Borges' Buenos Aires: The Imaginary City, Part 2

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 2 of a 2-part series.
Argentinian author Jorge Luis Borges (1899 - 1986) in March 1982. (Keystone/Getty Images)
Listen to the full episode53:57

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. (It was recently announced that Alberto Manguel will be stepping down as Director of the National Library in Buenos Aires as of August 1 this year. The new director will be Elsa Barber.)

This episode is Part 2 of a 2-part series. **This episode originally aired December 13, 2017.

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."

The ageing, blind Jorge Luis Borges recreated the streets of Buenos Aires both in his memory and his imagination. He loved his city, but for him it was more than a place of bricks and stones — it was also a portal into a marvellous world of alternative realities, where its laws were similar to those in the real world, but bent a little — twisted, refracted. The streets Borges described to his friend, Alberto Manguel, were not quite the streets of that day, but the streets he remembered from his youth, when he could still see, and were reflected in his imagination.

"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

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 talks about walking the streets of Buenos Aires in the company of Jorge Luis Borges 1:32
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.



To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.