Sunday, September 21, 2008

The man in the labyrinth

apart from the fray

So, I've been reading Borges. An occupational hazard here in Buenos Aires. The interesting thing is that, the more I read, the better I like him. Before coming here, all I had read were his "Fictions", in translation. Not a bad introduction, but they definitely work better in Spanish.

Here in Buenos Aires, I've also tackled some of his poetry (e.g. the poems in "El oro de los tigres", pictured above), as well of some of his more accessible prose ("El Aleph", "Los conjurados").

It would be foolish to try to sum Borges up in a few tidy sentences, so I'm not about to try. A few observations, nonetheless.

Probably the most immediately striking feature of his work is the man's enormous erudition. At times you get the impression that here is a man who has read every book ever written. Here is the first line of one of his poems ("Espadas", that is, "Swords"):

Gram, Durendal, Joyeuse, Excalibur.

It takes a certain amount of cojones to launch a poem that way. It indicates an author who either assumes that the reader will get the references in question, or someone who doesn't care about the reader who doesn't.

Another obvious feature is the obsession with patterns, puzzles, mazes, the border of the finite and infinite. The library, the labyrinth, the infinitude of combinatorial possibilities available to the writer, the vicissitudes of chance -- these are themes that crop up again and again.

For me, it is this characteristic cerebral quality of Borges's work that ultimately prevents him from being one of the world's all-time great writers. Because I think it comes at a price. It is impossible to escape the impression that this is a writer who regards his characters as pieces to be moved around the chessboard of his (great) imagination, but never really as flesh-and-blood human beings. Borges is always on the outside looking in, or looking down from the vast Olympian heights of his tremendous erudition, but where's the heart? If it's love poetry you want, you're going to reach for Neruda, maybe. But never Borges.

Here in Argentina, a commonly expressed resentment is that Borges, despite living through the country's political turmoil of the 20th century, never addressed it directly in his literature, preferring to stay above, or at least out of, the fray. While this may be true, it is, I think, irrelevant when it comes to judging his work.

I'm definitely hooked. And I'll probably look back on this post at some later point and cringe with embarrassment. So be it.

1 comment:

Hieronymous said...

Huge Borges fan here. I think I know what you mean about the cerebral, clinical approach he has, but I've never noticed that the heart is missing. "Funes el memorioso" is compassionate even while exploring his favorite themes.

Some of my favorite bits are his one-page parables like "Borges y Yo". Lots of bang for the literary buck there. Try to read "The Witness" without a shiver. I can't do it.