Why Jorge Luis Borges Is Not a Magical Realist

Why Jorge Luis Borges Is Not a Magical Realist

by Evelyn C. Leeper

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 05/08/2009]

Recently someone who found my page on magical realism ( http://www.leepers.us/evelyn/reviews/magreal.htm) mistook me for an expert on it and asked me for more information. I explained that I was not an expert on magical realism; if I had an area of expertise, it was Jorge Luis Borges and he was not (contrary to some people's comments) a magical realist. She asked why, and I answered her. Having written that, I figured I might as well put it here as well.

The short answer:

If magical realism is--as Franz Roh described it--a form in which "our real world re-emerges before our eyes, bathed in the clarity of a new day," then I cannot see how this could be applied to Borges's writings.

The long answer:

Magical realism (to me, anyway) involves the idea that a story is set in our world, but our world "enhanced" by folklore and magic, or at least magic in the sense of coincidences, miracles, etc. So Horacio Quiroga's "Juan Darien" (about a tiger cub that changes into a boy) might be considered proto-magical realism. But Borges's stories often seem completely detached from our world (e.g., "The Library of Babel", "Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius", or even "The Babylonian Lottery"). When they are clearly set in this world, they either have no "magical" element (e.g. "Death and the Compass" or "Funes the Memorious") or the element is a single fantastical object (e.g., "The Book of Sand" or "The Zahir"). Of all his stories, the only one that comes to mind as possibly being magical realism would be "The Aleph".

Magical realism also seems to imply (again, at least to me) some interaction between the characters of the story and the "magical" elements--a recognition and acceptance of that aspect. But many of Borges' stories don't actually have characters--or plot, come to that. "The Library of Babel" has neither in any meaningful sense, nor does "The Babylonian Lottery", nor "Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius". "The Book of Sand" has a Bible salesman show up at the narrator's house with a book of infinite pages, but the two characters are there only to provide some framework for Borges to describe the book. And so on.

And finally, I think magical realism requires a minimum length to present the magical elements, and almost all of Borges's stories are shorter than this. The longest piece in FICCIONES is "Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" at 20 pages, followed by "Death and the Compass" at 14 pages. The average length is about 9 pages.

Borges was more influenced by the various movements in Europe (e.g. surrealism, Dadaism, and so on), although one must ultimately say he is sui generis. In a list of authors that says, "If you like A, you'll like B," the entry for Borges would read, "If you like Borges, you'll just have to look for more Borges."

(The latter is not entirely true. There are a few Borgesian pastiches around, such as Luis Verissimo's BORGES AND THE ORANGUTANS or Rhys Hughes's A NEW UNIVERSAL HISTORY OF INFAMY, but these are individual works, written specifically to imitate Borges. There is no author whose overall writing style can be said to be similar to Borges.)

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