Jorge Luis Borges Short Fiction Analysis
Jorge Luis Borges may be, quite simply, the single most important writer of short fiction in the history of Latino literature. The stories he published in his collections Ficciones, 1935-1944 and El Aleph, particularly the former, not only gave Latino (and world) literature a body of remarkable stories but also opened the door to a whole new type of fiction that would be practiced by the likes of the above-mentioned Julio Cortázar, Gabriel García Márquez, Carlos Fuentes, and Mario Vargas Llosa, and that, in the hands of these writers and others like them, would put Latino fiction on the world literary map in the 1960’s.
Prior to Borges, and particularly between 1920 and 1940, Latino fiction, as stated previously, was concerned chiefly with painting a realistic and detailed picture of external Latino reality. Description frequently ruled over action, environment over character, and types over individuals. Social message, also, was often more important to the writer than was narrative artistry. Latino fiction after Borges (that is, after his landmark collections of stories of the 1940’s) was decidedly different in that it was no longer documentary in nature, turned its focus toward the inner workings of its fully individualized human characters, presented various interpretations of reality, expressed universal as well as regional and national themes, invited reader participation, and emphasized the importance of artistic—and frequently unconventional—presentation of the story, particularly with respect to narrative voice, language, structure (and the closely related element of time), and characterization. This “new narrative,” as it came to be called, would have been impossible without Borges’s tradition-breaking fiction.
This is not to say that Borges’s stories fully embody each of the characteristics of the Latino “new narrative” listed above. Ironically, they do not. For example, Borges’s characters are often far more archetypal than individual, his presentation tends to be for the most part quite traditional, and reader participation (at least as compared to that required in the works of other “new narrativists”) is frequently not a factor. The major contributions that Borges made to Latino narrative through his stories lie, first, in his use of imagination, second, in his focus on universal themes common to all human beings, and third, in the intellectual aspect of his works. In the 1940’s, Borges, unlike most who were writing so-called Latino fiction, treated fiction as fiction. Rather than use fiction to document everyday reality, Borges used it to invent new realities, to toy with philosophical concepts, and in the process to create truly fictional worlds, governed by their own rules. He also chose to write chiefly about universal human beings rather than exclusively about Latinos. His characters are, for example, European, or Chinese, frequently of no discernible nationality, and only occasionally Latino. In most cases, even when a character’s nationality is revealed, it is of no real importance, particularly with respect to theme. Almost all Borges’s characters are important not because of the country from which they come but because they are human beings, faced not with situations and conflicts particular to their nationality but with situations and conflicts common to all human beings. Finally, unlike his predecessors and many of his contemporaries, Borges did not aim his fiction at the masses. He wrote instead, it seems, more for himself, and, by extension, for the intellectual reader. These three aspects of his fiction—treating fiction as fiction, placing universal characters in universal conflicts, and writing for a more intellectual audience—stand as the Argentine writer’s three most important contributions to Latino fiction in the latter half of the twentieth century, and to one degree or another, virtually every one of the Latino “new narrativists,” from Cortázar to García Márquez, followed Borges’s lead in these areas.
Given the above, it is no surprise that Borges’s ficciones (his stories are more aptly called “fictions” than “stories,” for while all fit emphatically into the first category, since they contain fictitious elements, many do not fit nearly so well into a traditional definition of the second, since they read more like essays than stories) are sophisticated, compact, even mathematically precise narratives that range in type from what might be called the “traditional” short story (a rarity) to fictionalized essay (neither pure story nor pure essay but instead a unique mix of the two, complete, oddly enough, with both fictitious characters and footnotes, both fictitious and factual) to detective story or spy thriller (though always with an unmistakably Borgesian touch) to fictional illustration of a philosophical concept (this last type being, perhaps, most common). Regardless of the specific category into which each story might fall, almost all, to one degree or another, touch on either what Borges viewed as the labyrinthine nature of the universe, irony (particularly with respect to human destiny), the concept of time, the hubris of those who believe they know all there is to know, or any combination of these elements.
As stated above, most of Borges’s fame as a writer of fiction and virtually all of his considerable influence on Latino “new narrative” are derived from his two masterpiece collections, Ficciones, 1935-1944 and El Aleph. Of these two, the first stands out as the more important and may be the single most important collection of short fiction in the history of Latino literature.
Ficciones, 1935-1944 contains fourteen stories (seventeen for editions published after 1956). Seven of the fourteen were written between 1939 and 1941 and, along with an eighth story, were originally collected in El jardín de senderos que se bifurcan (the garden of forking paths). The other six stories were added in 1944. Virtually every story in this collection has become a Latino classic, and together they reveal the variety of Borges’s themes and story types.
“Death and the Compass”
“La muerte y la brújula” (“Death and the Compass”) is one of the most popular of the stories found in Ficciones, 1935-1944. In it, detective Erik Lönnrot is faced with the task of solving three apparent murders that have taken place exactly one month apart at locations that form a geographical equilateral triangle. The overly rational Lönnrot, through elaborate reasoning, divines when and where the next murder is to take place. He goes there to prevent the murder and to capture the murderer, only to find himself captured, having been lured to the scene by his archenemy, Red Scharlach, so that he, Lönnrot, can be killed.
This story is a perfect example of Borges’s ability to take a standard subgenre, in this case the detective story, and give it his own personal signature, as the story is replete with Borgesian trademarks. The...
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