Borges makes my brain hurt. Labyrinths was a really difficult read. It reminds me a lot of Italo Calvino, especially Invisible Cities. Evidently, Calvino was heavily influenced by Borges. Labyrinths is a collection of short stories, essays, and parables. I really enjoyed some of the short stories, but lots of the lost me because I don’t remember enough about philosophy or what philosopher said what. At a certain point in several stories, I had to turn my brain off and go with it Tao-style. That said, I even liked some of those.
My favorite story is “The Immortal,” which is about a man’s journey to find The City of Immortals. He enters their city, which has been abandoned and is like a massive labyrinth. He discovers them after he leaves lying, waif-like outside its walls. They have stopped talking because there’s nothing left to talk about, but he eventually gets one of them to start, and it turns out he’s Homer. “The Immortal” is one of the longer stories, and after the plot extinguishes itself, it becomes more like a philosophical essay. I really enjoyed it. I also liked “The House of Asterion” and “The Library of Babel.” I’d been told that “Emma Zunz” is best, and, while it’s probably the most easily accessible in the collection, I found it unrewarding. Enough for the short stories.
I found the essays much easier to read and surprisingly interesting. Borges is a fan of Don Quixote, so he mentions it several times, and one of the essays is about it. “The Wall and the Books” is my favorite, but I’ve already written about that one. Many of the essays are about time and whether it exists or not. Five years ago, I’d have been excited about them, but I’m over it. I’ve read that kind of theory before. (If you want to read a novel about theories of time, read Alan Lightman‘s Einstein’s Dreams, which is fantastic.) I don’t really have much to say about the essays because I kind of sped through them.
The parables are my favorite part of Labyrinths. They’re very short, but they also made me think. Borges discusses the same ideas in the parables as he does in the rest of the book, but the parables are much more accessible, which is probably why I liked them so much. Here’s the first one:
Inferno, 1, 32
From the twilight of day till the twilight of evening, a leopard, in the last years of the thirteenth century, would see some wooden planks, some vertical iron bars, men and women who changed, a wall and perhaps a stone gutter filled with dry leaves. He did not know, could not know, that he longed for love and cruelty and the hot pleasure of tearing things to pieces and the wind carrying the scent of a deer, but something suffocated and rebelled within him and God spoke to him in a dream: “You live and will die in this prison so that a man I know of may see you a certain number of times and not forget you and place your figure and symbol in a poem which has its precise place in the scheme of the universe. You suffer captivity, but you will have given a word to the poem.” God, in the dream, illumined the animal’s brutishness and the animal understood these reasons and accepted his destiny, but, when he awoke, there was in him only an obscure resignation, a valorous ignorance, for the machinery of the world is much too complex for the simplicity of a beast. Years later, Dante was dying in Ravenna, as unjustified and as lonely as any other man. In a dream, God declared to him the secret purpose of his life and work; Dante, in wonderment, knew at last who and what he was and blessed the bitterness of his life. Tradition relates that, upon waking, he felt that he had received and lost an infinite thing, something he would not be able to recuperate or even glimpse, for the machinery of the world is much too complex for the simplicity of men.
If you’re going to read any of Labyrinths, check out the parables. They’re beautiful and undeniably brilliant.
I’d never read any Borges until now. I’d heard his name associated with Calvino and Lightman, so I figured I’d probably like it. Labyrinths was a harder read than I’d expected, and I had a hard time getting through it, but it was immensely rewarding. Borges is like T.S. Eliot and Yeats in that he draws the whole of history into a very short form, and I can see how he’s a poet at heart.
Borges was also a librarian.