Tuesday, 7 May 2013

Into the labyrinth

I have started reading Labyrinths, a collection of Jorge Luis Borges stories and essays. Previously I'd only read a couple of his stories, as they tangentially crossed paths with my own interests; The Garden of Forking Paths, as it deals with multiple parallel realities, and The Zahir, about a mystical talisman that causes obsession, which someone had mentioned in connection with Arthur Machen (who was apparently a big influence on Borges). I also know that William Gibson, one of my favourite authors, is a big fan, and I've talked to other people who've recommended Borges, but in my mind I'd somehow lumped him with other South American writers like Isabel Allende and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who I had found quite annoying, and never got around to tackling him in earnest.

However, something happened on Sunday that was almost in itself Borgesian. I was on a fairly empty 185 bus, being mildly annoyed by the guy a few seats ahead who was playing Buena Vista Social Club-esque Cuban music too loudly. A girl was sitting opposite and obviously also annoyed. As she got up to get off the bus, she tried talking to the guy, but he was either asleep or feigning being asleep, so she eventually gave up and headed down the stairs to get off. It was only then that I looked back at where she had been sitting and saw she had left a well-thumbed and rather dog-eared paperback behind. By then it was too late to try and return it to her - the bus was already off and moving, and something about the placement almost looked deliberate, as though she had finished it and put it down, leaving it for the next person, as some people do, and since there were only about three other people on the top deck, I reached across and picked up the book. If the young woman from the bus ever reads this - do please feel free to contact me and I will gladly return it. It was of course Labyrinths. Something about the Latin music, the serendipitous nature of the find, and of the work itself, wormed its way into me, and this morning I started reading it. There's definitely an opening of a Borgesian story in there already.

The first thing that struck me is how much he appears to be writing Weird Fiction, which is a bit of a personal obsession of mine - that early 20th century genre of the strange and fantastic that had come from Lord Dunsany and some odd 'decadent' novelists of the 1890s like Robert 'The King in Yellow' Chambers. In particular, in Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius, he is using the Lovecraft trick of strange books and name-dropping real world mystics and outre authors to build a parallel world that moves behind the scenes of our own (it's almost a precursor of the DaVinci Code, only almost infinitely better written). Borges apparently called Lovecraft "an unconscious parodist of Poe", and Lovecraft did draw a lot on Poe as well as the Weird Fiction pioneers in constructing his tales. Anyway, it's a good start. More on this as I get deeper into the Labyrinth, but I'm already regretting having taken so long to discover Borges.

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