SINCE JORGE LUIS BORGES died last weekend, his many admirers have been bemoaning the fact that the celebrated Argentine fantasist and literary gamester never received the Nobel Prize for Literature. Mr. Borges seems not to have cared. And it would have been incongruous if such a writer, whose work inquired into the paradoxes of time and memory, the riddles of consciousness, had attached importance to what any single authority saw in his work. "Fame," observes the narrator in one of his greatest short stories, "is a form of incomprehension, perhaps the worst."
Mr. Borges' literary and linguistic playfulness -- riddles, translations of imaginary essays citing imaginary sources, encyclopedias of nonexistent planets -- suggests lightness, but the lightness masked philosophic weight. He influenced a raft of writers -- from Italo Calvino to Gabriel Garcia Marquez -- and also opened, with his jokes, passages through which metaphysical questions can be glimpsed.
"The Library of Babel," part parable, part science fiction, posits a universe that is a library -- an endless one where identical rows of shelves, room upon room, hold identical rows of books, nearly all of which, when opened, are utter gibberish. In "perhaps the main event of history," an inhabitant of this universe discovers its principle: "The Universe, which others call the Library," contains one copy of every possible combination of the letters of the alphabet. It logically follows that most of the books will be nonsense; also that somewhere in the Library can be found every work of literature in every language, every true and untrue statement ever made, the history of every inhabitant's life, and the catalog showing every book's location and revealing the ultimate order of the place. Unfortunately, the sheer numerical odds are against anyone's finding it, or indeed any coherent text.
In the apparent lunacy of this vision lies a novel and provocative sense of our own mental worlds and the search for meaning. The world's library, or universe, gained much from Jorge Luis Borges. He opened doors to rooms of thought and magic that cannot be reached by the more familiar and straightforward uses of words.