Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Jorge Luis Borges: Literary Fantasist

Everything depends on the color of the room.  At the illustrious and legendary Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon, each room is given a color, a sop thrown to those poor souls who have only begun to explore the vastness of the multilevel edifice.  If one is in the blue room, one can expect to come across the likes of John Steinbeck, James Joyce, Jane Austen.

Just up the way, at the top of a steep staircase, one enters the gold room where J. R. R. Tolkien mingles with the likes of Stephen King, Dungeons & Dragons pulp novels, and H. G. Wells. 

The former room is the rarefied air of the literati, the latter a room for nerd-fantasy and women with strange hair.  The room in which one stands will determine how this paragraph ends:

I mentioned earlier that the wooded hill at whose foot the village sprawled was not really very high; it was flat on top, a sort of plateau.  On the other side of the mountain, toward the west and north, the jungle began again.  Since the slope was not a rugged one, one afternoon I suggested that we climb it.  My simple words threw the villagers into consternation.  One exclaimed that the mountainside was too steep.  The eldest of them said gravely that my goal was impossible to attain, the summit of the hill was sacred, magical obstacles blocked the ascent to man.  He who trod the peak with mortal foot was in danger of seeing the godhead, and of going blind or mad.

I did not argue, but that night, when everyone was asleep, I stole soundlessly from my hut and began to climb the easy hillside.

If one picked up the story in the blue room, one will find that the villagers are superstitious, deluded fools and that the narrator discovers something important which will benefit an enlightened world, or else something about his inner man that such a “spiritual” journey might reveal.  And if the text in question was taken up while standing in the gold room, the narrator will find a necromancer looking to steal his soul, an enchanted sword or amulet with which he can defeat the hordes threatening to invade his own lands, or perhaps a spacecraft of such splendor that the natives foolishly ascribe to it something of the divine.

But if by the vagaries of fate, one stood in the blue room and came across a tattered copy of “The Book of Sand and Shakespeare’s Memory”, one would find a most remarkable conclusion to the story.  There would be no realist’s dismissal of the numinous, no triumph of naturalism over the inexplicable or the one-of-a-kind.  One would be left with the uncomfortable tension that any real person with his feet on the ground might feel if faced with, say, a photograph in a newspaper of his own dead body.

Yet Mr. Borges does not quite belong in the gold room either, since half the other stories alongside this one would concern themselves with gauchos, a lost heydey of Buenos Aires, and the fears of old men faced with encroaching blindness.

Jorge Luis Borges stands in a unique stream of fiction called “Magic Realism”, dealing with intersections of our ordinary world with troubled interruptions of the impossible and the numinous.  Sometimes the interruptions are dealt with matter-of-factly, as if the author were explaining the process of spreading jam on toast.  Other times, we share in the narrator’s confusion and frustration at the unreliability of memory, not least of all when it is faced with the memory of an impossible event.

Permit me to recommend Borges to you, regardless of the kinds of fictions you enjoy.  Allow yourself to be knocked off your step in this “ordinary” world.  Remind yourself that not all that seems impossible is such.


preacherman said...

Great post.
I totally agree.
Your blog is one of my favs.
I enjoy reading it.
Keep up the great work brother.
You and your ministry are also always in my prayers.

Jake Shore said...

One of your best Jason. Really intriguing. Why have I not read his stuff yet?! How much Magic Realism fiction is there?