“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.
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.