THE ARGENTINE man of letters Jorge Luis Borges first became known to Europeans and norteamericanos as a writer of short prose fictions hovering over some borderline between story and essay and dealing with fantastic happenings or situations: a nonexistent world, invented in a spurious encyclopedia, begins to intrude upon the real world, for instance; after years of study and prayer a man dreams another man into existence and then discovers that he himself is a dream; books containing every possible combination of letters, spaces, and punctuation exist in an enormous "library of Babel" where scholars seek all their lives for that book in which the ultimate truths are printed . . . Sensible readers enjoyed these stories all the more as they recognized their foundations in philosophy, logic, and theology and appreciated the knowledgeable and witty skepticism of their learned author.
But recognition of Borges (b. 1899) came belatedly, and by then he had outgrown many of these early interests. He has retained his predilection for idealism, but he has become more and more interested in working out and reworking those archetypal situations, characters, and plots that recur down through the centuries. A strikingly individual person himself, he belittles the role of individuality in literature and emphasizes the idea of an impersonal tradition expressing itself through mere scribes. A witty and deeply skeptical man, he accepts humorlessly the idea that a work of literature takes its value from its representation of general themes - love, deat, the double, etc. Complex and even contradictory himself, he returns again and again to the cartoon stereotypes of older fiction: the dour Scot, the tightlipped Englishman, the philosophic explorer, the gaucho as noble savage . . .
In the 13 stories collected here, as in his recent collection Dr. Brodie's Report, Borges contrives more restatements and variations of central literary themes. (In an Afterword he identifies a few of them: the double, love, heresy . . .) As one might expect, some of these tales are recognizable relatives of earlier Borges stories. The Book of Sand describes an endless, infinitely growing book, the library of Babel between two covers; "The Sect of the Thirty" adds a fourth heresy to the "Three Versions of Judas"; and "There Are More Things" - which Borges belittles as a deliberate imitation of H. P. Lovecraft - returns to the minotaur of "The House of Asterion." And the story of which Borges thinks most highly, "The Congress," evokes like many previous stories the idea that the study of the whole world is our joint business.
That is a position Borges characteristically takes, urging us to look beyond ourselves, to recognize our identity with the rest of the human race, past and present, and to lose egocentricity in speculation about the insoluble mysteries of existence. Since he is thoroughly paradoxical, it is not surprising to find that the finest story in this collection is essentially personal and even autobiographical. In "The Other," the elderly Borges, seated on the Cambridge bank of the Charles river, meets his younger self, who is seated in Geneva on the bank of the Rhone. The story never descends to mere autobiography or mere gimmickry, and in its sadly witty development of the two mens mutual incomprehension and indifference even the most skeptical reader can sense a beautifully embodied general truth.
When Borges tells us archetypal tales of self-righteous New Englanders and boostful Norsemen or of primal encounters with the essence of love and death, we - swarmed about by life's pluralistic variety - may find ourselves too far from Plato to believe him.But in a story like "The Other" he deals with materials that all of us, if we live long enough, can verify for ourselves - truch of impression, not of archetypal event; and at such times his intelligence and his well-boned artistic-skills work wonders.
Those skills are not well served here by his usually excellent translator Norman Thomas di Giovanni, who in his collection is sometimes little better than the hacks who have married so many of Borges' stories for us. In the main, however, these are still readable and memorable; and if in the memory they tend to mingle with others, this only proves Borges' own contentions about the anonymity and unity of literature. In fact he succumbs to this effect himself in the Afterword, where the author of "The Library of Babel" and "The Lottery in Babylon" compares two of his new tales with what he calls his "Lottery of Babel."