Comprehending Borges

Borges, speaking of the fame of writers, said: “The important thing is the image you create of yourself in other people’s minds. Many people think of Burns as a mediocre poet. But he stands for many things, and people like him. That image—as with Byron—may in the end be more important than the work.”

Borges is a great writer, a sweet and melancholy poet; and people who know Spanish well revere him as a writer of a direct, unrhetorical prose. But his Anglo-American reputation as a blind and elderly Argentine, the writer of a very few, very short, and very mysterious stories, is so inflated and bogus that it obscures his greatness. It has possibly cost him the Nobel Prize; and it may well happen that when the bogus reputation declines, as it must, the good work may also disappear.

The irony is that Borges, at his best, is neither mysterious nor difficult. His poetry is accessible; much of it is even romantic. His themes have remained constant for the last fifty years: his military ancestors, their deaths in battle, death itself, time, and old Buenos Aires. And there are about a dozen successful stories. Two or three are straightforward, even old-fashioned, detective stories (one was published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine). Some deal, quite cinematically, with Buenos Aires low life at the turn of the century. Gangsters are given epic stature; they rise, they are challenged, and sometimes they run away.

The other stories—the ones which have driven the critics crazy—are in the nature of intellectual jokes. Borges takes a word like “immortal” and plays with it. Suppose, he says, men were really immortal. Not just men who had grown old and wouldn’t die, but indestructible vigorous men, surviving for eternity. What would be the result? His answer—which is his story—is that every conceivable experience would at some time befall every man, that every man would at some time assume every conceivable character, and that Homer (the disguised hero of this particular story) might in the eighteenth century even forget he had written the Odyssey. Or take the word “unforgettable.” Suppose something was truly unforgettable, and couldn’t be forgotten for a single second; suppose this thing came, like a coin, into your possession. Extend that idea. Suppose there was a man—but no, he has to be a boy—who could forget nothing, whose memory therefore ballooned and ballooned with all the unforgettable details of every minute of his life.

These are some of Borges’s intellectual games. And perhaps his most successful piece of prose writing, which is also his shortest, is a pure joke. It is called “Of Exactitude in Science” and is meant to be an extract from a seventeenth-century book of travel:

In that Empire, the craft of Cartography attained such Perfection that the Map of a Single province covered the space of an entire City, and the Map of the Empire itself an entire Province. In the course of Time, these Extensive maps were found…

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