Borges’s Transcends Traditional Realism Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The dazzling short stories in Jorge Luis Borges’s Ficciones transformed Latin American fiction, linking it to the European tradition of visionary literature and pointing ahead to the tradition of Magical Realism that he helped invent.

Summary of Event

In 1944, the Argentinean poet, short-story writer, and essayist Jorge Luis Borges published Ficciones, 1935-1944 (English translation, 1962), a collection of his short stories. Each story seemed to create and exist in a pocket universe, separate from reality but built on its own realist rules. In each case, paradox was central to both the realism and the meaning of the story. Ficciones (Borges) Magical Realism [kw]Borges’s Ficciones Transcends Traditional Realism (1944)[Borgess Ficciones Transcends Traditional Realism] [kw]Ficciones Transcends Traditional Realism, Borges’s (1944) [kw]Realism, Borges’s Ficciones Transcends Traditional (1944)[Realism, Borgess Ficciones Transcends Traditional] Ficciones (Borges) Magical Realism [g]Latin America;1944: Borges’s Ficciones Transcends Traditional Realism[01050] [g]Argentina;1944: Borges’s Ficciones Transcends Traditional Realism[01050] [c]Literature;1944: Borges’s Ficciones Transcends Traditional Realism[01050] Borges, Jorge Luis

These were stories unlike any others, yet they referred constantly to other writings, real and imagined. They were utterly avant-garde yet deeply linked to the European literary tradition. They built from an almost hallucinatory realism of detail to an absolutely hallucinatory sense of reality, a sense that was ominous, nightmarelike, and freighted with omens and destiny. Borges’s stories would influence a host of other Latin American writers and—particularly after Borges was awarded the prestigious International Publishers’ Prize for 1961—gain a world readership for his work.

In “Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote,” "Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote“ (Borges)[Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote] the “realistic” setting was that of a short work of literary criticism, complete with footnotes, citations, stylistic comparisons, and bibliographic listing of previous works, published and unpublished. It was the nature of the book under discussion, however, that gave the piece its hallucinatory quality, for the work it critiqued was a fragment, textually identical, word for word, with the famous work of Miguel de Cervantes, El ingenioso hidalgo don Quixote de la Mancha Don Quixote de la Mancha (Cervantes) (1605, 1615; The History of the Valorous and Wittie Knight-Errant, Don Quixote of the Mancha, 1612-1620; better known as Don Quixote de la Mancha). However, Borges’s piece represented itself as a critique of a story by a twentieth century Frenchman, Pierre Menard.

Borges’s fictional author Menard, a reader is told, set himself the task of writing Don Quixote de la Mancha, then, not as a seventeenth century Spanish popular novelist but as a Frenchman of the twentieth century, conscious of what had happened in literary history in the intervening centuries (including the publication of Cervantes’s work). Though the words and paragraphs of the two versions of Don Quixote de la Mancha are identical, Borges assures the reader that the meanings of those words and paragraphs are subtler, more ambiguous, and more self-consciously “literary” in Menard’s text than in that of Cervantes.

What this brilliant parody of literary criticism by Borges revealed was the impact that a reader’s own culture has on his or her reading of a work. In the final sentence of the piece, Borges invites a modern reader to consider how the medieval Imitatio Christi (c. 1427; The Imitation of Christ, c. 1640-1530) by Thomas à Kempis would read if it were attributed to the modernist James Joyce. Would not a Joycean reading, he asks, renovate (for the contemporary reader) its “tenuous spiritual counsels?” With a vividness that authentic literary criticism must perforce lack, Borges addresses the issue of the reader as true author of the text—an issue that would later loom large in the critical writings of Jacques Lacan and others. Borges played with literature, and he expected his readers to be literate, even philosophical, if they were to understand the terms of that play.

In his essay “Narrative Art and Magic,” "Narrative Art and Magic" (Borges)[Narrative Art and Magic] Borges discussed two ways in which cause and effect can be understood, whether in life or in fiction. According to the naturalistic view, events are merely “the incessant result of endless, uncontrollable processes,” signifying nothing in themselves. A gunshot wound, for example, is simply the result of firing a gun. It is from this naturalistic perspective that most people view their lives, and naturalism is the philosophical stance of modern, scientific culture. The other perspective is magical. Familiar from anthropological literature, in which “every detail is an omen and a cause,” the magical perspective ascribes meanings to events. A gunshot wound may be caused, in this magical view, by the breaking of a taboo, by the insertion of a pin into a wax doll, or by the symmetry between one death and another. In this view, all events have meaning, perhaps even multiple meanings, and the world is a text, full of puns, quotations, analogies, correspondences, and omens.

For Borges, naturalism in the novel denuded it of the dreamlike, visionary quality that, from Vergil and Dante to James Joyce and Franz Kafka, had been its crowning glory. The only possible integrity for the novel, he wrote, lay in the magical perspective, and it was that magical perspective that he explored in the short stories that made up Ficciones. Thus, in “The Garden of Forking Paths,” "Garden of Forking Paths, The" (Borges)[Garden of Forking Paths] Borges constructed a World War I espionage story the central enigma of which was a novel—written by a retired Chinese scholar—in which each event led to two or more possible outcomes, which in turn led to two or more further possibilities, so that time became, in both the title of Borges’s story and the novel itself, a garden of forking paths. Life, Borges insisted, was a maze of possibilities, and every story had myriad possible endings. In the climax of the version of the story printed in Ficciones, the characters saluted each other as they might have been in other circumstances—in other timelines, in other branches of the same forking tale.

“Death and the Compass” []"Death and the Compass" (Borges)[Death and the Compass”] was a detective story in which the detective found the killer by using cabalistic knowledge. In doing so, the detective walked into a trap. The trap was, literally, a diamond in space-time, formed by four points, each one itself formed of a date and a location on a map. In the story, as the detective is about to die, he tells his killer of a similar trap (possible, as it were, on another timeline), this time not diamond-shaped but linear, and the killer replies, “The next time I kill you, I promise you the labyrinth made of the single straight line which is invisible and everlasting.”

The stories in Ficciones, then, were concerned with infinities, enigmas, mazes and labyrinths, diamonds and mirror images, and branchings—in short, with mathematical and logical patterns and paradoxes. Their apparent realism was the device by which Borges contrived to win a reader’s sympathetic attention, but it was the logically precise way in which the stories outflanked all realistic logic that gave them their peculiar power.

Many of these tales condensed novel-length ideas into short stories. Borges’s writing in the years that followed would single-mindedly continue this process of compression, generating ever shorter stories, essays, and poems—each one with a diamond paradox at its heart.


Borges was at once an Argentinean writer and a member of a global literary culture, and it was perhaps the supreme irony (or paradox) at the heart of his own life that he should also have been both blind and the national librarian of Argentina. God, Borges wrote in his “Poem of the Gifts,” “with such splendid irony/ granted me books and blindness at one touch.” God and Borges, it would appear to some of his readers, shared the same paradoxical and hallucinatorily realistic approach to the act of creation.

Not all those who followed Borges shared his implacable eye for paradox and mathematical rigor, but many later Latin American writers approved his juxtaposition of magical elements with realism. Indeed, Magical Realism came to be a dominant genre of Latin American fiction, with practitioners such as Gabriel García Márquez, Manuel Puig, Mario Vargas Llosa, and the magisterial Carlos Fuentes. The short stories of Julio Cortázar, too, show traces of the Borgesian worldview of philosophical enigmas and mirrored realities, and the Mexican poet Octavio Paz is also at times overtly Borgesian. Borges’s influence, moreover, extends beyond Latin America. Echoes and reflections of his pristine geometries can be found in the Yugoslavian Milorad Pavic’s Hazarski recnik (1988; Dictionary of the Khazars, 1988), which is available in two versions (“male” and “female” editions) that mirror each other exactly, with the exception of one paragraph. Borges’s influence is also visible in the marvelous tales of the Italians Italo Calvino and Umberto Eco.

With his characteristic, magically organized interpenetration of history and fiction, Borges reconnected modern world fiction with the epic and visionary currents of Homer and John Milton; blind, as they were, he restored to his readers’ sight the power of the dream. This was an act of continuity, not rupture, a radical act in both senses of the term—meaning both “revolutionary” and, literally and etymologically, “returning to the roots.” It was in this act that he was followed, not blindly and imitatively but as an exemplar, by so many writers, from Cortázar and Fuentes to Calvino and Eco.

Borges brought a characteristic clarity and precision to his worlds of fantasy, and in this he greatly resembled his contemporary, the Dutch graphic artist Maurits Cornelis Escher, who etched hands drawing hands drawing the hands that drew them, staircases that were subject to a bewildering variety of contradictory gravities, birds whose wings and tails dovetailed—the word seems inevitable—with the wings and tails of other birds. His deepest affinity, though, was arguably with James Joyce, who, like Borges, labored constantly to return the sacred logic of myth to secular fiction and so to breathe the infinite once again into finite human lives. Ficciones (Borges) Magical Realism

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bell-Villada, Gene H. Borges and His Fiction: A Guide to His Mind and Art. Rev. ed. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1999. Study of Borges that pays particular attention to Ficciones, placing it as the turning point in his career.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Block de Behar, Lisa. Borges: The Passion of an Endless Quotation. Translated and with an introduction by William Egginton. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2003. A critical assessment of Borges’s work, focusing on his propensity to incorporate other sources (both real and imagined) into his writing. Bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gracia, Jorge J. E., Carolyn Korsmeyer, and Rodolphe Gasché, eds. Literary Philosophers: Borges, Calvino, Eco. New York: Routledge, 2002. Compendium of essays comparing Borges with his Italian followers; treats them as philosophers who work out their philosophy in fiction rather than (or in addition to) traditional philosophical prose.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rodriguez Monegal, Emir. Jorge Luis Borges. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1978. Literary biography of Borges by his friend of more than thirty years. Explores the difference between Borges the man and Borges the author of Ficciones—a distinction central to Borges’s own view of his work. With bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Shaw, D. L. Borges: “Ficciones.” Critical Guides to Spanish Texts 14. London: Grant and Cutler, 1976. In-depth study of Borges’s Ficciones, written for the English-speaking lay reader. Includes a bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Williamson, Edwin. Borges: A Life. New York: Viking, 2004. Massive, exhaustive biography of the author. Bibliographic references and index.

Rise of the New Novel

Latin American Fiction “Boom”

Death of Villa-Lobos

García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude Is Published

Categories: History Content