Argentine author Jorge Luis Borges, a master of parable and paradox whose appeal was international but who never gained widespread popularity, died yesterday in Geneva of liver cancer at age 86.
The most lengthy of Borges' works fell short of 30 pithy pages, but many critics ranked him with the rollicking novelists who created, at length, the Latin American literary renaissance.
Borges' life and style often seemed as paradoxical as the tales he spun in such narrow volumes as "Dreamtigers," "Fictions" and "Labyrinths." A blind man, he was a master of description, provoking indelible images with a spare use of words, yet he carries to his grave the key to enigmas in many of his perplexing stories.
He was considered by some a consummate modernist, yet he said in an interview 10 years ago that "when I went blind in 1955, I decided not to read any more contemporary writing."
Widely acclaimed for his limpid Spanish, the only language in which he published, Borges declared that "English is by far the better language." He spoke it perfectly and taught English literature. And yet, when the conservative Borges' Chilean contemporary, communist lyric poet Pablo Neruda, said, "Very little can be done with the Spanish language," Borges bitingly replied, "That's why nothing has been done."
What Borges did in Spanish, most of it translated into the world's major languages, was 20 volumes of poems, short stories, essays and collections. The early stories, especially those rooted in the Argentine pampas, often seemed uncomplicated. Later efforts provoked lengthy literary criticism.
"People are always searching for too much in my work . . . finding profundities," Borges said. "Most people people think everything I write is a parable."
Critic Anatole Broyard detected a swing back from the mazes and imaginary beasts that populated Borges' middle period on reviewing "Dr. Brodie's Report," translated into English in 1970:
"He has begun to write 'realistic' or 'straightforward' stories . . . woven around a plot,' and often little else. In some cases, Borges has descended from the metaphysical to the supernatural . . . . He seems to be doubting the value of the very qualities that earned him his reputation."
While critics often compared Borges to Franz Kafka for his convolutions or Edgar Allen Poe for his sense of the fantastic, the author cited as his principal precursors Robert Louis Stevenson, Rudyard Kipling, G.K. Chesterton and Thomas De Quincey.
It was not only Neruda's lyricism or politics that irritated Borges, but also the fact that he had won the Nobel Prize. Borges often was nominated and his defensiveness on not being chosen was characteristically cast in self-effacement. "When the literature of the second half of the 20th century is studied, the names will be different than we hear now," he said. "They will have found hidden writers. People who won Nobel Prizes will be forgotten." Adding a pinch of enigma, he added: "I hope I will be forgotten."
On another occasion Borges said, "I almost don't exist."
Borges was not a popular author among Argentina's readers. The exceptions were the few stories of knife-throwing gauchos brawling in bordelos. He wrote authoritatively two pieces with the same title, "The Idiom of the Argentines," about the mix of Spanish, Italian and local invention that makes listening a diversion in Buenos Aires.
As a young man, after studying in Europe, he edited a couple of iconoclastic literary magazines that failed to sell. As his subject matter lost its Argentine roots, he found small but fervent readership, through translations, abroad.
"I don't like to be read in terms of an atlas," he said. The reader "should read me and forget all about me. He should read just for the story."
A related aspect of Borges' unpopularity at home was his distrust of the volatile passions that gripped Argentina in the last half of his life. In the early 1940s he was municipal librarian of Buenos Aires and bitterly opposed to the rise of Juan D. Peron, the dictatorial populist with an admiration for Mussolini.
Peron jailed Borges' mother briefly and had the librarian demoted to chicken inspector after he signed an anti-Peron manifesto. Peron went into lengthy exile after a coup in 1955. While Borges feared his return, the "shirtless ones" (peasants) and a considerable portion of the intelligentsia agitated for Peron's restoration.
As that passion became predominant, Borges, by then director of the National Library, was quoted less and less in the Buenos Aires press. Although less heard, he was often seen -- guided by his cane, making his way through the downtown streets of the capital.
With the restoration, through elections, of Peron in 1973, Borges began to spend considerable time teaching in the United States and listening to Dixieland jazz.
After Peron's death, his widow was succeeded by military rule, which quickly turned brutal. Borges, with his international stature, came under pressure to speak out against the arbitrary seizure and killings of suspected left-wing guerrillas. Reluctantly at first, and later more forcefully, he did so -- although again, the majority probably was against him at the time.
When the military's popularity was ebbing and the generals started the 1982 Falklands War in a bid for renewed support, Borges published in the mass-circulation daily Clarin a touching antiwar poem on the deaths in the South Atlantic of two young innocents sent by the opposing sides to battle. "The buried them together. Snow and corruption know them," the lines concluded.
It was as close as Borges came to political poetry on a continent that is famous for its poet-politicians.
Borges was born Aug. 24, 1899, in Buenos Aires. His father was a diplomat who also wrote. The son had no intention of accepting even an honorary post in Paris -- another perquisite of the Latin American literary. Diplomacy "is all tailors and telephones," he said. "There is nothing in that."
One of Borges' grandmothers was English. He was educated in Geneva. The executor of his will, Osvaldo Vidaurre, said yesterday in Buenos Aires that Borges knew he was about to die of liver cancer and chose to die in Geneva.
Heavily influenced by his mother, who died in 1975 in her nineties, Borges did not marry until 1970, and he quickly divorced. In April, he married his secretary and onetime student, Maria Kodama, 41, who was with him in Geneva. He had no children.
Vidaurre said Borges willed his estate to Kodama and provided gifts for other relatives.