Thoughts on Reading Jorge Luis Borges

Themes of non-linear time, multiple selves, complexity in simplicity, relative truth, relative reality—Borges invented stories in order to play with philosophical concepts.

Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986) was an Argentine short-story writer, essayist, poet and translator. Rather than write about a strict reality, he created fantasy in order to write about human nature. In the afterword of The Aleph and Other Stories, he concludes he’d been examining himself all along:

A man sets out to draw the world. As the years go by, he peoples a space with images of provinces, kingdoms, mountains, bays, ships, islands, fishes, rooms, instruments, stars, horses, and individuals. A short time before he dies, he discovers that the patient labyrinth of lines traces the lineaments of his own face.

J.L.B.

So, would I take this short story collection to the beach with a margarita? No. It’s a challenge. He pulls allusions from so many different cultures that half of them are lost on me. And if you skim over a line, that may have been the line that tied a whole concept together.

I had to reread many of these stories before I got an inkling of what they had to offer.

And yet, with every challenge there’s a pay-off; my own short story writing has recently been infused with Borges’ concepts of simultaneous time, infinite selves, a point that is all points, a word that encompasses all language—maybe it’s just a phase.

If I feel called, I might buy a reader companion for reading Borges. I don’t really know what that is but I heard someone suggesting it. Without one, and just diving in, I feel as though I may have missed half of the thoughts to think. Will a reader companion tell me what to look for?

Though maybe there was something to gain by experiencing it all on my own, even if I did miss most of it.

That someone suggesting the reader companion: The Artisan Geek and her classics bookclub here.

‘The Black Cathedral’: A Neighborhood Cacophony

“Disorienting and choppy (eh, sometimes literally), yet robust and dripping with a dark vibrancy”—that’d be my book blurb for ‘The Black Cathedral‘ by Marcial Gala (if anybody asks).

The black cathedral itself is more of the symbolic backdrop to the story as the varying plot lines unravel. The characters’ narratives—all 12 of them—begin in Cienfuegos, Cuba as an outsider family moves into a gritty and mistrusting neighborhood and begins construction on a grand cathedral.

That man from Camagüey ate, lived, and breathed Jesus Christ, always had Him at the tip of his tongue. The day of their arrival, he threw five pesos at the kids who were playing soccer so they would help him unload the stuff, and then he came over to greet us. He had a polite smile and a thin, strong, dry hand. “Blessings,” he said. “My name is Arturo and this is my wife, Carmen.” “Blessings,” echoed that Carmen, who was walking a few steps behind; you could tell she was too hot for a guy like him, in his 50s and pretty run-down, you could tell that wouldn’t end well.

All of the narrators relate to each other, finishing each other’s stories, or cross paths to varying degrees. They do not seem to be converging on a common link other than tragedy, which is heavily foreshadowed from the beginning. Being so, I found the chaos to be purposeful—a traditional narrative arc wouldn’t have fit the characters or overall tone. It took a little work to hit the rhythm of the story and I think that adds another dimension: as a reader, I had a feeling of being outsider from the onset as I tried make sense of the neighborhood’s inhabitants, their actions, and the shif between what’s real and what’s magical. If the story was tidy or easier to follow, I think it also would’ve been flat and lacking what made it a compelling (even if uncomfortable) read.

‘The Black Cathedral’ was translated from Spanish by Anna Kushner. I originally found it on this ‘watchlist’ for titles in translation.