Borges’ presence is one that can still be felt strongly in the city of Buenos Aires, even now, 30 years after his death. Whether it be admiring his statue in the historic Café Tortoni, walking down the street in Palermo where he lived with his grandparents that now bears his name, or in a bookstore on the corner of Corrientes and Uruguay and wondering whether it is the same one referenced in ‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius’; at least in this city, Jorge Luis Borges may never die. Borges’ most famous works are short stories which have heavy fantasy and surrealist themes; as such he has been a great influence for other writers, Argentine or otherwise, in these genres, and it is thought that the term ‘Magic Realism’, a genre so pervasive in Latin American literature, was first coined to describe one of Borges’ works.
His 1944 collection Ficciones is the work that stands out most in the mind of myself and many others, not its own novel but 2 collections of short stories presented together. In these stories, however, it is not hard to find some sort of cohesion through theme and symbol and the book is pleasing to read from cover to cover. One of the most striking themes which brings the stories together is the abundant references to books and literature, be they real or imaginary. One such story that exemplifies this is ‘Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote’. The style of the story is as a literary review, of an interpretation written by Pierre Menard of Don Quixote - only the interpretation is exactly the same as the original. The reviewer claims that Menard wanted to do much more than a simple translation and actually become Miguel Cervantes; and for his efforts, his version is much better than the original.
The reviewing of imaginary books could be an inventive device to Borges to put across his own philosophies, thoughts and ideas, or at least that is the impression one gets from a story such as ‘Three Versions of Judas’, this time of 3 controversial books written to claim that Judas was in fact the truest reflection of God in the Christian faith; that his flaws were exemplary of what it means to be human. His musings turn very existential in the case of ‘The Lottery in Babylon’; a city where a normal lottery turns into an entity that controls everything that happens in the city and to its citizens, and entry is compulsory. Rumours start to be heard that the company that run the lottery do not, and never will exist, and the men left must decide what they believe - not that it will change their luck in the game. The story of the lottery gives a reader a lot of food for thought on the topics of faith, luck and fate.
It is not, however, necessary to work your brain on overdrive searching for hidden meanings in this collection. Through all these abstract and allegorical tales, Borges remains interesting and fun to read, and the collection even contains somewhat of a murder-mystery in the form of ‘Death and the Compass’, a more straightforward story which in itself seems to warn of the danger of over thinking, something which perhaps Borges wants us to keep in mind when reading his other stories.