Can you imagine an ancient city where one’s place in society was determined by an annual lottery? Or an infinite library containing every book that ever has been, or will be written? What about a fictional nation imagined into reality by a group of conspiring intellectuals, or a certain point in space-time from which one can see everything in the universe simultaneously? These were just a few of the weird and wonderful creations that sprang forth from the imagination of Argentine author Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986), a writer hailed by many as the father of magic realism and the finest author never to have won the Nobel Prize in Literature.
A prolific writer of short stories, poems and essays, Borges began writing in the 1920s, but wasn’t to find fame outside his native Argentina until the early-1960s, when his works started to appear regularly in magazines and anthologies published in English-speaking countries. Concerning themselves with dreams, magic, mythology and religion, as well as a healthy dose of Latin American history, Borges’ short stories usually had as their centrepiece a single idea that was at once profoundly strange yet elegantly simple. Rendered in his rich and lucid prose (qualities which even survive the translation into English), these tales of peculiar people and fantastic places draw the reader into a world where mythological beasts rub shoulders with Argentine revolutionaries, and impossible cities built on philosophical conundrums serve as the backdrop for deceptively simple stories of love, loss and revenge. Frequently drawing on influences as diverse as the Greek myths, the poetry of William Blake and Cervantes’ Don Quixote, Borges also paid tribute to Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories (in cat-and-mouse thriller Death and the Compass) and H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulu mythos (in creepy horror story There Are More Things). His ability to distil these myriad influences into a style which was undeniably his own was Borges’ greatest strength, and many of the best of these fantastical tales are collected in the anthologies Fictions (1944) and Aleph (1949).
In his later life, the bulk of Borges’ writing would become more realistic in tone, with the stories collected in anthologies like Brodie’s Report (1971) and The Book of Sand (1977) dealing primarily in historical fiction, tales of life in the slums of Buenos Aires and more prosaic musings on mortality. But even with this more mundane subject matter, Borges’ talent for making the everyday appear magical shines through, every sentence of his writing seeming at times like a literary banquet. Despite the great reverence shown to his work in literary circles, Borges’ writing has never achieved the more widespread recognition of popular magic realists like Gabriel Garcia Marquez or Salman Rushdie, but any reader who loves enchanting tales of the weird and wonderful is much deprived by an ignorance of Borges’ short stories, particularly his earlier work. Go forth and discover Jorge Luis Borges, probably the best writer you’ve never read!