If a global library exists in the future, Jorge Luis Borges would be filed under renaissance writer. If his work was a painting, it would be abstract art. Labyrinths: Selected Stories & Other Writings is a love confession of a nerdy bookworm—from the fictions to the essays and parables, but Borges’s work is more than that—it is a bridge between writers of the past and contemporary writers. Borges writes that a writer is “no less Argentine for having accepted such influences” as French writers, Kipling, and Mark Twain (182). This quote inspires this annotation because it is an idea that crosses borders. A writer is made up of the things he or she reads. This is an interesting idea because many times writers are told they cannot or should not discuss something—whether it be politics, religion, or family drama. From Borges writers learn that they can stretch the limits of the imagination out to an unending library. Writers are told if you steal from one writer, it’s plagiarism, but if a writer borrows from all writers and adapts the ideas with a unique twist, it’s art. Borges is the writer to teach the art of literature appropriation.
Borges borrows from the Greeks. In the short story “The Immortal,” Borges writes about a journey which is Homeric in intent: “I fled from the camp with the few soldiers loyal to me” (107). The journey is similar to the journey of Odysseus—he is separated from his soldiers and must go on without them. In the short story, Borges even cites Homer:
The humility and wretchedness of the troglodyte brought to my memory the image of Argos, the moribund old dog in the Odyssey, and so I gave him the name Argos and tried to teach it to him. (112)
The narrator goes on to discuss it with Argos who says: “’It must be a thousand and one hundred years since I invented it’” (113). He takes the idea of an epic journey and a dog and makes it new. Similarities abound throughout the short story.
Like the above story mirrors The Odyssey, the short story “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote” mirrors Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote de la Mancha. At first, Borges in Menard’s voice writes “I am aware that it is quite easy to challenge my slight authority” which mimics of the feel of the beginning of Quixote with its self-depreciating tone (36). Each of the items Borges lists is like Quixote taking another stab at the windmills. And then this tone mimics Quixote: “I turn now to his other work: the subterranean, the interminably heroic, the peerless” (38). But then Borges does something unusual—he calls himself on the reference: “But why precisely the Quixote? Our reader will ask. Such a preference, in a Spaniard, would not have been inexplicable; but it is, no doubt, in a Symbolist from Nimes, essentially a devoté of Poe, who engendered Baudelaire, who engendered Mallarmé, who engendered Valéry, who engendered Edmond Teste” (41). Borges is giving his entire literary lineage! This is a very interesting notion—the entire collection in Labyrinths could be considered so. Borges doesn’t stop there, though—he explores Quixote in his fiction (36) and non-fiction (193, 242, 244) sections of this collection.
If a global library exists in the future, Jorge Luis Borges would be filed under renaissance writer.
Borges considers his “tradition is all of Western culture, and also I believe we have a right to this tradition, greater than that which the inhabitants of one or another Western nation might have” (184). This is so true – in an age where writers are filed in categories and checked off in boxes, they must realize that they are more than just a nation—they are part of a world-wide tradition going back to the first writers, the Sumerians. According to Borges, writers are just humans telling human stories (185).
This book is worth five stars – read it and love it. Oh- and Ficciones is amazing too.
Borges, Jorge Luis. Labyrinths: Selected Stories & Other Writings. New York: New Direction
Publishing Corporation. 1962. Print.