One of the most innovative Latin American writers in the twentieth century, Jorge Luis Borges is considered by many to have exerted a powerful force in reforming the Spanish language. His prose is precise, compact, and direct; it is at times deceptively simple yet abounds in psychological and philosophical subtlety. The author of essays and poetry, Borges is known primarily for two volumes of short stories, Ficciones (1944) and El Aleph (1949, 1952). Ficciones is an anthology of short stories in two parts entitled “The Garden of the Forking Paths” and “Artifices.” Whereas part 1 was published separately several years earlier in Buenos Aires, part 2 contains a number of stories published for the first time.
Throughout his long career, Borges remained interested in a number of topics. He had a lifelong love of things Argentine, including a fascination with the country’s great stark plains, the Pampa, and their violent and elemental cowboys, called gauchos. His broader attraction to Argentine life and literature found its focus in Buenos Aires, a city he loved and knew intimately and where he spent much of his life. Borges’s second enduring interest can be classified as philosophical, though his thought and knowledge range widely over metaphysics, history, religion, art, and literature. Early in his life, Borges gained a reputation as a difficult writer, one who wrote not for the masses but for a select few scholars and literary critics. Nevertheless, his short stories—which allow insight into one of the most creative literary minds of the twentieth century—are readily accessible to those willing to approach them with patience.
The stories center around themes (destiny, time, infinity) that recur throughout the entire corpus of his work. Borges avoids, however, merely clothing ideas in literary form; rather, he carefully constructs plots that flow relentlessly to their conclusion. His elegant integration of complex philosophical concerns and the striking artistic unity of his stories are testimony to his skill as a writer.
In “Tln Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” Borges envisions the possibility of a world constructed according to the idealist tenets of the English philosopher Bishop Berkeley. Although Borges often insisted that he was not a philosopher in the traditional sense, he had a tendency to favor idealism, the proposition that thought is primary to matter. “Tln, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” begins with the narrator, Borges himself, stating that he owes “the discovery of Uqbar to the conjunction of a mirror and an encyclopedia,” an opening that hints more at a detective tale than a metaphysical one. Borges’s friend and dinner companion, Bioy Casares, responds that the mirror is abominable, as is copulation, “since both multiply the numbers of man,” a quote not from Casares himself but from an article on the country of Uqbar in the Anglo-American Encyclopedia. Narrator Borges and Casares are puzzled, however, to find that they are able to locate the article on Uqbar in only one set of the Anglo-American Encyclopedia, a fact made even more inexplicable by the mysterious inclusion of several additional pages in the volume containing the article. The story plays out in detective fashion. The narrator later accidentally discovers volume 11 of A First Encyclopedia of Tln, a source of information about an imaginary land in the literature of the imaginary country Uqbar. Oddly enough, the nations of Tln are “congenitally idealist”; their language, religion, literature, and metaphysics all reject any suggestion of materialism. There are, for example, no nouns in the language of Tln but only sentences constructed of verbs and other parts of speech, which validates the idealist basis of life on Tln. The seemingly impossible takes place when certain thinkers on Tln attempt to demonstrate the validity of materialism, an undertaking that causes considerable unease.
Borges’s fascination with idealism and its implications plays out in the final third of the story when, first inexplicably, then ominously, objects from Tln begin to appear in the world of the narrator. The story, a finely crafted philosophical tale, may be a parable of the effects of thought on the formation of the world. Tln, an imaginary planet in the literature of an imaginary country, which is itself created...