from the collection The Garden of Forking Paths
contained within Collected Fictions
by Jorge Luis Borges
translated by Andrew Hurley
‘You who read me – are you certain you understand my language?’
This is a good question when it comes to Borges. Because I don’t speak Spanish I obviously don’t understand his native language. Andrew Hurley has translated his words into English rather well though, I believe, so it’s on another level that I hesitate to answer. In his story The Library of Babel, his unknown narrator, while speaking about a universe that is an infinite library full of a nearly infinite amount of books, which can exist because on top of all the known languages and topics, the Library has foreseen and utilized secret tongues – including languages that use the same vocabulary:
‘…in some of them, the symbol “library” possesses the correct definition “everlasting, ubiquitous system of hexagonal galleries,” while a library – the thing – is a loaf of bread or a pyramid or something else, and the six words that define it themselves have other definitions.’
The stuff that Borges comes up with is absolutely mind boggling, and yes, I sometimes feel like he is using words and phrases that I know and understand, but in such a way that the meaning is entirely different from what I expect.
In a technical sense, I like this story. The writing is so bizarre and playful. There are startling bits of dark humor and the mind warp that it induced in me was oddly enjoyable. However, the concept and subject of the story was kind of awful!
I would have thought that a universe made up of an infinite amount of hexagonal galleries filled with books, where your sole purpose would be to read and curate your portion – your collection – would be a lovely place to hang out. This place that Borges thought up is not so friendly. Those book-filled rooms are cramped and airless, filled with unceasing but insufficient light. There is a place for each librarian to sleep – standing up! – and a toilet, each in tiny separate compartments. The books in the rooms are all identical, with the exact same amount of pages, lines per page, and letters per line. There is no correlation between the titles and the content, and the likelihood of a book containing anything actually readable is slim to none.
‘This much is known: For every rational line or forthright statement there are leagues of senseless cacophony, verbal nonsense, and incoherency.’
Sounds unbearable! The narrator, an old man who seems to be making a last ditch effort to convince himself that there is some order to this mad world, mentions that through epidemics, heretical discords, suicides, and ‘pilgrimages that inevitably degenerate into brigandage’ he believes the human race is on the verge of extinction.
It’s a very dark, kind of sad, story (if you can call something this abstract a story!). There are some interesting ideas mixed in, which other members of our non-structured reading group have done a great job of picking out. For myself, I couldn’t really wrap my mind around the questions of philosophy and theology, because the weight of this huge Library was crushing me. In that sense, the story had a big impact on me. I keep obsessively thinking about all those books, being surrounded by every possible book, and how weird it would be to not be able to read most of them…
That is really what I want to get out of something when I take the time to devote myself to reading it – I want it to make SOME kind of an impression on me, and I think Borges always will, one way or the other. Not my favorite story by Borges, but still an interesting experience.
More Borges stories next week!