Borges, a master of fiction, belatedly discovered; Borges and his Fiction: A Guide to his Mind and Art, by Gene H. Bell Villada. Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press. $19 in hardcover. $10 in paperback.

It took the world a long time to discover Jorge Luis Borges. It is taking many of us even longer to understand him. Long snubbed by even his fellow Argentinians, Borges's first international accolade came when he was awarded the Formenter Prize in 1961, years after he had completed the stories which were later to comprise his most famous works. By the late 1960s and early '70s, he was an American campus cult figure of a dimension usually reserved for lead guitarists.

It was a remarkable leap to prominence that has since, inevitably, met with some historical revision. As this new book points out, writing about Borges has become a minor industry. Borges's elegant little works are usually treated as ciphers to be cracked open through literary detective work. I believe "Borges and his Fiction" is a valuable work precisely because it is not so ambitious; instead, it is a highly readable explication de textem that can serve as an introduction for the general reader or a reference work for the incurably literary.

Bell Villada picks up each of Borges's works, examines them for strengths and weaknesses, and then ranks them according to relative worth. There are few tidbits about the author's life, but every story from Borges's major collections ("Ficciones" and "El Aleph") is summarized and analyzed.

Borges's art is almost mythologically inspired. It contains numerous references to obscure religious texts and philosophers. Borges's favorite authors -- Chesterton, Kipling, Schopenhauer, among others -- invariably have had little impact on modern thought, a fact that has somehow enhanced Borges's reputation as a sort of living literary encyclopedia. It has become a cliche to describe his stories as intellectual mazes that require careful study to be understood.

Bell Villada, instead, insists that Borges's best work hinges on a clash between intellectualism and "the harsh real world: for example, the clash between intellectual sleuthing and hard-boiled police ('Death and the Compass'), dreamy artistry and Nazi gunfire, ('The Secret Miracle'), . . . and, of course, a man's mental limits and an infinite library."

Bell Villada judges Borges's later stories, written in the flush of fame, to be of less value, "an unfortunate instance of genius no longer animated by a grander conception of life and no longer holding a vital link with common experience."

He notes that Borges's fame in America came after the Argentine had reached old- master status in much of the rest of the world, and the influence of "Ficciones" had been assimilated by younger Spanish-language writers such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Carlos Fuentes, and Alejo Carpentier.

He also points out that Borges's example "has facilitated things for North American fantasists," cross-pollinating with English-language realism to produce the unique combination of fantasy and reality seen in such contemporary authors as Thom as Pynchon, John Barth, and Tim O'Brien.

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