Thursday, June 1, 2000

Borges and His Fiction, by Gene H. Bell-Villada

A Review of Gene H. Bell-Villada’s

Borges and His Fiction

Originally published in the Rain Taxi Review of Books, Summer, 2000

By Gene H. Bell-Villada
University of Texas Press ($30)

In Jorge Luis Borges’ story “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” a vast, all-encompassing, and completely imaginary world infiltrates and then takes over our own, insinuating its way into our history, geography, literature, sciences, and metaphysics via bogus encyclopedia entries, conjectural treatises, and pseudo-scholarly games. In a startling parallel, Borges’ own invented world—with its infinite libraries, invented authors, and alternate universes—has infiltrated our own and spawned an almost equally vast array of secondary material.

Adding to the ever-growing list of entries, Borges scholar Gene H. Bell-Villada has updated and expanded his 1981 study, Borges and His Fiction. Incorporating biographical material that has surfaced since Borges’ death in 1986 and revising the critical evaluation of the Fictions, Bell-Villada’s book offers a more comprehensive look at Borges—the man, the Argentine, the world-class writer—than probably any other single volume.

Unfortunately, Bell-Villada writes about Borges much better than about Borges’ work, and as the book descends into the Fictions, the reader learns more about the critic’s interests and biases than about Borges’ stories. Somehow bending each narrative to fit (or subvert) some preordained conceit, Bell-Villada reads all manner of spurious Tlön-like theories into Borges’ ever-mutable world. While the sections on Borges himself are enlightening, we somehow find that “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” is a comment on the situation in WWII-Europe, that “Emma Zunz” is a feminist-proletarian parable, and that “The Zahir”—in an astonishing stretch—closely conforms to Freudian paradigms.

While this volume may be useful to Borges experts, a less scholarly reader might not have the critical know-how to separate the useful from the nonsensical. This book, which the author addresses to the general reader, is unfortunately better left to the ever-expanding and ever-infighting cabal of critical theorists.

— David Wiley