Why Jorge Luis Borges matters 30 years after his death

By Irene Caselli
Buenos Aires

Image caption,
Jorge Luis Borges broke new ground by blending genres

They say he was one of the best writers of the last century but Jorge Luis Borges never won the Nobel prize for literature.

He was famous for mixing the real and the fantastic but do the Argentinian's works stand the test of time?

Thirty years after his death, BBC News asked fellow Argentine authors to pick their favourite Borges quote and explain why we should keep reading Borges today.

Mauro Libertella, author and journalist, born in 1983

Image source, Diego Sampere
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Mauro Libertella says no one has matched Borges' poignant prose
  • "One literature differs from another, prior or posterior, less because of the text than because of the way in which it is read: if I were granted the possibility of reading any present-day page - this one, for example - as it will be read in the year two thousand, I would know what the literature of the year two thousand will be like"- from the essay A Note on Bernard Shaw, translated by James E Irby

This sentence is extraordinary and I believe that it summarises everything that Borges has left us: not only a perfect prose, an exact and unequalled manner of saying things, but also a strong conviction that what matters is not the text in itself but how we approach that text.

Borges is still so important because no one better has come after him, in the sense that no one has been able to produce prose as poignant.

There has been no one that has thought about and restructured all the literature that came before him.

There has been no one that has combined the elements that he combined, such as humour, absolute dedication to writing, and his will to do everything from journalism and scripts to prologues and anthologies.

Finally, he was so important because he is one of the three writers, together with Joyce and Kafka, who defined the 20th Century.

Silvia Hopenhayn, writer and journalist, born in 1966

Image source, Valeria Furman
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Silvia Hopenhayn chose a quote from short story Emma Zunz
  • "The story was unbelievable, yes—and yet it convinced everyone, because in substance it was true. Emma Zunz's tone of voice was real, her shame was real, her hatred was real. The outrage that had been done to her was real, as well; all that was false were the circumstances, the time, and one or two proper names" - from the short story Emma Zunz, published in 1948 and translated by Andrew Hurley

Borges represents a watershed in the literary universe, as if great literary tributaries such as Dante, Cervantes, Poe and Kafka converged in his work.

I treasure above all his audacity with adjectives, how he finds the right verb, as if he were diving in the treasure of language.

Juan Jose Becerra, novelist, born in 1965

Image source, Francesc Fernández
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Juan Jose Becerra says Borges' stories sometimes feel like they have been written by "different Borgeses"
  • "On the burning February morning Beatriz Viterbo died, after braving an agony that never for a single moment gave way to self-pity or fear, I noticed that the sidewalk bill-boards around Constitution Plaza were advertising some new brand or other of American cigarettes. The fact pained me, for I realized that the wide and ceaseless universe was already slipping away from her and that this slight change was the first of an endless series" - from the 1945 short story The Aleph, translated by Norman Thomas di Giovanni

It's as if that story had been written with six hands by the serious Borges, the repressed Borges that didn't write about what he felt and the Borges that used to blend himself with [writer and friend] Adolfo Bioy Casares under the pseudonym Bustos Domecq.

Borges' books impregnate us with a Borgean conscience in the same way that the Bible leaves believers a Catholic conscience.

It is here where you see the genius, the flashiness and the constraint of Borges.

Luisa Valenzuela, novelist and short story writer, born in 1938

Image source, Hugo Passarello Luna
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Luisa Valenzuela says her favourite Borges quotes comes from one of his poems
  • "God moves the player and he, the piece. What god behind God originates the scheme Of dust and time and dream and agony?" - from the poem Chess

This condenses to the maximum level universal literature and even fictional literature with a flowing language of impeccable mastery.

Claudia Pineiro, novelist and screenwriter, born in 1960

Image source, Alejandra López
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Claudia Pinero says Borges created worlds through his prose
  • "Does this Aleph exist in the heart of a stone? Did I see it there in the cellar when I saw all things, and have I now forgotten it? Our minds are porous and forgetfulness seeps in; I myself am distorting and losing, under the wearing away of the years, the face of Beatriz" - from The Aleph

Borges is Argentina's most important writer, but he's not the most read one.

For years we got lost in ideological discussions about his politics and about what class he belonged to.

His prose is unequalled, as unequalled as the worlds that he created through his prose.

Carlos Gamerro, novelist, critic, translator, born in 1962

Image source, Thomas Langdon
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Carlos Gamerro says Borges saw "a world in a grain of sand"
  • "The Aleph's diameter was probably little more than an inch, but all space was there, actual and undiminished. Each thing (a mirror's face, let us say) was infinite things, since I distinctly saw it from every angle of the universe" - from The Aleph

Borges might not have been the greatest writer of the 20th Century, but he was certainly its greatest reader.

He gave new life to the Western and much of the Eastern tradition by reading, experiencing and re-writing the classics from Homer and the Anglo-Saxons onwards.

He made them come alive, making them into texts that seem to have been written yesterday, having us in mind as their readers.

Borges was not a mystic, although he probably would have liked to be one.

No mystic I have read has been able "to see a world in a grain of sand" as Borges has.

Born in 1899 in the Argentine capital Buenos Aires, Jorge Luis Borges wrote short stories, poems, essays, articles and translations.

Ricardo Piglia, one of Argentina's foremost literary critics, argues his fictional worlds transformed the idea of fiction itself.

But recognition of his work was not immediate. While he was awarded the first Prix International jointly with Samuel Beckett in 1961, he was never granted the Nobel.

Argentine writer and essayist Maria Negroni says that Borges' fame has grown since he died in 1986 because "one starts understanding him as time goes by".

Borges was fascinated by labyrinths, mirrors, reflections and time, something which was reflected in many of his stories, such as The Aleph.

In The Aleph, the narrator describes a point in space from which he can observe everything in the universe simultaneously, which is typical of Borges' interest in time and space.