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.
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