30 Novels, day 14: A novel by Borges


30 Novels, day 14: Jorge Luis Borges, The Golden Thread

In the acknowledgements to my novel Salamander (a book about the creation of an infinite book) I mention that my work was inspired by “The Book of Sand,” a short story by the great Argentinian fabulist Jorge Luis Borges. 

Then I added “The novel Borges never wrote was also a great inspiration.”

I’ve always been fascinated by books that don’t exist. Fictional books, as opposed to books of fiction. (When my wife and I visited her aunt and uncle in Ireland, I looked at the uncle’s shelf of books and noticed it contained only works of engineering, history, and biography. I asked him if he had any novels and he said proudly, “I’ve never read a fictitious book in me life.” I was tempted to tell him, “Neither have I.”)

Literature is full of mentions of imaginary books. Nabokov’s Pale Fire. The novels of Umberto Eco.  J. R. R. Tolkien goes to great lengths to convince us his Lord of the Rings is actually a retelling and translation of an earlier volume of lore, The Red Book of Westmarch, which contained much that has been lost and forgotten.

But Borges is the undisputed master of the imaginary book. The story goes that he had trouble writing fiction until he hit upon the idea of adapting the genre of the literary review to write about books that don’t exist.

And yet he never wrote a novel. Perhaps it was because in his fiction he’d already described the ideal books he wanted to write, or at least to read.

So, in homage to Borges, I imagine that his unwritten novel actually does exist, and that I am reading it. I’ve been reading it for years. I haven’t finished it yet. Perhaps it’s an infinite book and I never can finish it. But I can tell you about some of the things it contains. There are mirrors in it, and a labyrinth, of course, although this labyrinth looks invitingly like a straight line. There are stories within stories within stories. Are they all telling the same story? There is a creature haunting this novel, a fabulous, elusive bird-beast whose wings make the sound of pages being riffled somewhere else in the book.

Sometimes I imagine Borges’ unwritten novel is about a writer who begins to realize that the book he’s been working on and can’t finish is actually a book that contains everything. It is the world, and he himself is a minor character in it, a nobody at the fringes of the story. And yet somewhere else in this vast book is the murderer who killed his beloved wife. Can he track the murderer down before the book ends? Can he change the story and turn this book into his book, this world into his world?

Illustration by Rafal Olbinski

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