At the Library with Borges

I have many fortifying memories of the Joel Valdez Library and the plaza that fronts it, which is named for the enterprising Jácome family and contains a striking red metal sculpture, but on April 5, 2021, as I sat in a black car across the street from that library and noted how its white façade glared in the morning desert sun, I could focus only on the ever-diminishing number of books it contains.

OK, so maybe that opening sentence isn’t worthy of Borges, but the other day while I was waiting in the car as Greg ran some errands, I was reading an old edition (1964) of Labyrinths, and I started to think about the main branch of Tucson’s public library as Borges might have. I had chosen him as a companion for this outing because I wanted to re-read “Funes the Memorious” (more recently translated as “Funes, His Memory”), but when I finished that fierce story about a man whose memory is so much more than photographic, I leafed backward in the book and started to read “The Library of Babel.” Borges’ possibly infinite Library that might contain all the possible books contrasted sharply with my memory of the last time I was in the library across the street from me: very few books, not just compared to what an infinite library could hold, but in relation to the space available.

On that day in early 2020, pre-Covid, I saw shelves that had been so reduced in number, height, and contents that I wondered how long it would be before there were no books in the library at all. And yesterday, with Borges nearby, it was easy for me to think that maybe there might be a tipping point, some odd metaphysical moment, after which all the books would be gone because no one wanted them or believed in them enough anymore. Borges tended toward idealism, as mystics do, so he might have thought my notion had merit.

Greg corresponded with the Pima County Public Library (PCPL) for years over their “Deselection of Library Materials Policy.” (See “My Not So Merry Correspondence with our Public Library; or, Virtue Unrewarded.” PCPL responses to his letters sometimes contained the puzzling and purposeful undermining of reality found in a passage from Borges, though without the writer’s metaphysical or metafictional intentions.) In response to Greg’s letters, library administrators said they simply wanted to offer a “popular library,” and so keeping all those old volumes was a waste of space. Inside the library there was also a bookstore that sold, among other volumes, numerous discards from the library’s collection.

Compare such a library of shrinking offerings to Borges’ Library, which is a universe in itself, “composed of an indefinite and perhaps infinite number of hexagonal galleries” and endless numbers of books. [51] Depending on which librarian you consulted there, you might also have been told that it contained all the possible books made up of all the possible combinations of the twenty-five “orthogonal symbols.” Borges’ librarians, though they were dwindling in number, still dedicated their lives to the Library, but as happens when people have conflicting notions of the way an important institution should be run, sects sprang up among them. Members of one sect “…believed that it was fundamental to eliminate useless works. They invaded the hexagons, showed credentials which were not always false, leafed through a volume with displeasure and condemned whole shelves: their hygienic, ascetic furor caused the senseless perdition of millions of books.” [56]

Luckily, these sect members weren’t able to do much harm to the Library itself because it was so enormous that even if they got rid of a particular volume there were “many thousand imperfect facsimiles: works which differ only in a letter or a comma.” And more importantly, some of the sect members had intriguing and understandable motivations, as they operated under “the delirium of trying to reach the books in the Crimson Hexagon: books whose format is smaller than usual, all-powerful, illustrated and magical.” [56]

But of course the PCPL is nothing like Borges’ possibly infinite Library, and the reasoning on which its librarians based their decision to get rid of so many books isn’t nearly as unbelievably believable. In one of the letters Greg received from the PCPL executive director, she said, “Demand for electronic resources is increasing, as is demand for physical space in our libraries, where access to job-help resources, online and in-library homework assistance, literacy tutoring, and public computers is increasing. In addition, seating for customers using wireless, in-house collections and meeting rooms is at an all-time high.” That is as may be, but it doesn’t explain why the shelves that remain continue to get smaller and the number of books on them continues to decrease.

So what is the library like after having been closed for a year because of pandemic restrictions? As it turned out, April 5 was the day customers were being allowed back inside the library again, so we went to return books and pick up a few more. The staff was cordial, the library cool and softly lit. Many, though not all, of the books we remembered seeing last year were still on the shelves, though the shelf units that remained contained fewer volumes than ever before. We walked around the first and second floors, picking up the two available titles by Stanislaw Lem. Then I looked for what they had by Borges, and the only volume on the shelves was Borges Esencial, so I checked it out, even though my ability to read Spanish is very poor. It of course contains “La Biblioteca de Babel,” which represents one small portion of Borges’ well-documented obsession with infinity. Sadly, it came from a library with an increasingly finite stock of books.

Jorge Luis Borges, Labyrinths, Selected Stories and Other Writings, edited by Donald A. Yates and James E. Irby, 1964, New Directions Publishing Corporation

Jorge Luis Borges, Borges Esencial, Edicion Conmemorativa, 2017, Lengua Viva

A Note Regarding The Golden Age by Michal Ajvaz

There is much to be written regarding Michal Ajvaz’s recently translated novel, The Golden Age, published in 2010 by Dalkey Archive Press. In this post, I will limit myself to the interesting question of its lineage. Though reviewers have likened The Golden Age to the work of Franz Kafka, Jonathan Swift and Jorge Luis Borges, I think the first two are more incidental to it. Yes, there is a scene that takes place in Prague which is decidedly fantastical, but there is little else of Kafka in the work. And it is true that the main storyline takes place on a mysterious island that has been traveled to by the protagonist and so reminds of us of Gulliver’s Travels. But Ajvaz’s rather lengthy novel has a singular focus on the society that inhabits the aforementioned island, which differentiates it from Swift’s tale, in which Gulliver travels to many different islands. Furthermore, whereas the societies on the islands in Swift’s work are depicted using the best traditions of satirical comedy, e.g., taking to absurd lengths many recognizable conventions of human society, the notable aspect of the depiction of the civilization on the unnamed island in Ajvaz’s work is the degree to which the author works to make it not resemble any conventions of human society.

And this is when I find myself turning to the last name on the list, Jorge Luis Borges, especially the story “Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius.” And I have in mind here primarily “Tlon”: in this story, Borges describes a world that, even in the context of the story, is fictitious even if it is also seemingly real, and which does not abide by the usual rules of language, culture, and social dynamics. In addition, “Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” has multiple stories within the story, so much so that the reader becomes confused as to what the actual storyline is. All of these things can also be said of The Golden Age. But here, once again, the matter of length is important. For Borges’ story is all of twelve pages long, while Ajvaz’s novel is fully 322 pages long. To sustain such a non-existing/existing, non-substantial/substantial world, founded on ideas and language as much as it is on any physical reality, is a considerable achievement for Ajvaz.

It also raises in my mind the question of whether one of Ajvaz’s many projects is to elaborate on and extend the work of some of the more fantastical writers working in an idealistic mode, exemplified by Borges. I am also thinking in this regard of Ajvaz’s work 55 měst (55 Cities), which is “a catalogue of settlements which Marco Polo related to Kublai Khan, compiled in honor of Calvino,” a work clearly inspired by, and building upon the foundation of, Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities. (I translated a small portion of this work, which appeared in Issue 31 of The Cafe Irreal).

This is not to suggest that Ajvaz’s work is derivative — indeed, the adjective I would use to describe his brilliant novel Druhé město (The Other City) would be “Ajvazian”, so unique is it — but it does suggest that he considers himself to be working within a broader tradition of which Borges and Calvino are key figures, much as we would consider irrealism to be a part of the “Kafkan” tradition. I will certainly be contemplating this possibility as I read more of Ajvaz’s work, both his fiction and his critical work (including a book length essay on Borges). However, it will be slower going for me as the rest of his work hasn’t yet been translated into English, and I will therefore be reading it in Czech. Next up for me will be a critical essay that Ajvaz wrote about Foucault’s essay on Magritte’s painting, Ceci n’est pas une pipe (This is not a pipe), a logical enough choice as I too wrote an essay about Foucault’s essay.


In Praise of Kaela
(an additional note in regard to The Golden Age)

And what is the second thing I will be saying about this work? Even somebody who has read Michal Ajvaz’s The Golden Age might wonder, assuming it had been a while since they’d read the work, who or what is the “Kaela” that I am praising in the title of this postscript? Kaela, as it happens, is the narrator’s girlfriend, the woman with whom he has a relationship while he is staying on the island and the reason I’m praising her (or, especially, Ajvaz’s treatment of her) is that we know virtually nothing about her. Not what she looks like, not who her parents are, not what she did for a living (not that it’s clear that the Islanders exactly ever do anything “for a living”). Indeed, even the few times we learn how she reacts to what the narrator says or does, this reaction is not unique to her, but serves to indicate to us the reactions of the islanders in general. It is apparent in reading this work that Ajvaz knows full well that when writing a didactic work (and for all its richness, this is a very didactic work) one does not muddy it up with cliched concerns about “fully developing” the characters. Indeed, I can’t help thinking in this regard of seeing a brief feature about Ajvaz on Czech television in which he is asked about which contemporary authors he reads, and he responded that he is largely focused on the various aspects of his own work (which presumably includes, e.g., as he wrote a book length essay about him, close readings of Borges) and so doesn’t read much of his contempories. Perhaps, then, this is why he hasn’t been infected by the contagion of gratiuitous characterization in works of fantastic fiction. Or, more likely, he is simply immune to the contagion.

Two things, besides my reading of The Golden Age, have helped bring this issue to mind. The first was a recent visit by a (now) retired professor of English who, with one comment, inspired me to write a paper that helped me to clarify the issue of characterization in fantastic literature. The second was the fact that, while sorting through some papers, I just came across an excellent essay that long ago influenced me in this matter of characterization: Joanna Russ’s “Towards an Aesthetic of Science Fiction” (Science Fiction Studies 2:112-119, July 1975). In it, Russ states that science fiction, like much medieval literature (and, I would argue, virtually all fantastic fiction), is essentially a form of didactic fiction. “That despite superficial similarities to naturalistic (or other) modern fiction, the protagonists of science fiction are always collective, never individual persons (although individuals often appear as exemplary or representative figures)…I would like to propose that contemporary literary criticism (not having been developed to handle such material) is not the ideal tool for dealing with fiction that is explicitly, deliberately, and baldly didactic. (Modern criticism appears to experience the same difficulty in handling the 18th century contes [which can be considered] as among the ancestors of science fiction.”