An Animated Introduction to the Magical Fictions of Jorge Luis Borges

“Read­ing the work of Jorge Luis Borges for the first time is like dis­cov­er­ing a new let­ter in the alpha­bet, or a new note in the musi­cal scale,” writes the BBC’s Jane Cia­bat­tari. Borges’ essay-like works of fic­tion are “filled with pri­vate jokes and eso­ter­i­ca, his­to­ri­og­ra­phy and sar­don­ic foot­notes. They are brief, often with abrupt begin­nings.” His “use of labyrinths, mir­rors, chess games and detec­tive sto­ries cre­ates a com­plex intel­lec­tu­al land­scape, yet his lan­guage is clear, with iron­ic under­tones. He presents the most fan­tas­tic of scenes in sim­ple terms, seduc­ing us into the fork­ing path­way of his seem­ing­ly infi­nite imag­i­na­tion.”

If that sounds like your idea of good read, look a lit­tle deep­er into the work of Argenti­na’s most famous lit­er­ary fig­ure through the ani­mat­ed TED-Ed les­son above. Mex­i­can writer and crit­ic Ilan Sta­vans, the lesson’s cre­ator, begins his intro­duc­tion to Borges by describ­ing a man who “not only remem­bers every­thing he has ever seen, but every time he has seen it in per­fect detail.” Many of you will imme­di­ate­ly rec­og­nize Funes the Mem­o­ri­ous, the star of Borges’ 1942 sto­ry of the same name — and those who don’t will sure­ly want to know more about him.

Sta­vans goes on to describe a library “built out of count­less iden­ti­cal rooms, each con­tain­ing the same num­ber of books of the same length,” that as a whole “con­tains every pos­si­ble vari­a­tion of text.” He also men­tions a rumored “lost labyrinth” that turns out to be “not a phys­i­cal maze but a nov­el,” and a nov­el that reveals the iden­ti­ty of the real labyrinth: time itself. Borges enthu­si­asts know which places Sta­vans is talk­ing about, mean­ing they know in which of Borges’ sto­ries — which their author, stick­ing to a word from his native Span­ish, referred to as fic­ciones — they orig­i­nate.

But though “The Library of Babel” (which in recent years has tak­en a dig­i­tal form online) and “The Gar­den Fork­ing Paths” count as two par­tic­u­lar­ly notable exam­ples of what Sta­vans calls “Borges’ many explo­rations of infin­i­ty,” he found so many ways to explore that sub­ject through­out his writ­ing career that his lit­er­ary out­put func­tions as a con­scious­ness-alter­ing sub­stance. It does to the right read­ers, that is, a group that includes such oth­er mind-bend­ing writ­ers as Umber­to Eco, Rober­to Bolaño, and William Gib­son, none of whom were quite the same after they dis­cov­ered the fic­ciones. Behold Borges’ mir­rors, mazes, tigers, and chess games your­self — there­by catch­ing a glimpse of infin­i­ty — and you, too, will nev­er be able to return to the read­er you once were. Not that you’d want to.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Jorge Luis Borges Explains The Task of Art

Jorge Luis Borges’ 1967–8 Nor­ton Lec­tures On Poet­ry (And Every­thing Else Lit­er­ary)

An Ani­mat­ed Intro­duc­tion to H.P. Love­craft and How He Invent­ed a New Goth­ic Hor­ror

Why Should You Read James Joyce’s Ulysses?: A New TED-ED Ani­ma­tion Makes the Case

Why You Should Read The Mas­ter and Mar­gari­ta: An Ani­mat­ed Intro­duc­tion to Bulgakov’s Rol­lick­ing Sovi­et Satire

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall, on Face­book, or on Insta­gram.

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