I recently read a collection of essays and journalistic pieces by William Gibson. Unlike Gibson's fiction, which I love, his non-fiction wasn't that great. However, he referred a number of times to the late Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges and I was intrigued enough to check him out. I sure am glad I did!
I have read other "philosophical" writers of fiction, authors like Camus, Eco, Calvino or Kafka who use fiction as a vehicle for philosophical speculation. Yet no-one I've read is quite like Borges. His stories, essays and parables open up fields of speculation, dizzying ways of viewing the world which seem at once plausible and fantastic.
Naturally he wrote in Spanish, but he was fluent in a number of different languages including English and many of his sources are recognisable to the English reader. Penguin have pulled together translations of a selection of his stories, essays and parables into a collection called Labyrinths. The title is well chosen because not only do labyrinths feature in a number of his works, the whole forms a sort of labyrinth of its own as you try to navigate your way through his mental world.
There is little of the conventional structure or content of fiction here. There is little or no characterisation and often no plot. Instead, each of his stories explores a philosophical or metaphysical conundrum.
Sometimes his intent seems to be satirical, although it's not always easy to be certain. For instance, in 'Pierre Menard, author of the Quixote' he portrays an author who sets out to recreate Cervantes' famous satirical novel, not by copying, translating or updating it but by so immersing himself in Cervantes' context that he spontaneously recreates parts of the work word for word. His imaginary narrator goes on, however, to analyse the works and find different meanings in Menard's version to Cervantes' despite the two being verbally identical. I laughed, although I still can't be sure if I was meant to. How much of meaning is contextual?
'The Library of Babel' had a similar effect. This tale is told by a librarian in a library made up of unnumbered - possibly infinite - identical chambers, each of which contains an identical number of books. These books, across the entire library, contain every possible combination of a set of 25 symbols - 22 letters, the comma, the full stop and the space. Most combinations are simply nonsensical but occasionally there will be a paragraph or a sentence which appears to convey some meaning. It is hypothesised that any book that could possibly exist will exist somewhere in this library, in multiple editions, each minutely different. What could life be like in such a library? The librarians, it seems, go slowly mad trying to make some sense out of the world in which they find themselves, but ultimately it has no sense. Even the works that appear to make sense are merely random creations.
These plays on the notion of meaning and meaninglessness are complemented by meditations on the nature of time, and of creation. For instance 'The Secret Miracle' tells the story of Jaromir Hladik, arrested by the Nazis because of his Jewish ancestry and sentenced to face the firing squad. He has a play unfinished, and prays to be given the extra year of life he believes will be necessary to bring it to perfection. At the moment the squad begin to pull their triggers he finds himself frozen in time, fully aware but unable to move as his executioners also stand frozen. During the subsequent "year" of frozen time he mentally completes the play to his satisfaction, at which point time recommences and he is killed. As well as the question of time (what exactly could a year be when time is frozen?) is the question of existence. In what sense does Hladik's play exist, what does it mean for it to have been completed?
I could go on with examples but it would never end. Those who don't like this sort of thing have already stopped reading. Those who do will be on their way out to find a copy (I'm about to return one to the Council library for those who live in Brisbane). Each story has its own conundrum, its own question which it asks and then leaves hanging. In each, our view of the world is tilted a little sideways. As his characters find their way through the labyrinths he creates for them, we try to find ours through the mental labyrinth he puts in front of us. What exactly is real? Does that question even have any meaning? It's useless to go on. I can't go back. I'm trapped.
It's esoteric, metaphysical. It hardly touches the earth and when it does you can never be sure if it's the same earth we inhabit. It won't help you solve any concrete problems, fix poverty, avert our environmental crisis, defeat terrorism or even water the plants. But it's good to have your mind expanded sometimes, to come back to earth seeing things just that little bit differently. Give it a read. You won't be sorry.