868: Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges

by Gerard

868.62: Borges, Jorge Luis. Labyrinths: Selected Stories and Other Writing. Edited by Donald A. Yates and James E. Irby. New York: New Directions, n.d. 251 pp. ISBN 0-8112-0012-4.

The various literatures of the world are stuffed into the 800s, and as such, it is a cornucopia of delights. Spanish literature in contained in the 860s, and 868 is the place for Spanish miscellaneous writing. You don’t necessary have to be from Spain to be considered a Spanish writer. Borges, for instance, was from Argentina, but since his primary writing language was Spanish, that’s where he sits. “Miscellaneous writing” denotes collections that contain essays, plays, letters, poetry, stories, novellas, or any combination thereof.

Borges’ Labyrinths is an English-language collection of his most famous short stories and essays. There are far too many to summarize them all here, but they are a delight. “The Library of Babel” imagines a library that holds every book that can possibly be written, and thus contains all possible philosophies and facts (and all possible untruths). “The Garden of Forking Paths” has as its protagonist the ancestor of a great writer, who envisioned a book that contained all the possible outcomes of a character’s decisions. “The Zahir” portrays the madness of becoming transfixed on a single object (a coin).

This is not a book you can devour in an afternoon. Its 251 pages are very deceiving. Each story is a glorious truffle that you sit and savor, then lean back and reminisce upon for a while before moving on to the next one. His story “Tlon, Uqbar, Tertius Orbis” conceives a secret world and history that is entirely imagined by literary agents around the world, but is kept secret from rest of us. Stories like these cement Borges’ reputation. “The Immortal,” however, drifts around and around, groping wildly in the dark before finding its footing and coming to a jarring conclusion. This book is not easy reading, folks.

Many of his stories and essays have books as their common denominator. They almost always mention some ancient text, author, or translation. This helps bring the stories out of the realm of the imaginary and into the arena of fantastical non-fiction. Many times Borges himself is named as the narrator or central character. These make it seem like the stories are more news reports than imaginings.

Upon reflecting on this book and this review, I came to think that, in some ways, the Dewey Decimal Classification System is a kind of library of Babel. It contains the subject matter for all possible books. You could open up a volume, thrust your finger down (as one does with a phone book) and start a story with the subject chosen. That being said, I challenge anyone to write a decent, rich, and involving short story on “Dialectology and historical linguistics”.