Jorge Luis Borges: what made him so good?

Jorge Luis Borges abandoned much that was standard in his writing. And that's what his biographers were forced to do, too.

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This photo of Jorge Luis Borges was taken in his Mexico City hotel room on Aug. 22, 1981, two days before his 82nd birthday.

Jorge Luis Borges, the Argentine writer who would have celebrated his 112th birthday today (and wouldn't have found anything odd about it), was one of the most beloved Latin American storytellers of the twentieth century. He was also an early contributor to magical realism, a genre of literature in which the abnormal is presented to readers alongside the mundane.

Borges was a master of the technique. His specialty was imagining entire novels, encyclopedias, or even libraries, and then reviewing them as if to mock literary critics. One of his more popular tales, 'Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote,' is told from the position of a man reading the work of the fictional author Pierre Menard. Menard believed that by immersing himself thoroughly in the life of Miguel de Cervantes, the as 17th-century Spanish poet who wrote Don Quixote, he will naturally produce identical work. Menard turns out to be right, but the modern era differentiates his prose from Cervantes's.

In another story, Borges describes a fictional encounter with Ireneo Funes, a boy who begins to perceive things in their totality (and remember them too) after falling off a horse. Among other endeavors, Funes wishes to create a "system of enumeration" in which each integer is given a specific name. Borges's narrator tells him this is nonsensical, but soon realizes that Funes is incapable of what he calls "thought," and more staggeringly, that the boy will be able to recall every word and gesture of their meeting.

Perhaps what separated Borges from his contemporaries was his creative scope. His narratives married nonexistent texts with nonexistent characters and put them both in his increasingly difficult to define "real" world. Some critics have conjectured that blindness, which overtook him by the time he was fifty, might have had something to do with his intellectual playfulness: it could be that, forced to live in an environment of purely conceptual tinkering, Borges thrived.

Borges's style stirred up trouble for biographers. Edwin Williamson’s 'Borges: A Life' implies that the Argentine's philosophical leaps were just as important to his development as were his physical experiences, and this made him entirely intangible, just like the figures who appear in his stories. Maybe, in the end, this is how he would have liked it.

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