Creator: Jorge Luis Borges
Jorge Luis Borges
(1899-1986) is considered the greatest Argentine
writer of the twentieth century and an immensely influential author. His short stories, essays and poetry blend truth and fiction in unexpected ways, playing Mind Screws
on the reader at every turn, and exploring deep philosophical themes (idealism, determinism, infinity, the search for personal identity, fiction vs. reality, humanity vs. divinity...) in a rigorous but entertaining way. He is considered an important precursor and originator of many Post Modern
devices. Borges himself was an Ultraist, a short lived movement that originated in early 20th-century Spain (where Borges arrived around 1920).
Borges became blind due to an inherited disease in his middle age and blindness is a recurring Motif
in his later works. Other common motifs are labyrinths, mirrors, libraries, tigers, and daggers. The blind monk Jorge de Burgos in Umberto Eco
's The Name of the Rose
is one allusion to Borges. The blind librarian in The Shadow of the Torturer
by Gene Wolfe
may be another.
Some of his best known short stories (Borges didn't write any novels) are:
- "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius ": An Ancient Conspiracy to create a complete fictional universe is discovered by the narrator in the form of an encyclopedia describing the nation of Uqbar and its mythology about the land of Tlön. Its plan is to recreate Earth in the form of Tlön by subconsciously persuading everyone that it is true. They succeed.
- The Library of Babel: This story describes a universe consisting of a huge, endless library, that contains all possible books (that is to say, all possible combinations of letters, spaces, and punctuation given a certain number of characters per book)— but arranged with no discernible order or pattern.
- "The Garden of Forking Paths": The Framing Device is a spy story set at World War I where The Protagonist visiting Mr. Exposition who explains the idea of time branching forwards into Alternate Universes note .
- "Death and the Compass": A Genre Deconstruction of the Detective Fiction that seems to follow a Connect the Deaths plot — but with a twist at the end.
- "Funes the Memorious": After being concussed and paralyzed from the waist down in a riding accident, a young man suddenly finds that he has a literally photographic memory — he can remember everything that he has experienced, every second of every day of his life, down to the minutest possible detail. As he goes on living, the number of things he remembers continues piling up. This has a very strange effect on the way he sees the world, and after meeting him, Borges' narrator cannot decide whether Funes is Cursed with Awesome or Blessed with Suck.
- "The Aleph": A mediocre poet has found in his basement an Aleph, a point that reflects every other point in the universe and from which everything can be seen simultaneously and together... and he uses it to write a poem.
- "The Cult of the Phoenix": A group of madmen, outcasts, women, children, and urchins founds a philosophical school that lasts for thousands of years and secretly manipulates all other religions behind the scenes. They're the good guys.
- "Averroes's Search" An exploration of the Tragic Dream in the character of Averroes, an Islamic philosopher who hoped to explain Aristotle’s works to Islamic culture. Averroes's problem is that, being confined to the sphere of Islam, he cannot understand the terms “Tragedy” and “Comedy” that constantly pop up in Aristotle’s canon. Suddenly there is No Ending and Borges is Breaking the Fourth Wall to inform us that this story is his own Tragic Dream, because as a twentieth-century author, he has no better chance of successfully imagining the character of a twelfth-century Arab with nothing better to go on than some literary references. This realization forces him to recognize the Recursive Reality of literature, and conduces Borges to a Creator Breakdown and his story to a No Ending because a minor case of Author Existence Failure.
- "The Two Kings and the Two Labyrinths": A deconstruction of Sealed Room in the Middle of Nowhere: The Prideful King of Babylon mocks the King of Arabia by forcing him to enter his labyrinth. The King of Arabia asks for God's help, and gets out. He tells the King of Babylon he knows a better labyrinth and some day he will show it to him. Years later, the Arabian King makes war and dethrones the King of Babylon, drags him out into the Arabian desert and abandons him there, where he died from thirst and hunger in a "labyrinth with no walls".
- "The Immortal:" A literary agent announces the discovery of a diary of a man that claims to have achieved Complete Immortality.
- "The Dead Man:" Borges narrates the seemingly impossible life and death of Benjamín Otalora, a courageous Argentinean hoodlum who emigrated to the frontier and became the leader of a band of smugglers, explaining why it was possible.
- "Deutsches Requiem:" The last testament of Otto Dietrich zur Linde, the one-legged commandant of a Nazi concentration camp. After being tried and convicted of crimes against humanity, Zur Linde reflects that while his comrades were mere StrawNihilists, he (and Hitler) were real Ubermenschen, and tries to explain humanity's future while he awaits the firing squad; his position is that the violence of Nazi Germany has successfully dethroned and destroyed the weak, hypocritical phantoms of Judaism and Christianity forever... and all it took was the sacrifice of Germany itself.
- Alternatively, A twentieth century German Torture Technician tries in vain, before his execution, to exculpate himself, never suspecting that the secret justification for his life is that he has inspired a writer to create a new trope.
half of his stories are about South Americans knife fighting, such as "The South". He also wrote poetry and literary criticism.
Some of his poems are:
Some of his best-known literary essays are:
- "Half-Way House" by Ellery Queen: A simple critique of the rules of Mystery Literature and how that genre is different from the Adventure Novel or the Spy Fiction. Also explains why Ellery Queen works could be considered as Growing the Beard on the genre. You can find the quote at the Ellery Queen page.
- Borges explains the Logic Bomb in his essay The perpetual Race of Achilles and the Turtle. Zeno's paradox has survived 23 centuries and now could be declared "immortal": In a race, the quickest runner can never overtake the slowest, since the pursuer must first reach the point whence the pursued started, so that the slower must always hold a lead. In Real Life Achilles really can outrun the Turtle, but all the mere logic in the world cannot help explain why. At his other essay, "Avatars of the Turtle", he comes to its Logical Extreme: The fact we cannot solve this paradox acts like a Dream Within a Dream, showing us that Real Life is All Just a Dream.
Let us admit what all idealists admit: the hallucinatory nature of the world. Let us do what no idealist has done: seek unrealities which confirm that nature. We shall find them, I believe, in the antonomies of Kant and in the dialectic of Zeno. The greatest magician (Novalis has memorably written) would be the one who would cast over himself a spell so complete that he would take his own phantasmagorias as autonomous appearances. Would not this be our case? In conjecture that this is so: We (the undivided divinity operating within us) have dreamt the world. We have dreamt it as firm, mysterious, visible, ubiquitous in space and durable in time; but in its architecture we have allowed tenuous and eternal crevices of unreason which tell us it is false.
This author's works provide examples of:
- Adaptation Expansion: The movie version of "Death and the Compass"; the added material actually makes the story more of a Mind Screw. "Days of Hate", a screenplay adaptation of "Emma Zunz"
- Ancient Conspiracy: "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius "; played with in "The Cult of the Phoenix". Invoked at "Death and the Compass". Deconstructed in "The Lottery in Babylon": The conspiracy is so secretive, nobody could be sure it is ancient or not.
- And I Must Scream: Perhaps the only positive use of this trope ever takes place in "The Secret Miracle".
- Another subversion is The Condemned: In some street of Buenos Aires, two Bit Part Bad Guys are going to fight. Ezequiel Tabares wants revenge because El Chengo stealed Matilde from him, and impatiently waits for him repeatedly entering a little bar. Ezequiel can see the new houses and the buses pass through him. He doesn’t realize that he’s Dead All Along and condemned to a "Groundhog Day" Loop of his final moments… and he doesn’t care either. His own hate fulfill him.
- Animal Motifs: tigers, featured or mentioned in many of his stories. Particularly important when you consider that one of the Zahir was once a tiger.
- Artifact of Attraction: El Zahir is the most fascinating object in the world. It doesn't matter what it is - in this case, it's a scarred coin, but there's always one Zahir in the world at any one time (but God is good and doesn't let two things be the Zahir at the same time). Zahir is an Arabic word meaning "the obvious meaning," "the conspicuous" or "something that cannot be ignored."
- Later, Borges wrote that one of the characters of this tale, Teodelina Villar, was a deconstruction of this trope: Who could be fascinating to anyone in Real Life? A Shallow Love Interest, someone who nobody (not even the guy who is in love with her) can define why is he in love: Teodelina was a Rich in Dollars, Poor in Sense Rich Bitch when she was young, and then she was a Fallen Princess. Even when Borges describes her as pretty stupid, he claims to love her, even when he cannot justify why, except because Borges admit he is a snob.
- This trope is deconstructed again at "Deutsches Requiem:" Otto Dietrich Zur Linde, director of a concentration camp, realizes that he could invoke this trope as a form of Cold-Blooded Torture. He even describes this method, but an editor censors it:
- The Disk, a woodcutter once met an old man who claimed to be King of the sects, and to prove it show him the disk of Odin, that has but one side. There is not another thing on earth that has but one side. The woodcutter wants it and kills the old man, who left the disk on the floor. The woodcutter says he is still looking for the disk after many long years
- Ascended Fanfic: "The End" and "A Biography of Tadeo Isidoro Cruz" are expansions on Martín Fierro.
- Author Existence Failure: "Averroes's Search": A subversion, when Borges has his Creator Breakdown, he stops believing in the characters of this story, forcing a No Ending.
- Author Stand-In: Borges doubles as narrator in "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius ", "The Aleph", "Funes the Memorious", "The Other", "The Other Death", and several other stories.
- The Bad Guy Wins: Arguably, "Garden of Forking Paths". Definitively, "Death and the Compass", "The Dead Man"
- Beethoven Was an Alien Spy: "The Immortal", in which Homer has become immortal.
- Big Bad: Azevedo Bandeira in "The Dead Man", Red Scharlach in "Death and the Compass".
- Bilingual Bonus: There is a famous Brahms composition called Ein deutsches requiem that could be translated as A german requiem, but the title of one of Borges' stories is "Deutsches Requiem" — "A requiem for Germany". The tale is told by a Nazi who admits that his party has destroyed their own country.
- Blessed with Suck: "Funes the Memorious", a story about a man who can remember absolutely everything he experiences, damning him to be tortured by the memory of every last detail of every single fraction of a second he ever lives through.
- Brown Note: "The Zahir".
- The Chessmaster: Red Scharlach in "Death and the Compass"; Azevedo Bandeira in "The Dead Man"; James Alexander Nolan in "Theme of the Traitor and the Hero"; Eric Einarsson in "The Bribe".
- Clingy Macguffin: "The Zahir."
- Creator Breakdown: "Averroes's Search" : Subverted when Borges realizes he has broke the Stable Fictional Loop and incurred in an Ontological Paradox, the short story suffers a No Ending.
- Connect the Deaths: "Death and the Compass".
- Cthulhu Mythos: "There Are More Things", written in memory of Lovecraft. Incidentally, Borges considered Lovecraft more like an involuntary parodist of Poe.
- Culture Clash: Combined with Pop-Culture Isolation in "Averroes's Search" to explain why Averroes, an Islamic philosopher, had trouble translating Aristotle.
- Delayed Ripple Effect: "The Other Death".
- Determinator: Deconstructed in "The Garden of Forking Paths", "The Shape of the Sword" and "Emma Zunz". The protagonists had a goal and they will cross the Despair Event Horizon to achieve it, only to ask themselves if Was It Really Worth It? for the rest of their lives. The protagonist of "The Other Death" achieved his goal, but just at the moment of his death after trying for it all his life. The narrator thinks nobody could be happier than him.
- Doppelgänger: "The Other" and "August 25, 1983".
- Dream Weaver: "The Circular Ruins"
- The Empire: England and Germany:
- "The Garden of Forking Paths"'' the Framing Device is a Trenchcoat Brigade type of Spy Fiction in World War I, where a Chinese is obliged to spy for Germany, and is chased by an Irish agent working for the English. The Chinese reflects that for him, Germany is a barbarian country (maybe excepting Goethe) and the Irish agent must surely know that his masters despise him for being an Irishman, but they are both still obliged to be the UnwittingPawns of countries they hate.
- "The Shape of the Sword" and "Theme of the Traitor and the Hero": The protagonists of those stories are part of the Irish La Résistance.
- "The Man on the Threshold": A British government official in The Raj investigates the disappearance of a judge. La Résistance kidnapped him to judge him for being an Evil Colonialist Hanging Judge.
- Fallen Princess: Teodelina Villar from "The Zahir".
- Going Native: "Story of the Warrior and the Captive Maiden" contrasts two opposite examples of this trope.
- Great Big Book of Everything/Tome of Eldritch Lore: "The Book of Sand".
- Heh Heh, You Said X: "The Cult of the Phoenix":
There are no decent words to name it, but it is understood that all words name it, or rather, inevitably allude to it; I might be speaking in a conversation and the adepts would suddenly smile or become uncomfortable, because they felt that I had unknowingly touched on the Secret.
- Lured Into a Trap: In "Death and the Compass", the entire Connect the Deaths plot is bait to lure the detective to a location where his enemy can kill him.
- Magic Realism: many of his stories are in this genre, and he was part of the so-called "Latin American Boom" that helped popularize it.
- Arguably, he's also one of the founders of it and by far one of the most well known, along with Gabriel García Márquez.
- Massive Multiplayer Scam: "The Dead Man", "The Man on the Threshold", "Theme of the Traitor and the Hero".
- Meaningful Name: Plenty, often combined with Shout-Out. For example, Carlos Argentino Daneri in "The Aleph" is a play on Dante Alighieri (his cousin is called Beatriz), and Pedro Damián in "The Other Death" references medieval philosopher Pier Damiani, as lampshaded in the story itself.
- Mighty Whitey: Deconstructed in "The Dead Man".
- Subverted in "The Gospel According to Mark", when the family of backcountry illiterates to whom the protagonist has been reading the Bible decide to crucify him in hopes of being forgiven for their sins.
- Mind Screw: Where to start?
- Special mention goes to "Averroes's Search". In it, the Islamic philosopher Averroes investigates a Greek translation and ponders the meaning of "tragedy" and "comedy", which he can't understand because he lives in a culture in which the art of dramatic performance doesn't exist. After hearing with some guests a story about China and the performers that live there and Completely Missingthe Point about the whole "acting" thing, he starts meditating and eventually has a sudden realization about the meaning of "tragedy" and "comedy", which turns out to be wrong. He then disappears, as do his house and all those that were in it, without leaving a trace. Borges then explains within the story that he himself had to understand Averroes to write the story, and like Averroes, had no real chance of doing so. The writer, could no longer believe in Averroes as a character and he naturally disappeared completely along with his house.
- Mock Millionaire: At his prologue of Thorstein Veblen's Theory Of The Leisure Class (The reader can find more about this book at Conspicuous Consumption, Real Life) Borges shows us a harsh critic for Argentinean society:
- Mortality Ensues: The protagonist of "The Immortal" finds a river that makes anyone who drinks from it immortal; after around a thousand years he and the other immortals gets bored and goes off on a ultimately successful search for a hypothetical sister river that will make him mortal again.
- Motive Misidentification: "The Death and the Compass": Great Detective thinks the Diabolical Mastermind is looking for a Magical Incantation. The real Evil Plan is more sinister (and logical).
- No Ending: "Averroes's Search" ends with all the characters and his surroundings suddenly disappearing, except maybe the Guadalquivir River.
- "There Are More Things", although written like a Lovecraft story, abruptly ends two-thirds of the way through its ostensible plot.
- Nonsense Classification: His fake Chinese encyclopedia, the Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge, with its classification of animals: (a) those that belong to the emperor; (b) embalmed ones; (c) those that are trained; (d) suckling pigs; (e) mermaids; (f) fabulous ones; (g) stray dogs; (h) those that are included in this classification; (i) those that tremble as if they were mad; (j) innumerable ones; (k) those drawn with a very fine camel's-hair brush; (l) etcetera; (m) those that have just broken the flower vase; (n) those that at a distance resemble flies.
- Perspective Flip: "The House of Asterion", in which the narrator tells us of his strange life in his strange house; upon reaching the end we realize that the narrator is the Minotaur and the house is the Labyrinth. (Well, the reader realizes it about halfway through if he's conversant with ancient mythology.)
- And a story sketched in "The Zahir," whose protagonist is an ascetic living in isolation in a wasteland called gnittaheidr, guarding a huge treasure to protect lesser men from the temptation it causes (including his own father, whom he killed). in the end, it turns out the protagonist is Fafnir, who was turned into a giant serpent by the Ring of the Nibelungen and slain by Siegfried.
- The shape of the sword: A man with a scar tells Borges how he got it: When he was a young irish rebel, a comrade called Moon, whom he saved from death, betrayed him to the Englishmen and he gave Moon a Mark of Shame. When Borges asks him to finish the story, the man reveals himself as the traitor Moon. His Guilt Complex is so big he only can tell the story of his treason invoking a Perspective Flip.
- Pirate Girl: "The Widow Ching, Lady Pirate"
- The Plan: "Death and the Compass"; "The Dead Man".
- Pop-Culture Isolation: In-Universe example meets Truth in Television in "Averroes's Search" : Averroes, an Islamic philosopher, never could understand the terms tragedy and comedy... any more than Borges, a South American writer in the twentieth century, could understand Averroes.
- Poe's Law: His prologue to Thorstein Veblen's Theory Of The Leisure Class:
When, many years ago, I was given this book, I thought it was a satire. I learned later that it was the first work of a distinguished sociologist. At any rate, when we look closely enough at any society, we can see that it is not a Utopia and its fair description runs the risk of bordering on satire.
- Post Modernism.
- Photographic Memory: The titular character of "Funes the Memorious". The story also deconstructs it.
- Reality Subtext: In the essay "Kafka and His Precursors", Borges presents us with various literary works whose tone and material seem like forerunners of Franz Kafka. Before Kafka, though, no one would have said they had much in common. Borges argues that the reality of the author's later career created its precursors, retroactively linking these dissimilar works together.
- The poem "Sherlock Holmes" is about how this fictional character managed to survive his Creator Backlash to the point to Outlive His Creator, realizing that literature has made an immortal character simply because Holmes was never alive. Borges published this poem in Los conjurados, his last book, and died some months after its publication.
- Reality Warper: "The Circular Ruins"
- Recursive Reality: "Averroe's Search" : In the last page, Borges realizes that he has broke the Stable Fictional Loop and incurred in an Ontological Paradox
I felt, on the last page, that my narration was a symbol of the man I was as I wrote it and that, in order to compose that narration, I had to be that man and, in order to be that man, I had to compose that narration, and so on to infinity.
- Rewriting Reality: "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius " and "The Other Death".
- Satellite Love Interest: Borges claims that this trope is the deconstruction of the Artifact of Attraction trope: When someone falls in love with someone else without any reason. Borges cannot define why he is in love (fascinated by) Teodelina, a pretty shallow Rich Bitch that later becomes a Fallen Princess... except that Borges is a snob himself.
- Serial Killings, Specific Target: An early example of the device, "Death and the Compass" offers an interesting Double Subversion in that the villain's intended victim is the detective himself, who turns up early after deducing the particular place and time suggested by the pattern to try and stop the last murder. He thus becomes the victim of an ambush by the killer, his longtime Arch-Enemy. The added twist makes this story a bit of an early, Unbuilt Trope version of the device.
- Shoot the Shaggy Dog: "Death and the Compass", "The Garden of Forking Paths".
- Shout-Out: Pretty much every author in the Western and Eastern literary and philosophical canon gets a Shout-Out in some Borges story or another. For example, "Death and the Compass" has Shout Outs to philosopher Baruch Spinoza and authors Edgar Allan Poe and James Joyce, among others.
- Stylistic Suck: Carlos Argentino Daneri's poems in "The Aleph". The narrator decides that Daneri is very talented; it's just that his talent is not for writing poetry, but for inventing reasons why his own poetry is so good.
- Combined with Wasted A Perfectly Good Plot in "A Survey of the Works of Herbert Quain". The titular author wrote (among other things) a collection of short stories, each of which promises and hints at a good plot and then intentionally frustrates it; the annoyed reader is meant to ponder what Quain should have done with each story, thus arriving at his own version of the plot Quain intended.
- Through the Eyes of Madness: "The House of Asterion"
- Time Stands Still: "The Secret Miracle"
- Tomato in the Mirror: "The Circular Ruins"
- Tragic Dream: "Averroes's Search" : Averroes tries to explain Aristotle without understanding the terms Tragedy and Comedy and Borges trying to imagine Averroes.
- Unreliable Narrator:
- "The Other Death"; "The Immortal". The reliability of the narrator is questioned explicitly in the stories themselves; the latter one almost takes it into Deconstruction territory.
- "A Survey of the Works of Herbert Quain" mentions a detective novel in which, based on the final paragraph, the careful reader can discover that the solution to the mystery was wrong and, with that additional piece of information, can reconstruct what actually happened.
- Similarly, "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius " begins with the narrator and a friend discussing how one might write a novel with a narrator so subtly unreliable that only a few perceptive readers would be able to figure out the truth.
- Unwitting Pawn: Lönnrott in "Death and the Compass", Every Babylon citizen (except those already in The Conspiracy in "The Lottery in Babylon"
- We Are Everywhere: Deconstructed in "The Lottery in Babylon:" The Company is continually trying to introduce chaos at Babylon, and everyone knows they have infiltrated the city. Given anyone could work for them, those who aren’t working for them are Properly Paranoid about being manipulated into being their Unwitting Pawns:
- Who Wants to Live Forever?: "The Immortal".
- Your Mind Makes It Real: "The Circular Ruins" in a personal level. "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius " on a global scale.