Borges' Buenos Aires: The Imaginary City, Part 1

The Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges was profoundly shaped by the city he grew up in — Buenos Aires, and the city plays a major role in many of his stories. Philip Coulter goes on a walking tour of Borges' Buenos Aires in the company of the celebrated writer Alberto Manguel. Part 1 of a 2-part series.
Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges posing on his house terrace. Buenos Aires, 1977. (Mario De Biasi/Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images)

The Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges had a profound influence on the shape of modern literature. And he himself was profoundly shaped by the city he grew up in — Buenos Aires – a city that plays a major role in many of his stories. One of the great experimental writers of the 20th century, Borges believed that a story is a doorway to a world larger than itself, and that the act of reading is an essential part of both the making and the meaning of the story: the writer and the reader are in a great river, together.

Philip Coulter goes on a walking tour of Borges' Buenos Aires, in the company of the celebrated writer, Alberto Manguel, who used to read to the blind Borges as a teenager, and who, like Borges before him, is now director of the National Library in Buenos Aires. Part 1 of a 2-part series. Part 2 airs Friday, July 13.

Jorge Luis Borges' imaginary city

"And the city, now, is like a map
Of my humiliations and failures;
From this door, I have seen the twilights
And at this marble pillar I have waited in vain."

If you talk to people who love books and ask them who they think the greatest writers of the twentieth century are, the reliable names of Beckett and Joyce will come up quickly. Pressed a bit more, many of them will eventually get to Jorge Luis Borges. Best known for his short stories filled with mirrors, dreams and labyrinths, Borges worked as a librarian — first, as a young writer, at the humble Miguel Cane Municipal library in Buenos Aires; and then later, at the height of his fame, as director of the National Library of Argentina. At that time, in the mid-1950's, the library was housed in this grand, now-faded, building on Calle Mexico.

Borges is still here, and he is still everywhere. It is impossible to read or to write without Borges' ghost hovering over you...Borges radically changed the Spanish language, but also the form in which we confront literature, our relationship to literature. There is a before – and after-Borges, and we are all under the influence of that extraordinary eclecticism and that extraordinary ability to connect the dots that Borges had.- Alberto Manguel

Alberto Manguel thinks that  part of the reason Borges stuck mainly to short fiction and poetry was because of his blindness; it was easier to hold shorter works in his memory. Borges's father was blind, so when he started to lose his own sight in his thirties, he knew what was in store for him. He was a voracious reader, but now his precious books were slowly slipping away from him. After being appointed Director of the National Library in 1955, he wrote the beautiful Poem About Gifts, commenting ironically on God's twin gifts to him of both books and night.

"Let none think that I by tear or reproach make light
Of this manifesting the mastery
Of God, who with excelling irony
Gives me at once both books and night."

Jorge Luis Borges was a revolutionary writer

Blindness didn't limit his vision — in fact, being blind allowed him to see the world in unfamiliar ways, and to construct stories that forever changed the way we think about what stories can do. He created a labyrinth of a library that contains all the 410-page books you could make using all the letters of the alphabet; he wrote about a man who copies Don Quixote word for word but makes an entirely new book out of it; he invented a shimmering sphere in the corner of a basement that contains the whole universe, past and present.

Taking a cab throughout the city now, you can't help but wonder: did Borges once go into that bar, or stand on this corner and look up at that building — am I seeing what he saw?

Alberto Manguel ( Alain Jocard/AFP/Getty Images)
Alberto Manguel is an Argentine-born writer, translator, and editor. He is the author of numerous non-fiction books such as The Dictionary of Imaginary Places (co-written with Gianni Guadalupi in 1980) and A History of Reading (1996) The Library at Night (2007) and Homer's Iliad and Odyssey: A Biography (2008), and novels such as News From a Foreign Country Came (1991). He was the 2007 CBC Massey Lecturer, and his lecture series, The City of Words, explores many of the ideas raised in Borges writings.

Further reading:
  • Ficciones by Jorge Luis Borges, Grove/Atlantic 1994.
  • Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges, Norton, 2007.
  • The Library at Night by Alberto Manguel, Yale University Press, 2009.
  • A History of Reading by Alberto Manguel, Knopf, 1998.

Related websites:

**This series is produced by Philip Coulter.


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