Book Review: Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges

Translators: James E. Irby, Donald A. Yates, John Fine, Harriet de Onís, Julian Palley, Dudley Fitts, L. A. Murillo, and Anthony Kerrigan

Original Language: Spanish

Year of First Publication: 1962

Year of Publication for This Edition: 2007

Number of Pages: 256

Publisher: New Directions

Genre: Fiction and nonfiction

Sub-genre: Fantasy, short stories, essays

Disclosure: this post contains affiliate links.

In C. S. Lewis’s memoir Surprised by Joy, he recalls his first time reading Phantastes by George MacDonald and what a huge impact that novel had on him: “it is as if I had been carried sleeping across the frontier, or as if I had died in the old country and could never remember how I came alive in the new.” Words like that come to mind when I think of Labyrinths. It feels like a sort of Rubicon has been crossed, like I’ll never read any book—and especially not any book of fantasy—the same way again.

One of the things that makes Borges a unique writer is that, similar to John Donne in poetry, he considers thinking to be an aesthetically important act in itself. So where Donne likes to play with the implications of an outrageous comparison, Borges explores the contours of an outrageous idea. What if a man could remember every minute detail of everything he had ever seen? What if the universe was one enormous library? What if a man could create another man by dreaming him into existence? Big, strange, impossible ideas like this occupy the majority of this book, giving it the kind of upside down and utterly new vision of the world that I love to read about.

These stories infinitely reward rereading. It’s only on the second or third time that you start to notice the extremely subtle foreshadowing and the little details that reveal even further depths of the characters and the situations they face. At least one of those rereads should be done with Google (or a pile of reference books, if that’s more your thing) on hand to find out what all of the allusions and references mean. Borges was an incredibly well-read man, practically an expert in English- and Spanish-language literature, as well as having vast knowledge of many more obscure areas of study. Once you begin to unravel some of the references, you uncover yet another layer of meaning to the story. It’s true that many of these stories involve similar themes, images, tropes, and even the same characters sometimes. At the same time, this book has a vastness to it that is inexhaustible.

To point out a few stories that especially stand out to me:

“The Circular Ruins” – It’s one thing to write about creation, hubris, and the limits of human achievement. It’s another thing entirely to make a person feel genuine awe and terror at these things. Loosely based on the myth of Pygmalion, this story concerns a sorcerer who travels to the remote ruins of an ancient temple where he hopes to create a man by dreaming him. It is easily my favorite story in the book.

“Death and the Compass” – Borges’s parody of/homage to the detective fiction genre. Borges was an ardent admirer of G. K. Chesterton, and this story is slightly reminiscent of Chesterton stories like “The Blue Cross.” Of course, the weird metaphysical twist at the end is all Borges.

“The Zahir” – This story concerns a man who falls under the diabolical influence of a mystical coin. It takes part of its inspiration from Tennyson’s “Flower in the crannied wall,” one of my favorite poems, and explores Tennyson’s ideas about God and reality in more depth. I’ve probably reread this one more times than any other story in the book.

Borges at L’Hôtel in Paris in 1968.

Labyrinths is not only stories though: Borges was a prolific essayist and this book collects ten of his essays as well. Not only do these help to give a fuller picture of Borges scope as a writer, many of them also act almost as companion pieces to one or more of the stories. “The Mirror of Enigmas,” for instance, recalls “The Zahir,” while “Valéry as Symbol,” about the French symbolist poet Paul Valéry, brings to mind “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote.”

Ultimately, I ended up loving the first few stories I read in this so much that I bought Borges’s Collected Fictions and began reading that before I was even halfway done with Labyrinths. I am quite in love with these books now and I plan to remain so.

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