The late, great Borges

Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1996) was unmoved by the nationalistic passions surrounding his country’s territorial disputes. The Falklands War, or the Guerra de Malvinas, was like “two bald men fighting over a comb,” he said. When Argentina and Chile nearly went to war over three tiny islands in the Beagle Channel, he suggested letting Bolivia have the waterway as a sea outlet. He held demagogues and dictators in contempt, but told journalist Christopher Hitchens to say hello to General Augusto Pinochet when he visited Chile.

His short story collections are embedded with mathematical and philosophical puzzles and multiple layers of meaning—in other words, not the kind of fiction most people read on airplanes. One work, “The Garden of Forking Paths,” has been hailed as a literary forerunner of the video game, a hypertext story that can be read in various ways. There is a labyrinth, a Chinese professor spying for the Germans, pursued by an Irishman in the employ of the British Empire. The story appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine in 1948, the first of Borges’ works to be published in English translation.  Another story, the “Library of Babel,” imagines the universe as a vast library, a theme that Umberto Eco used in The Name of the Rose and Terry Pratchett uses in his Discworld novels.

He began losing his eyesight in his early thirties, suffered a serious head injury and incurred the wrath of Juan Peron and Evita, but nothing stopped him from writing.  He never learned Braille, but there was no shortage of people willing to read to him. Christopher Hitchens, per his request, read him some works by Rudyard Kipling and G.K. Chesterton.  A colleague of mine who had been based in Buenos Aires went to interview him in 1980 and reported that Borges retained some limited vision.  “He knew I was blonde,” she told me and described how Borges gave her a tour of his book collection. He won the Cervantes Prize, the highest Spanish language literary honor, along with numerous other awards—but despite his place in literature, never the Nobel Prize.  “Not granting me the Nobel Prize has become a Scandinavian tradition,” he said. “Since I was born they have not been granting it to me.”