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Who is Jorge Luis Borges?
Who was Jorge Luis Borges? To understand someone, you first need to know some background in their life as well as where and when they lived their life. Much can be learned from Borges’s writing style. First, Jorge Luis Borges was born on August 24, 1899 in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Borges’ father was a lawyer as well as a psychology teacher, his mother was a descendant of many soldiers and freedom fighters. Borges and his younger sister Norah, his only true childhood friend, acted out scenes from the books and spent their time in the library, labyrinth, and garden. His lack of friends led to a friendship with local poet Evaristo Carrigo, a fearless man of Argentine heritage, who became a secondary idol to the young Borges.
Young Jorge grew up in Palermo, a suburb on the northern outskirts of Buenos Aires. At the time it was a lower-class suburb known for its bordellos, cabarets and knife-fights. Most people went to these places to dance the tango and talk in front of the fire. Gauchos used to hold knife-fights to show their courage, settle disputes, and gain respect for the way they handled a knife. Much of Borges’s earlier work was steeped in the thought of Palermo, although he mostly grew up in a garden or in a library of endless English books. Borges began attending school in 1908, but soon hated school because of the other students, although he excelled academically. In 1914 the family moved to Geneva, where Borges would attend four years of high school at the College Calvin. The following years were spent mainly traveling through Spain. In 1921 the family returned to Buenos Aires where Borges published his first collection of poems. His father died in 1938. On that Christmas Eve, Borges himself had an accident that left him hallucinating in bed for a week, and after surgery suffered septicemia that left him stuck between life and death for a month. Although there are many interesting facts about his life, what happened in the world at that time affected his daily life. Just as our world affects us, his world affects his thinking, his job over the years, and every other aspect of his life.
When the Borges family first moved to Geneva, a war broke out and they were forced to stay. After the war they moved to Spain. In the twenties Borges became somewhat politically aware. He supported the campaign of former president Hipolito Irigóen who served as president from 1916 to 1922. But, he proved to be too out of touch with the times to be an effective ruler. Borges was disheartened when Yrigoyen was overthrown by a military junta, in what would be the first of many more repressive governments. Borges’ distaste for politics became complete. Ironically he gained wider recognition for his political articles than for his fiction. This incident caused him problems when the Fascists came to power in the mid-1940s. In 1946 Juan Peron was elected president, and because of his political affiliation, Borges was “promoted” to “inspector of poultry and rabbits in the public market”. He promptly resigned, stating that “dictatorship breeds subjugation, dictatorship breeds cruelty; even worse is the fact that they breed stupidity.”
The Peron regime, while not personally arresting him, made life more difficult for him and his family. After taking part in a protest, his mother and Norah were arrested in 1948; Her mother was placed under house arrest, but Nora was thrown into a prison primarily reserved for prostitutes. In 1950 Borges founded the Sociedad Argentina de Escritores (Argentine Writers’ Society.) SADE was predominantly political in thought and was under investigation by the government. A general meeting would begin with complex literature and philosophy until the police agents went home bored to sleep, followed by real political discussions. Although cautious, SADE was eventually closed. In 1955 the “Revolution Libertadora” took place. Although the government was still military in nature, SADE was reinstated, and Borges was appointed director of the National Library, but it appeared that the new government was abusing power like any other traditional Argentine junta. Borges began to criticize his policies, until the “absurd war” over the Falkland Islands drove Borges to withdraw from the world of politics. By then Borges was going completely blind. No doubt all of these had their own influence on Borges’ writing, but it all came together as his own style.
Borges had his own writing style from a combination of many people’s styles and somehow made it his own. It seemed that anyone who influenced Borges’s life also influenced some of his literature. He began writing at the age of six, mostly stories inspired by Cervantes. When he was nine, he translated Oscar Wilde’s “The Happy Prince” into Spanish, which was published in a local newspaper called El Pais. Since it was only signed “Jorge Borges”, everyone assumed it was his father’s work, noting how close his writing was to his father’s. Borges also noted that his grandmother’s dry English wit was the source of his concise style. It was at the College Calvin that Borges discovered an entirely new way of relating to the world through abstract literature through the works of Verlaine, Rimbaud and Mallarmé. It was also in Geneva where he first acquired his love for Schopenhauer, his favorite of all philosophers, and Walt Whitman, whom he believed for a time to be the culmination of all the finer aims of poetry. According to John Updike, ““For all his modesty and reasonableness of tone, he offers a kind of necessary correction to the literature itself,” and says that Mr. Borges’s “dryest passages are somehow compelling.” Also the historian and philosopher George Steiner writes, ” When he cites fictitious titles, fictitious cross-references, folios, and authors that never existed, Borges is simply reconstructing the counters of reality into possible other worlds. As he moves, from language to language by wordplay and echo, he is turning the kaleidoscope, Throwing light on another patch of wall.”Because of all the different sides of Jorge Luis Borges, who he was, when he lived, wrote as only he could; I have chosen to evaluate his many works.
Reading his first short story, Streetcorner Man, lets you capture all that Borges is. The story was inspired by a local ‘compadrito’ who died. The story was neither dry nor boring. The story was more realistic because of the setting, which could have been the local cabaret where Borges grew up. Although writing under the pseudonym “Francisco Bustos” and achieving great success, Borges did not want to be known as a mere writer of populist plays. His blend of fact and fiction led the story to an unsuspected twist at the end. One of the joys of reading Borges is to see how his past is related and vividly described through his work. It was interesting to see how well he portrayed all aspects of the story. The mood he set went with the story, how the story was told by someone of the time, how people reacted to each stimulus in the story. The characters were so real that it was hard to tell if they were actually fictional. As with many of his stories, it starts to become clear through this story, that is, until the twist at the end. At this point I knew it wasn’t the same, that Borges had more material in his story than most writers. Even in such a short story, Borges still found a way to pack in a lot of detail. So many details, in fact, that you pick up on things the third and fourth time you read the story. Hopefully you understand Borges a bit now, if not read some of his work and you will see what sets him apart from other writers.
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