The inventive and philosophical short stories of the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986) take in a range of themes. Like many other authors, Borges had a set of preoccupations which he revisited time and again in his fiction, and a number of his stories are variations on the same theme or themes. His stories combine mystery, fantasy, riddles, metafiction, and much else besides.
Let’s take a look at some of the key themes of Borges’ fiction.
A key trope in many of Borges’ short stories is the paradox. In ‘Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote’, a fictional French poet undertakes the task of writing Cervantes’ classic book Don Quixote, even though Cervantes beat him to it. But Menard does not seek to copy out what Cervantes wrote, but to write it as if for the first time, by absorbing the same influences that Cervantes absorbed and trying his best to inhabit the author’s state of mind when he penned Don Quixote. The ludicrous result is that the narrator declares Menard’s ‘Quixote’ to be much richer and cleverer than Cervantes’ even though the words of both authors’ work are identical.
This scenario bears out something Borges argues in what is probably his most famous essay, ‘Kafka and His Precursors’, in which he argues that ‘every writer creates his own precursors’. Kafka, in a sense, ‘created’ Kierkegaard and Zeno because his work helps us to read those earlier philosophers in a new way; he has, in a sense, ‘created’ them, or at least what they mean to us.
The Power of Writing and Books.
Writing is a recurring theme in Borges’ work: his stories are frequently metafictional, in being fictions about fictions. But he also often writes about the power of writing, scripts, sentences, words.
In ‘The God’s Script’, Tzinacán, the central character, is a Mayan priest and magician who becomes convinced that his god, has concealed magic writing – writing which reveals the secret workings of the universe – within the skin of the jaguar, so that this divine writing would survive the centuries, passed down from one generation of jaguar to the next.
Another theme is Borges’ preoccupation with the idea of the infinite. In ‘The Library of Babel’, this theme is united with the idea of the paradox. The library of the story’s title is paradoxically, both infinite and not infinite, because while the library’s vast number of books is technically finite, those books can be read in such a huge number of different combinations that the library becomes, to all intents and purposes, infinite. And in ‘The Book of Sand’, the titular book has an infinite number of pages: a mini-library contained within just one tome.
In ‘Emma Zunz’, when the title character learns of her father’s death – which, typically, arrives in the form of a written text, a letter from the hospital – she realises immediately that his death would go on happening, endlessly, as she replayed it in her mind. Borges’ characteristic interest in the infinite is thus woven into this personal tragedy.
Meanwhile, in ‘The Lottery of Babylon’ the infinite comes into play as the Company extends its power and determines everything through the lottery: the number of drawings becomes truly infinite.
‘Identity’, of course, is a key theme in a great deal of fiction. But in Borges, identity is a particularly fraught topic: sometimes, Borges will defamiliarise something so that we approach it from a new perspective, something he does in ‘The House of Asterion’ in which the narrator turns out, at the end of the short narrative, to be the Minotaur from Greek mythology.
In his short piece ‘Borges and I’, Borges draws a distinction between Borges the writer and Borges the man. The story (if it can be called such) is about the gulf between the private self and a public persona. In some ways an update of the Edgar Allan Poe story of the double (and it’s worth remembering that Poe was an important precursor to, and influence on, Borges’ short fiction), ‘Borges and I’ explores the troubled and paradoxical relationship between private self and professional persona.
Dreams and Reality.
Borges’ theme of infinite regression couples with another theme – the intersection between dreams and reality – in ‘The Circular Ruins’, where the circular architecture mentioned in the story represents both themes. But this story also suggests (from its Carrollian epigraph onwards) that all reality is but a dream: men dream other men into reality in an infinite progression. Similarly, it isn’t entirely clear whether the Mayan priest at the end of ‘The God’s Script’ has been subjected to a divine vision or whether he’s simply dreamt or hallucinated everything.
In ‘The Zahir’, meanwhile, the Zahir is an object with which people become obsessed, so that they gradually become blind to everything else in reality.
Fate and the Divine.
Gods are everywhere in Borges: in ‘The God’s Script’, the Mayan god appears to reveal the secrets of the universe to an imprisoned priest, while God appears to grant the wish of a condemned man in ‘The Secret Miracle’. How much control do we have over our own lives, and how much of what happens is in the lap of the gods (or fate)?
In ‘The Lottery in Babylon’, the mysterious Company comes to have control over virtually every aspect of people’s lives. And even those aspects which it doesn’t control, it convinces the populace that it can and does control. Although the Company controls everything, who wins or who loses in the lottery it runs is down to chance. So both fate (whether God or some unseen higher force) or blind chance arguably have more control over our lives than we do.
The Universe or Cosmos.
Borges’ short fictions are short in duration but big in their scope: as vast, perhaps, as the entire universe. And like another of his favourite themes, the infinite, the theme of the universe and everything in it runs through Borges’ stories. At the end of ‘The God’s Script’, for example, Tzinacán has a vision of the entire universe, after seeing a wheel made of both fire and water at the same time. The wheel, and the vision which follows it, represent the whole of the cosmos, totality, alpha and omega.
Meanwhile, the opening words of ‘The Library of Babel’ conflate ‘the universe’ and ‘the Library’, using them interchangeably. The universe, according to early twentieth-century cosmology, was expanding, but also infinite. The same is true of the Library of Babel, which is the universe in Borges’ story.
And in ‘The Aleph’, the Aleph is a point in space which contains all other points within the universe. Once again, we are back to the theme of infinity, with everything connected infinitely to everything else via the Aleph.