Now we come to the heart of Jorge Luis Borges’s work. As he matured as a writer, certain themes and subjects began to emerge. One of these is the concept of the double. Numerous stories deal with two seemingly separate characters who in the end turn out to be the same character. More than once, the characters turn out to be Borges himself. He frequently insets himself by name as a fictional character in his stories, which is an intriguing method of juxtaposing reality and fantasy.
One of the best of the stories about doubles, “Borges and I,” is less than a page long. It is actually not so much a conventional story as an explanation of the difference between the literary Borges and the Borges who lives his day to day ordinary life. The literary Borges, he writes, is the one that people recognize and the one who receives all the acclaim, while the other Borges is the scholar who reads and writes in solitude; in the end, the narrator is unsure about which Borges is writing the current story. In another story about doubles, “The Other,” a younger Borges and an older Borges meet on the bank of a river and have a discussion about their mutual life. The younger Borges is in Europe and the older Borges is in New England, and their timelines are decades apart, and yet they somehow link their realities together and share a conversation that they will afterwards forget.
Borges is best known for his fantasies, of course, most of which are elaborate thought experiments. Some of the best deal with fantastic objects or entities people come across that have a profound influence on them. For instance, one of Borges’s most famous stories is “The Aleph,” which is “one of the points in space that contains all points.” Someone who looks into it can see everywhere on Earth at the same time. The discoverer of this wonder is a poet who has been using it to create a grand descriptive work of poetry. The Aleph resides under a stairway in the poet’s house in Argentina, and he invites the narrator, Borges, to view the Aleph before the house is demolished. Borges’s description of the Aleph is one of the sublime masterpieces of literature.
Another story dealing with a fantastic object is “The Zahir.” The Zahir can take various shapes; in the time of the story it is a coin, while in another era it is a tiger. Whatever it is, when someone looks upon it, they cannot ever afterward get it out of their minds, and it eventually drives them mad. The theme of fantastic things leading to madness also lies in the last story in the book, “Shakespeare’s Memory.” In this one, the memory of Shakespeare can be passed from one person to another with their assent. A scholar of Shakespeare thinks that attaining the memory of Shakespeare is a wonderful thing, until it begins to overwhelm his own memory. Eventually he has to get rid of it before he is lost to reality.
One of the most compelling of the stories about fantastic things is “The Immortal.” A man hears of a city of immortal people living in a remote desert area of North Africa; they attain their immortality from the waters of a river. He goes in search of this place and finds the river, but the city is deserted. Near the river in caves live a group of sedentary people who at first seem to be subhuman. It turns out that these are the immortals, but immortality has caused them to become less active and live only in their thoughts. The narrator meets Homer, who has been alive for over a thousand years but now can barely remember how to speak Greek. The narrator realizes that immortality is more of a curse than a gift; he reasons that if there is a river that bestows immortality, then there must be another river that gives back mortality, and he goes in search of it.
Many of the stories are not fantasies, but instead are based on Argentinean historical characters or legends. These often deal with gangsters, gauchos, ranch life, and knife fights as indicators of manhood. In one particularly horrifying story called “The Gospel of St. Mark,” a student becomes isolated at a remote ranch with a family of ignorant laborers. To pass the time, he reads the gospel story from the Bible to the laborers. They react by constructing a cross and nailing the student to it.
All in all, reading Borges is a rewarding experience, but it is not always an easy one. Borges was a scholar of languages and mythologies, and he frequently inserted obscure references into the text. Fortunately, the translator, Andrew Hurley, has included a voluminous section of translator’s notes at the end, which you can refer to if you want to uncover the meaning of some of Borges’s more esoteric allusions.