‘Death and the Compass’ by Jorge Luis Borges

I’m not sure how I first came across Borges, although it may have been the striking cover of the King Penguin edition of this book that drew me in. However, as soon as I started reading, I felt that if ever there was a collection that had been constructed with me in mind as the reader, this was it.
Borges is essentially two very different writers. First of all, he is a philosopher. Every story absolutely fizzes with original and unusual theories and ideas – more so even than any science fiction writer, with the possible exception of Stanislaw Lem, who we’ll come along to in a minute. On the other hand, he is a wonderfully lyrical writer, full of poetry and magical imagery. But the extraordinary thing is that the two aspects are somehow completely intertwined, so that only Borges the poet could present the ideas of Borges the theorist.
I could have picked almost any one out of this set, but I’ve gone for ‘Death and the Compass’, a detective story that goes off at something of a tangent. The central conceit was borrowed by Peter Greenaway in the somewhat Borgesian film The Draughtsman’s Contract, and also by Umberto Eco in The Name of the Rose, where he even went so far as naming one of his characters Jorge de Burgos. (For what it’s worth, I tried to pull the same trick off myself in my first Mathematical Mystery The Truth About Archie and Pye, but sadly no-one noticed, even though the first murder victim was called George Burgess. Well, there you go.)

First published in Sur in May 1942 and collected in Labyrinths, various editions

‘The Aleph’ by Jorge Luis Borges, translated by Andrew Hurley

As for many, my first encounter with Borges – in my case with the incredible collection Labyrinths – changed everything. He cracks open the very idea of what a story might be and reading for him for the first time is a dizzying experience of extraordinary possibility. But the truth is that some of Borges’s best stories are not really ‘stories’ as such. There is little narrative; they are instead philosophical exercises, paradoxical vignettes, speculations, puzzles, prose poems. But of course, all those things are ‘stories’ too, or at least they are now that Borges has shown us so.
‘The Aleph’ contains one of Borges’s most dazzling metaphysical inventions. It is a curious tale of lost love and the narrator’s (Borges, himself) uneasy relationship with the poet Carlos Argentino. It is not until the story is almost done that we have the first mention of the Aleph itself; which Borges calls “the ineffable center of my tale.” The passage in which he finally gazes upon it, “a small iridescent sphere of almost unbearable brightness”, and sees everything that has passed, everywhere and in all times, is justly renowned, and is not unlike the experience of encountering Borges’s work for the first time; after, nothing can be the same again.

First published in the Argentine journal Sur in 1945. First published in English in The Aleph and Other Stories, Jonathan Cape, 1971. Currently available in The Aleph, Penguin Modern Classics, 2000 and Collected Fictions, Viking, 1998

‘The Library of Babel’, by Jorge Luis Borges

I do also have to have Borges in here. His stories are undoubtedly some of the most important pieces of literature of the twentieth century. I could have chosen any of them – I’m not sure there is any other writer of whom I can say that I have read as much as I can find, and never yet encountered a dud. They are jewels, little reflective, magical worlds that shatter as you read them. I could choose any, so I’ve gone for the one that is emblematic of the whole project – the labyrinthine Library of Babel. It is a game, a philosophical exploration, and a surprisingly straight bit of science fiction fantasy.

First published in Spanish as ‘La biblioteca de Babel’ in El jardín de los senderos que se bifurcan, Sur, 1941. First published in English in Labyrinths, New Directions, 1962, and Fictions, Grove Press, 1962

‘The Library of Babel’ by Jorge Luis Borges

So, Borges. I would be remiss not to include ‘The Library of Babel’, as it has become a symbol for my whole life in letters and affinity for baroque multiverses. Borges melts the blue popsicle where your brain should be. I’m not going to spoil the story by telling you anything other than you will come to an affection for hexagons that exceeds all moderation. You can also visit a version of the library online, such is the miracle of our age. It was originally published in Spanish in 1941, and then in English in 1962, in the Labyrinths anthology which you can still read in its entirely from New Directions.

First published in Spanish as ‘La biblioteca de Babel’ in El jardín de los senderos que se bifurcan, Sur, 1941. First published in English in Labyrinths, New Directions, 1962, and Fictions, Grove Press, 1962.

‘The Babylonian Lottery’ by Jorge Luis Borges

The second Borges I would pick is a difficult choice. I stroke them all lovingly and whisper little missives begging forgiveness here. Right now, ‘The Babylonian Lottery’ (also in Labyrinths or the collected Ficciones) feels the most apt. What is predestined? What is free will? What is orchestrated and what is random? This is the kind of story that makes you grow up to either write history or become an idling surf nomad on a beach somewhere with a permanent tan. One or the other really. You have been suitably warned. This is a Roman quartz-crystal die that I think of when I re-read this story.

First published in Spanish as ‘La lotería en Babilonia’ in Sur, 1941 and collected in El jardín de los senderos que se bifurcan, Sur, 1941. First published in English, translated by Anthony Boucher, in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, August 1948. Collected in Labyrinths, New Directions, 1962, and Fictions, Grove Press, 1962.

‘The House of Asterion’ by Jorge Luis Borges

I am ending, looping back, with more Borges. Borges’ ‘The House of Asterion’ is one of those stories for the always-circling-around-the-Iliad-drain types of people that I am, except it’s about Minos and a very famous labyrinth. It’s sad and beautiful all at once. It is unlikely, given the small extant corpus of examples of Linear A, that there will be some second Michael Ventris incident, and the language will be suddenly deciphered. Probably they are palace or trade inventories, these fragments. I like to pretend though, that this story is what is written on all of them instead. That would be something, wouldn’t it? Like seeing something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky…

First published in Spanish as ‘La casa de Asterión’ in Los Anales de Buenos Aires, 1947 and collected in El Aleph, Editorial Losada, 1949. First translated by James Irby and Donald Yates and collected in Labyrinths, New Directions, 1962, with other translations following.

‘The Garden of Forking Paths’ by Jorge Luis Borges

This web of time – the strands of which approach one another, bifurcate, intersect or ignore each other through the centuries – embraces every possibility.
Dr. Stephen Albert 

Every other Personal Anthology seems to include a Borges story, which suits me because as far as I’m concerned, he redefined what short fiction could be and transcended that same definition. I could choose any one of his stories and be happy, but I’ve gone with ‘The Garden of Forking Paths’ because, as far as I can remember, it was the first Borges story I ever read.

It contains his usual preoccupations: philosophy, time, labyrinths, but it also manages to be a spy thriller, almost cinematic in parts, and makes me wonder if anyone might be brave enough to adapt it in some way. Borges’ stories have everything. They contain, not multitudes, but infinities. 

First published in English in Fictions, 1962. Now available in Fictions and Labyrinths, Penguin Classics, 1999

‘El Aleph’ / ‘The Aleph’, by Jorge Luis Borges

My Spanish has never been up to reading this in the original, although I continue to cherish the edition of the collection that I bought in Mexico City in the late ‘90s. The humour and profundity in this story – in which the protagonist encounters, in a friend’s cellar, a point in space containing all other points; a point from which he can see everything in the universe, including you, the reader – continues to dazzle. A trip to Buenos Aire five years ago became a Borges pilgrimage, although I regret not visiting Garay Street where this story is set.

First published in the Argentine journal Sur in 1945. First published in English in The Aleph and Other Stories, Jonathan Cape, 1971. Currently available in The Aleph, Penguin Modern Classics, 2000 and Collected Fictions, Viking, 1998

‘The Aleph’ by Jorge Luis Borges

I have very little to say about this story. Only that this was one of the first short stories I read, years ago. It emptied my mind, is all I can say, and it’s what a writer, this writer, is aiming for, but is so rarely achieved. Talking about it only takes me further away from it, and is no substitute for reading it. Luckily, you can do that here, a 1945 translation by Norman Thomas Di Giovanni in collaboration with the author.

First published in the Argentine journal Sur in 1945. First published in English in The Aleph and Other Stories, Jonathan Cape, 1971. Currently available in The Aleph, Penguin Modern Classics, 2000 and Collected Fictions, Viking, 1998

‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius’, by Jorge Luis Borges

I first read this when I was really young, way too young to understand that it wouldn’t be viewed by adults as part of a continuum with my other twelve-year-old reading, such as Joan Aiken and Isaac Asimov. And yet actually when I think about it, the story’s odd dark invention of an imaginary encyclopedia article that appears and disappears, an apparently unknown region of the world, hints of hidden brotherhoods, huge conspiracy and mysterious new planets, subject to the intervention of fate – those two authors are in some ways exactly where he belongs. 

First published in Argentinian journal, ‘Sur’, in 1940. First published in English, translated by James E. Irby, in the April 1961 issue of New World Writing and collected in Labyrinths, New Directions, 1961. Variously translated and collected since. Available online here

‘Death and the Compass’ by Jorge Luis Borges

A tale of murder, scholarship and the flawed nature of inductive reasoning, ‘Death and the Compass’ takes liberties with the conventions of detective fiction and, I would argue, provides one of the earliest examples of a story based on a semiotic quest for meaning. Borges exposed readers to the idea that the extensive and obsessive collation of sinister information might reflect a quest for meaning and pattern in a world that seems absurd, random and arbitrarily cruel. The idea has been rendered familiar by some great novels –White Chappell, Scarlet Tracings, The Crying of Lot 49Illuminatus! and Foucault’s Pendulum– but Borges tackled the theme first and in a more concentrated form. The narrative follows the efforts of celebrated detective Lönnrot to solve a series of murders involving cryptic messages, Kabbalistic philosophy, the geometry of the built environment, the detective’s nemesis Red Scharlach and the tetragrammaton – the sacred four-letter name of God. As Lönnrot solves the case, the lines between hunter and hunted are blurred and distinguishing between actions of will and destiny becomes increasingly tricky. A ludic tale with philosophical twists, it’s as entertaining as it is erudite.

First published in Sur in May 1942 and collected in Labyrinths, various editions. Also available online here

‘Funes the Memorious’ by Jorge Luis Borges, translated by James E. Irby

I read this on my teenage bed, whiling away the hours between a school day and another school day, and being amazed at the upside-down universe Borges creates in just a few short paragraphs. It completely changed the way I thought about ‘literature’ (i.e. realist, difficult, old). Suddenly, I realised that ‘literature’ could be a way of defying ordinary life. Borges showed me that it was possible to experiment, to write anything I wanted, to any word-limit. Whenever I need to memorise anything, I think of Funes, struggling with the terrible gift of being able to remember everything that ever happened.

First published in La Nación, June 1942. First published in English in Avon Modern Writing 2, 1954. Collected in Labyrinths, New Directions, 1964/Penguin, 1970 and in Fictions and Collected Fictions, Viking, 1998/Penguin, 2000, where it is translated by Andrew Hurley as ‘Funes, His Memory’

‘Funes the Memorious’ by Jorge Luis Borges

We zoom out from the apertures of lens ‘13’ and ‘30’ and consider a lifetime. The life of Funes is recalled through the narrator’s memory in an insecure way, and the infrequency of their encounters is stressed (‘I never saw him more than three times.’). Frequency does not necessarily inform intensity. Some of the people I love most in my life I’ve have met no more than ten times face-to-face. Borges knew that you can see someone three hundred times in your mind. Perhaps the architecture of them that you’re building in your head is erroneous, and incomplete, but does that make it worthless? Funes is chronometrical and can tell the time without consulting a clock (a method later adapted and adopted by the character, Crocodile Dundee). It’s easy to feel shame when reading this story as it highlights human negligence and ignorance. It shows how complicit we are in the hierarchisation of life. Simone Weil described attention as the ‘purest and rarest form of generosity’ and the story of Funes extends the hand of kindness to memory and leaves us to contemplate its destructive and creative nature.

First published in La Nación in 1942. Collected in Fictions, various editions. Can be read online here

‘Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote’ by Jorge Luis Borges, translated by James E. Irby

(I could just as easily have chosen ‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius’, to be honest.)

I was sitting on a Southern train in London, with this paperback edition of Labyrinths, one of the many books I’d spent my meagre salary on at Foyles, and the parafictional genius of Borges washed over me, making me want to reach out to my fellow passengers to discuss just what Borges was accomplishing, how mind-bending and wickedly funny it all was, coupled with the dizzying sense of unease at not knowing how much of what he is writing actually comes from real sources.

When I got back to my aunt’s house where I was staying I remember going on Twitter to see if anyone had tweeted about this weird boy on the Surrey train cackling to himself.

first published in Spanish in the Argentine journal Sur, May 1939. Collected in Labyrinths, New Directions, 1962. Can be read online here