43. ‘Labyrinths’ by Jorge Luis Borges

I first read a Borges short story when I was at university. I loved it, bought his collection Labyrinths, and then left it sitting on my shelf for years. At last I’ve read it, and his writing is every bit as challenging and awesome as I remember.

Borges’ stories are not easy. Not at all. They often deal with really complex philosophical subjects, and are sometimes written referencing and responding to obscure old texts you’ve never heard of. But if you can get your head around the sometimes quite mind-bending ideas, these stories are so rich.

There are certain common themes among the stories in Labyrinths. Of course, labyrinths themselves are mentioned quite often, as well as Don Quixote and the idea of the circularity of time. Borges seems quite preoccupied with the notion that everything is one: past events are current events, history repeats itself, a man who reads Shakespeare briefly becomes Shakespeare. Sometimes the stories are more like essays, and certainly towards the end of the collection they turn into something quite different. When he began to be plagued by blindness later in life, Borges wrote shorter parables, some of which are astonishing.

My favourite story in the entire collection is ‘The Library of Babel’. It is set in a library, a near infinite library, which contains countless hexagon-shaped rooms, lined with bookshelves, which contain every possible combination of letters and numbers in existence. The inhabitants of this library celebrate at first, because surely the answers to all their questions are written inside these books, but then they despair when they realise that there are so many books they will never find what they are looking for. This story particularly interested me because I know that library: it exists. I came across it a few months ago online – it’s a website that really does contain every combination of characters ever, but even with a search function we still can’t find what we need. You can type in anything and it will show you that it already exists, but you can’t find it until you’ve written it. We still despair.

Ultimately Labyrinths is a collection that can be quite hard-going, but it is so worth it. Some parts of it will absolutely blow your mind.

“The truth is that we live out our lives putting off all that can be put off; perhaps we all know deep down that we are immortal and that sooner or later all men will do and know all things.”

Have you read this book? I’d love to know your thoughts!

Want to read this? You can buy the book here.

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