The Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986) never won the Nobel Prize for Literature, nor did he write a novel. But he is widely regarded as one of the most significant writers of the twentieth century, was a considerable influence on magic realism, and penned some of the most original, clever, and thought-provoking short stories ever written.
Influenced by a raft of writers including Edgar Allan Poe, G. K. Chesterton, Paul Valéry, and Franz Kafka, Borges wrote stories that combine mystery, fantasy, riddles, metafiction, and much else besides. Below, we introduce ten of Borges’ very best short stories.
First published in the collection of that name in 1941, ‘The Garden of Forking Paths’ is one of the Borges’ most famous stories. Perhaps surprisingly given Borges’ reputation and the difficulties of categorising his work into a particular genre, it was the runner-up in the Ellery Queen mystery fiction prize in 1948.
A Chinese agent or spy named Yu Tsun narrates the story, which is supposed to be his confession written as he awaits execution for spying for the Germans during the First World War. He has discovered that the spy ring in which he operates has been infiltrated by the enemy. He cannot communicate directly with the Germans, so has no conventional way of getting his information to them (such as the telephone). While he is on the run from a man named Richard Madden, Yu travels to the home of a man he does not know – and discovers something about the novel his grandfather wrote …
2. ‘The Lottery in Babylon’.
First published in 1941, this is one of Borges’ most ‘Kafkaesque’ tales, bearing the influence of the Czech writer in a number of its key aspects. At the time, Borges was working a rather unfulfilling library job refilling the bookshelves, and ‘The Lottery in Babylon’ reflects the sense of futility in all human endeavour which Borges was feeling at this time.
Borges’ narrator tells us about a lottery in the country of Babylon which began centuries ago. Back then, people would enter the lottery by paying a copper coin, in the hope of winning silver coins in return. But the lottery soon developed into something more, until a mysterious ‘Company’ which runs the lottery imprisoned those who had purchased an unlucky ticket. Soon, other punishments were introduced.
The story is partly an allegory for totalitarian political power, but ‘The Lottery in Babylon’ invites us to ask important questions about human agency. Even setting aside totalitarian regimes, how much control do we have over our lives? And those things which we don’t have control over: are they merely the result of random chance, or is someone else pulling the strings?
This story, narrated as a non-fiction account by the fictional Menard’s equally fictional friend, sees the title character attempting to write the whole of Miguel de Cervantes’ seventeenth-century novel Don Quixote. Not ‘rewrite’, or ‘copy out’, but actually write as if Cervantes had never written the original. The story is witty, funny, and absurdist – even postmodern – and raises some intriguing questions about literature and readership.
Perhaps the Borges story which comes the closest to being labelled ‘science fiction’, ‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius’ (1940) focuses on the discovery of the country of Uqbar whose legend of Tlön is founded on a mythical world whose inhabitants believe a form of subjective idealism. Borges deftly fuses the real or historical with the entirely fictional, making his narrator’s discovery of Uqbar all the more plausible.
5. ‘The Circular Ruins’.
First published in 1940, this is one of the most richly symbolic short stories by the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges. One of his most powerful and suggestive explorations of the nature of reality and dreams, ‘The Circular Ruins’ can variously be interpreted as a story about artistic creation or about the world, and our place in the world, as we perceive it.
A man travels to the circular ruins of an ancient temple in order to dream another man into existence – but there’s a twist at the end of this short tale …
6. ‘The Library of Babel’.
This 1941 short story brings together a number of trademark Borgesian ideas, such as the infinite, and the paradoxical nature of the world. It is also a very ‘bookish’ tale, which is another of his preoccupations.
The story’s narrator describes the universe as a vast and virtually infinite library, comprising a great number of hexagonal rooms, with various floating staircases and long galleries, containing a huge number of books. These books comprise every possible permutation or combination of 25 symbols: 22 letters, the comma and full stop, and the space. All the books are exactly 410 pages long, and every single one is different from all the rest.
7. ‘Funes the Memorious’.
What if you never forgot anything but remembered every single detail you ever heard, saw, or experienced? This is the hypothetical question Borges explores through Funes, the main character in this short narrative, who falls off his horse and injures his head. As a result, he is able to remember everything that ever happens to him.
8. ‘The Sect of the Phoenix’.
This very short tale is a sort of extended riddle, although unlike traditional riddles, its definitive solution is never revealed. However, there is a proposed solution which fits the story’s details well. The mysterious sect of the story’s title perform just one ritual, which is how they pass on the secret of ‘the Phoenix’ to the next generation.
9. ‘Emma Zunz’.
This story is a revenge tale, in which the titular Emma Zunz avenges the death of her father, who dies after an overdose of a drug administered in hospital. Borges’ story is one of his most strikingly psychologically acute, in that Emma’s revenge is carried out for one reason but the reasons she publicly gives for her crimes are quite different. She remains true to her emotions, but parts company with the facts, in order to exact her revenge.
10. ‘Borges and I’.
This very short piece – it can hardly be called a ‘story’ in that it doesn’t have a plot as such – condenses some of the most distinctive aspects of his work into a very short ‘narrative’. Borges compares himself, the private Jorge Luis Borges, with ‘Borges’, the world-famous writer. There are, in effect, two Borgeses: Borges the man and Borges the writer.
‘Borges and I’, then, is about the gulf between the private self and the public persona. Jorge Luis Borges the man is a private individual who shares some similarities with ‘Jorge Luis Borges’ the famous writer, but there are also some notable differences between the two individuals.