Why We Like These Stories: A Personal Essay on Borges and I

Although I had grown up an avid reader whose mother and I took frequent trips to the library, it wasn’t until college when I started reading short stories. Perhaps it was the long wait in between library visits that had put me off at first (I was a ferocious reader, and often the four books I was allowed to take home did not last the two weeks), or perhaps it was the library’s limited selection of short story collections instead. … At any rate, even though there was a large amount of reading, the amount of reading spent on short stories was limited, if it was present at all in my childhood memories.

College was a little different in that there was always plenty of reading to do, but the time in which to do it was limited. So, when the instructor assigned a short story instead of a novel for next class’s reading, this directly translated into more time to do other things. It didn’t take very long for this kind of thinking to sink in, and although there had been plenty of short stories assigned for a variety of English and Literature classes I took, it wasn’t until my last semester, when I registered for a class on Literature in Translation, when short stories really started to take on a form of their own for me. This is also the class in which I read “Borges and I” for the first time.

The story is not very long, only perhaps 300 words or so, and yet I feel like there’s plenty to be said about it.

That’s what I really love about “Borges and I”: its ability to do so much with very little. Borges always seemed to me a person who could not only stand on both ends of the binary, but someone that knew how to do so with little effort. The story’s tone is playful, from beginning to end, and if someone had not realized this about Borges’s stories before, this story would certainly hold up to that expectation.

That said, despite its playful tone and its uninhibited liberty of poking fun at anyone and anything, the story strikes me as utterly serious, too, and stretches this feeling almost to a point of tragedy. The narrator appears to be frustrated with his creator; there is nothing the “fake” Borges can do that will suffice or satisfy the narrator of the same name. And yet it is this lacking creator to whom he owes his “life,” so to speak, his perhaps rather miserable existence—but it is an existence nonetheless.

Jorge Luis Borges

To me, the story not only questions the relationship between the author, the narrator, and the character, but attempts to reduce it to a simple fraction, a concise statement, only to find that by having reduced it, the question becomes much larger than what it had been presumed to be in the first place. Every time a clear distinction can be drawn between two of these, the next sentence undermines the credibility of the one that came before it. I wonder if the narrator is not actually the reader in this scenario; frustrated with the author, who seems to want it both ways.

In a way, the story mimics the chicken-and-egg dilemma: a good author is first and foremost a critic of his own work, and yet the critic’s task is to reduce the complexity of a story such as this one, not add to it. Perhaps that is why the narrator calls his creator the “fake” Borges, but then again, we’ll never know who was there first.

An English translation of Borges’ Borges and I can be read here.

Editorial Assistant, University of Rochester Press

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