October 13th, 2008

Borges: Fictions

Borges may have lived his life as though trapped in a library of interconnecting hexagonal galleries, but most of us don't.  He leaves too much out of his fictions for them to be accepted as any sort of true allegory of existence.  His fantasies are paper-thin. For instance, if the guy in that particular story- The Library of Babel-  was able to write the text we're reading there must be other writings in his world- apart, that is, from the nonsensical ones on the shelves- and once you make such a supposition the whole fabric begins to tear apart.  Apparently there are "authorities" is his world too- but how can they possibly be organised? And do people not reproduce?  Oh- and a silly one this- apparently they excrete, but how do they eat exactly? This  nightmare universe comes equipped- very thoughtfully-  with lavatories, but not with kitchens.

Borges fictions are dreams- and like dreams illogical and flimsy- which would matter less if they didn't make such a parade of their logic. They frighten us with their inescapable labyrinths- only the labyrinths are full of holes.

It's a familiar 20th century trick- and with distance we're getting to see just what a trick it is: you create fiction from which you wilfully omit everything that gives life colour,  then complain about how life is a prison.  It's like that line of Beckett's, "They give birth above an open grave". Yeah, but what about all the stuff in between? Nabokov had a smack at this literary miserabilism in his early novel, Invitation to a Beheading- where a guy who's been stewing away in prison a la Kafka suddenly comes round and realises that the walls are cardboard and he can kick them down.

I can't help noticing- indeed, Borges openly acknowledges the debt- how much he owes to G.K Chesterton. And not only in matters of mood and style.  The plot of Death and the Compass is- for one example among many- merely a variant on that of The Mystery of the Blue Cross. The difference is that Chesterton's labyrinths are built to be broken out of, where Borges always shuts the door behind us with a fateful clang.  I know which version of reality I prefer- and believe to be closer to the truth.

I enjoy Borges. His little stories are very moreish. As art there's a lot to be said for them. Certain images- that infinite library for instance- are indelible. The mistake would be- and for many people has been- to suppose they have anything to do with life. Writing about labyrinths doesn't ipso facto make you profound.