My interest in Borges comes from the fact that he is one of those “respectable” authors who make wide use of fantasy elements in their work. He is Argentinean, and yet his use of the imaginary is very different from that of the authors that ones associates with the South American Magic Realist tradition. His work is very rational – he is concerned with possibilities, with ideas, with philosophy, with literature, with the impact of the imagination in men’s lives. Unlike in the work of authors like Gabriel Garcia Marquez, here one doesn’t feel “landscape as a shaping force”. Argentina itself makes few appearances in these pages. He often moves in the realm of abstract ideas, ideas that could, one tends to believe, be thought of regardless of place.
In “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”, the first story in this collection, the narrator comes across an encyclopaedia entry about a mysterious and previously unheard of country, Uqbar. This discovery will lead him to the possibility of a whole world being imagined, and thus created.
In “The Circular Ruins”, a similar theme is explored: a wizard dreams up a man, and thus shapes him into existence.
In “The Library of Babel”, we follow the search for the Book of all Books, in an endless library that contains all possible books.
“Death and the Compass” is a detective story about the search for the criminal behind three ritualistic murders.
Like I said, Borges likes to toy with abstract ideas and philosophical concepts. That and his somewhat dense prose would have made the book hard to read if it wasn’t for the fact that the stories are mostly very short. The pace is always just right, and he finished them before they run the risk of becoming tedious.
However, the book does demand concentration, and that the reader be in the mood to entertain the ideas that are presented in it. I wouldn’t say this is something everyone will like, but I do think it’s worth a try.