A blog on reading, writing and life

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Thoughts on Borges: Fictions VS Stories

I've been reading the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges for the first time. I checked out Labyrinths, an American anthology of his work, from the library. Borges is associated with magical realism, but his work is a far cry from the modern north American developments in the genre, which in my experience are often just conventional stories with a monster thrown in. By contrast, the strangeness of Borges is as intricately constructed, with layers of modernism and metafiction, as the labyrinths that haunt his work.

Labyrinths is divided into three sections, Fictions, Essays and Parables, but these distinctions are more or less irrelevant. This is because to describe his fictions as stories, in the conventional sense, would be a misnomer. They are in a way essays, and in a way parables.

Few of his fictions have characters we can hold onto or dramatic conflict between two parties. Many involve narrators discovering  mysterious philosophical treatises or recalling distant conversations. Meta ideas appear throughout the book, such as in "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote'" where a 20th century French writer tries to recreate Don Quixote, not by copying the text, but by writing until he came to the same ideas as Crevantes. This piece is not, like a story, made up of scenes, but follows the conventions of a literary review, sketching out Menard's publication history and influences. Though the narrator is a friend of Menard, he reveals no personal details and provides no images or flashbacks on their friendship. Meaning in this piece is construed through the metaphysical ideas examined by the narrator and his subject, not from action or conflict. This is how "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote" is both fictional, yet not a story.

Still, at times Borges demonstrates he does know how to tell a story when he goddamn well wants to, like in the existential detective tale "Death and the Compass."

I'm still not sure how I feel about Borges on the whole, but I appreciate reading anything that expands my view of how literature can act and what it can accomplish.

Photo credit: Grete Stern, 1951; via Wikipedia.

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