a pair of ill fitting reading glasses and his voice is like the last words of your favourite kindly imaginary uncle. Since he died he is probably as famous for his description of the falklands war: 'two bald men fighting over a comb', but he was really a universal talent who deserves to be universally known. These aren't really stories as such. They're more like works of art, artifice and thought, like Escher’s paintings, or conceptual art. Some are written as pseudo literary criticism (with made up sources, fake footnotes and all), some as fables, some as bizarre traveller's tales, some in a scholarly tone, some in the style of a detective story. There are even outline tales, where Borges messes with the whole idea of finished work and thinks out loud about where the plot will lead him. Like a select few of the 20th century's most striking artists, Borges's works of art are small scale; yet they achieve a perfection, a profundity, a clarity of tone and execution that sets his work apart, and in his own eddies, far from the mainstream, he spins currents of beauty and pattern and sets whirlpools into unsettling depths. The opening story 'Tlon, Urbar, Orbis Tertius' is about the rediscovery of a secret society of inventors of an imaginary land with a completely idealist philosophy and a language that knows no nouns. Sounds weird? Yep. As in much of his work, truth is to be found in books, and meaning, pattern and confusion are hidden in everything. 'The Lottery in Babylon' describes a land in which everything, absolutely everything is decided according to the results of a lottery. As in so many of his other tales, the key moment comes when you think...'hang on
        a mo..., what if life really were like that' 'The Library of Babel' is about a library (‘which some also call the universe’) in which every possible book is contained. The inhabitants spend their lives searching the library for THE BOOK which will expalin their life. 'The Theologians' is about the competition between two scholars, fighting heresy until one fatefully implicates the other in heresy..... ‘The God’s Script’ is one of his short parables. It tells of a search for meaning, eventually resolved into the god’s message conveyed through the patterns of a jaguar. My favourite tale 'Pierre Menard, the author of the Quixote' is about a modern writer aiming to recreate a new, identical version of Cervantes's 'Don Quixote' , textually identical, but with a completely different meaning, because of the context each exists in. It sounds academic and dry, and indeed is written in a wonderfully scholarly style. Borges's stories always give me insomnia, just untangling what's been said and what possibilities the particular philosophical game he's playing opens up. Take ‘the Circular Ruins’, a story about a man creating another in dream, where the last paragraph changes all that has gone before, and refers back to the first paragraph to realise an unending series. ‘Labyrinths’ also contains some of Borges’s short essays on topics ranging from Zeno to the nature of time, to Kafka to the echoes of particular metaphors down the ages. These are fascinating insights into his ideas and musings. Borges's influences in these, and other fictions, essays and poems, are wondrously wide ranging. His learnedness exceeds even what might be expected of a former State Librarian of Argentina, yet all this wealth of background and tangled web of reference never obscures the creative power, the clarity a
        nd the playfulness at the heart of his work. If you insist on comparison, his work resonates particularly with Kafka and Italo Calvino, with the same richness of ideas and perfection and knowledge of form. Although definitely an acquired taste, Borges is well worth persisting with. After a while, it began to hit me that he is slyly VERY funny. If you’d like an easy way in to his decidely philosophical fictions, I'd recommend 'A Universal History of Infamy' which is really the verbal equivalent of an easy-listening instrumental version of 'the girl from ipanema' compared to some of his other stuff. Personally I'd take even this, the least challenging of his work, over 100 more conventional books...... ‘Labyrinths’ itself contains probably his best work, whilst other collections, such as ‘The Book of Sand’ are also wonderfully rewarding. There is also a Penguin Collected Edition containing all his Ficciones. So try Borges: he's number one on Orbis Tertius.

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        Jorge Luis Borges was a literary spellbinder whose tales of magic, mystery and murder are shot through with deep philosophical paradoxes. This collection brings together many of his stories, including the celebrated Library of Babel.