Labyrinths: Selected Stories and Other Writings
by Jorge Luis Borges

A Review by Scott finished Oct. 5, 2011

This review will contain spoilers!

In many sentences:

There is so much to talk about with Labyrinths that I don't even know where to start. First of all, after reading this collection, I think Borges is phenomenal and I can't wait to read more of his short stories. His ability to turn a story on its head is so much fun to read. I like to think of his writing as being metaphysical fiction, which now that I've read his stuff, makes me wonder how no one else has written anything like this before.

One aspect of his metaphysical fiction that I enjoy so much is the way he approaches the meta-aspect of his stories. Instead of doing a typical meta-narrative approach where the author talks about what he's writing, or realizes he is writing something, or introduces a "story within a story", Borges takes the approach of making the meta-narrative elements the focus of the story. For example, in Uqbar, Borges doesn't create the fictional worlds himself, but rather talks about how they were discovered and then the process of how they were created. This extra abstraction is fascinating and engrossing.

These meta-discussions do not stop with the fiction either. In his note to Bernard Shaw he writes "Those who practice this game forget that a book is more than a verbal structure or series of verbal structures; it is the dialogue it establishes with its reader and the intonation it imposes upon his voice and the changing and durable images it leaves in his memory" (213).

Then there is "Paul Menard" which introduces all these great insights into interpretation of literature, by setting up a scenario in which a modern author sits down and writes Don Quixote (already a meta-narrative book in its own right). I think this approach of creating these scenarios, treating them as though they are true, tying them in with the truth, and then using them for the purposes of discussing the meta aspects of their subject (be it literature, or a philosophical construct) is great. Reading his works has worked a paradigm shift within my head that I don't think I will ever (not that I want to) lose. It's as though Borges has allowed me to "step back" from the book to a new level I didn't know existed.

Beyond this general review, I enjoyed nearly all the short stories. If I had to pick 3 favorites, it would be "Uqbar", "Paul Menard", and "Emma Zunz". The essays did not have quite the same punch as the short stories, but that isn't to say they weren't interesting.

One of the themes that Borges seems to continue to come back to, and that I found interesting, was the application of infinity to human thought and existence. Ultimately, he seems to say, an individual and an individual moment are not unique if we stretch time to infinity because at some point it will, necessarily, happen again. At the same time, all humanity becomes one if we stretch it to infinity because it repeats itself and what's the difference if someone does it now or in a million years? The repetition brings solidarity. "The truth is that we live our lives putting off all that we can put off; perhaps we all know deep down that we are immortal and that sooner or later all men will do an know all things" (64).

This theme crops up again in "The Immortals" where he discusses how what's surprising isn't that the Odyssey was ever written, but if it had not been written. Given enough time, he claims, it has to be written (114).

In "Funes the Memorius" Borges writes "The two projects I have indicated (an infinite vocabulary for the natural series of numbers, a useless mental catalogue of all the images of his memory) are senseless, but they betray a certain stammering grandeur" (65). When I read this I could not help but realize that I sometimes fear my own projects of capturing and quantifying my own experiences (particularly my experiences with literature) are senseless. Hopefully they have their own stammering grandeur to compensate?

"Then he reflected that reality does not usually coincide with our anticipation of it" (89).

I love the twist on the chance of life that "The Lottery of Babylon" presents. Especially the way Borges is able to sneak up the fact that it is a take on the "chance" of life by starting the lottery out as simple and slowly expanding it to be all encompassing, transparent, and secret. Extremely well done. The twist in "The House of Asterion" when it is revealed that the narrator is the minotaur (and how it switches to third person) was also great. I also liked how "Emma Zunz" plays out and the revelation of the lengths she was willing to go in order to get away with her crime.

Finally, because even though I'm still young, I find myself indulging in these types of thoughts, I'm going to include this quote from "The Witness": "What will die with me when I die, what pathetic or fragile form will the world lose?" (243). If it isn't clear by now, Labyrinths comes highly recommended.

First Line

"I owe the discovery of Uqbar to the conjunction of a mirror and an encyclopedia."

Jorge Luis Borges the First Line of Labyrinths: Selected Stories and Other Writings

Last Line

"Oh destiny of Borges, perhaps no stranger than your own."

Jorge Luis Borges the Last Line of in Labyrinths: Selected Stories and Other Writings

Favorite Quote

"Death (or its allusion) makes men precious and pathetic."

Jorge Luis Borges in Labyrinths: Selected Stories and Other Writings

Originally Published Jan. 1, 1962

Paperback edition:

256 pages - Sept. 21, 2011

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