BOOK REVIEW / Into the purple maze: Nick Caistor on an astute examination of the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges: Jorge Luis Borges: A Writer on the Edge - Beatriz Sarlo: Verso, pounds 11.95

LIKE MANY readers in Britain, I first read Borges in the far-off days of the Seventies. His was a totally disembodied voice, situated somewhere in between Hermann Hesse and Carlos Castaneda (part of the universal vibes, man). Borges blew our tiny minds with his erudite paradoxes and philosophical conundrums, which we enjoyed in much the same way as the candles we stared at in mute adoration for hours on end (wow, look at all those colours]). It seemed as though every squat in the land boasted its copy of Labyrinths, the cover invariably torn into strips to make the obligatory spliff.

Yet Borges's writing comes out of a specific literary and political background, the understanding of which greatly enhances enjoyment of his brief, mysterious fictions. In her superbly lucid if somewhat parsimonious book, which grew out of a series of lectures given as a visiting professor at Cambridge, Beatriz Sarlo illuminates many of Borges's texts in a way we deadheads would never have had thought possible.

The edge to which Professor Sarlo refers is first and foremost the geographical location of Borges's home country, Argentina, at the southern tip of Latin America. Borges himself saw Argentina's isolation from its guiding cultural sources in Europe and the United States as offering the writer there a freedom to play at will with those traditions without feeling bound to any single one in particular. 'We can handle all European themes, handle them without superstition,' Borges wrote; to which Sarlo adds: 'The fabric of Argentine literature is woven with the threads of all cultures; our marginal situation can be the source of our true originality.'

Borges's work constantly illustrates the truth of this action, with its imaginative trawling through centuries of knowledge from all over the world. At the same time, this kind of freedom can be seen as a weakness as much as a strength, and in addition to its brilliance, Borges's creations are imbued with an irony and a sense of exile which hints at a yearning for some real belonging. Paradoxically, it is precisely this feeling of loss and disorientation, as much as its playfulness, which brings Borges into the mainstream of 20th-century writing.

Professor Sarlo is also concerned with seeing how Borges situates himself on the margins of his own Argentine literary context, as if he needed to resist the desire to belong even there. She shows him struggling against the phoney local 19th-century traditions as he tries to create his own modern myth of the city: 'There are no legends in this land and not a single ghost walks through our streets. That is our disgrace. Our lived reality is grandiose yet the life of our imagination is paltry . . .'

Despite this, as the author points out, Borges would not plunge into the life of that city, but deliberately kept himself on the orillas, the boundary between the urban and rural, feeling at home in neither, only in the creation of his own imaginative space on the margins of both.

This deliberate evasiveness also characterised Borges's political position. In the past, Latin American critics, for whom a writer's political beliefs are usually seen as directly projected into their works, have often castigated him for this. In her book, Professor Sarlo, who has played a prominent and honourable role in maintaining a left-wing critical discourse in Argentina in the face of dictatorship and crass populism, concedes that 'political philosophy is not to be learnt from Borges'. Yet, she adds, 'he does invent plots where a philosophical question is confronted by means of fictional devices and processes. There is no answer to the question. What we find instead is the literary development of the problem in the form of a plot built around fictional hypotheses that describe a Utopian - or, in effect, a dystopian - order'.

Professor Sarlo sees this dystopian vision as 'the careful and anti-authoritarian position of the agnostician', and is happy to conclude that 'against all forms of fanaticism, Borges's work offers the ideal of tolerance'. This does seem like wishful thinking. However absurd it may seen at first sight, given Borges's distaste for General Peron and the ersatz philosophies of Peronian (during Peron's first presidency Borges was demoted from being director of the National Library to a post as municipal poultry inspector) perhaps the most interesting book to be written about Borges would be one that looks at his work as the expression of Peronism, teetering on the edge of absurdity.

It was, after all, Peron who played freely with European ideas such as fascism and populism (bringing about, for instance, the implausible alliance between labour and the military), and whose reading of Argentina's history was so successful that he created a movement that has dominated Argentine politics for almost 50 years. Could Peron's political philosophy of a third position have anything to do with Borges's Orbis Tertius?

And yet, reading 'Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius', or 'The Library of Babel' again, in the excellent new edition of Ficciones (published by Everyman, pounds 6.99), I doubt whether Peronism can outlast Borges. We were not entirely wrong back in those purple-haze days: there is a 'terrible simplicity' (Borges's phrase to describe the impact of Kafka's stories) about many of his fables, which lift them beyond all interpretation and make them both universal and timeless.

(Photograph omitted)

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

music
Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
News
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
people
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
    Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

    UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

    Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
    John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

    ‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

    Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
    Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

    Let the propaganda wars begin - again

    'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

    Japan's incredible long-distance runners

    Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
    Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

    Tom Drury: The quiet American

    His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
    Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

    Beige to the future

    Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

    Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

    More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
    Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

    Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

    The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own