The Garden of Forking Paths

by Jorge Luis Borges

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Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 916

When Borges' collection of short stories, The Garden of Forking Paths, initially appeared in Argentina in 1941, reviewers were quick to recognize something new. Most critical commentary had concentrated on his poetry, although in 1933 a special issue of the magazine Megafono devoted to a discussion of him reveals that critics had begun to treat him as a writer of prose as well as poetry.

The rejection of The Garden of Forking Paths for the 1941 National Literary Prize did much to solidify support for his work among the literary intelligentsia of Argentina who were outraged at the oversight. Nevertheless, even among those critics who felt he should have received the award, there was some reservation. Most commonly, these reservations focused on his cerebral style and his esoteric subject matter.

Other critics, however, found Borges' work to be important and original. In his book, Jorge Luis Borges, Martin Stabb cites, for instance, Pedro Henriquez Urena's famous comment: "There may be those who think that Borges is original because he proposes to be. I think quite the contrary: Borges would be original even when he might propose not to be."

In the early 1940s the translation of his work into English began in literary magazines, although it was not until the early 1960s that whole collections were translated and published. However, the work made an immediate impact. John Updike presented an important survey of his work in the New Yorker in 1965, a review in which he noted his fascination with calling attention to a work of literature as a work of literature.

Another seminal article on Borges by the novelist John Barth appeared in the Atlantic Monthly in 1967. In the article, Barth discussed the literature of the 1960s, placing Borges at the center of such literature. In addition, Barth paid careful attention to his use of the labyrinth as image in his work.

In the years since its initial publication and subsequent translation into English, Borges' work in general and "The Garden of Forking Paths" in particular have continued to inspire critical attention. Many commentators point to the influence he has had on a whole generation of South and North American writers, including Gabriel Garcia-Marquez and John Barth, among others. Moreover, as Roberto Gonzalez-Echevarria points out in the essay "Borges and Derrida," Borges has exerted considerable influence on the post-modernist philosophers Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, and Roland Barthes.

Other critics attempt to trace the influences on Borges' work. Andre Maurois, in a preface to Donald A. Yates and James E. Irby's edition of Labyrinths directly addresses his sources. He cites H. G. Wells, Edgar Allan Poe, G. K. Chesterton, and Franz Kafka as important influences on Borges' writing. Borges himself noted in several places the debt he owed to Chesterton, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Rudyard Kipling.

As James Woodall indicates in The Man in the Mirror of the Book, "Chesterton's compact, witty-short-story style was to have a lasting influence on the way Borges structured his stories over twenty years later." Kafka's influence seems also clear to many critics; Borges was largely responsible for introducing Kafka into Argentina through his translations of the Czech writer. Indeed, the image of the labyrinth is important both in Kafka as well as Borges.

Borges' choice of detective fiction as his favorite genre recalls both the stories of Poe and Chesterton's Father Brown mysteries. A number of critics have concentrated on this connection. John Irwin, for example, examines his construction of an analytic detective story in his article, "A Clew to a Clue:
Locked Rooms and Labyrinths in Poe and Borges." In so doing, he also suggests that Borges associates the word "clue" with the word "thread," and in so doing, makes an allusion to the story of Theseus and the Minotaur in the labyrinth.

In other critical essays, scholars contend that Borges' early prose is essentially nihilistic. In other words, he denies any ground of objective truth in his stories. John Fraser examines the stories of Ficciones, including The Garden of Forking Paths, maintaining that Borges both creates the threat of nihilism in the character of Pierre Menard in an early story, "Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote"and overcomes it through "his concern to connect rather than disjoin values, fictions, and action...."

A number of commentators have explored the metafictional nature of the story. That is, they interpret "The Garden of Forking Paths" to be a story about stories, a fiction about the writing of fiction. In her Jorge Luis Borges: A Study of the Short Fiction, Naomi Lindstrom, for example, argues that the "spy plot is tangled with a second narrative concerning the reading and appreciation of literature."

Didier T. Jaen offers a book-length study of metafiction in Borges, Borges' Esoteric Library: Metaphysics to Metafiction. In this book, Jaen asserts that using a "first-person impersonal narrator is one of the most characteristic metafictional devices used by Borges."

Finally, several recent critics view Borges as a writer who, years before the postmodernist era, prefigures both postmodernism and chaos theory. Thomas P. Weissert, for example, in Chaos and Disorder: Complex Dynamics in Literature and Science, argues that "Jorge Luis Borges discovered the essence of bifurcation theory thirty years before chaos scientists mathematically formalized it."

Because Borges created a large body of highly esoteric, allusive prose, as well as poetry, it is likely that critical attention will continue to focus on his work. Although it is sometimes difficult for readers to grasp, his fiction, essays, and poetry offers great rewards for interested scholars and readers.

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