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Jorge Luis Borges in Context, edited by Robin Fiddian

Reviewed by Jorge Sarasola, University of St Andrews

Jorge Luis Borges in Context, edited by Robin Fiddian. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020. £85.00. ISBN: 9781108470445.

As of July 2020, the University of Pittsburgh Borges Center lists a total of 1,336 freely accessible academic publications (mostly articles, with only a few books and dissertations) on the work of the doyen of Argentine letters, Jorge Luis Borges (1899–1986). One of the latest additions to the unfathomable universe of Borgesian criticism is Jorge Luis Borges in Context, a collection of thirty-two short essays by leading scholars in the field, edited by Robin Fiddian. As evidenced by his previous study, Postcolonial Borges: Argument and Artistry (2017), Fiddian has a successful track record carving new lines of inquiry in this over-crowded field. Devoting a volume in the ‘Writers in Context’ series to Borges is especially apt, according to the editor, because of Borges’s own illustration of the critical importance of ‘context’ in one of his best-known short stories, ‘Theme of the Traitor and the Hero’ (1944): ‘[t]he history of the world and of the Argentine nation; family history and specific cultural matrices; the afterlife of a text and the conditions of its reception: these are the principal building blocks of context as modelled in “Theme of the Traitor and the Hero”’ (6). Fiddian extracts these principles from the tale and uses them as part of the book’s methodological approach.

            The first 16 essays of the collection, stringed together under the rubric ‘Self, Family, and the Argentine Nation’, can be further subdivided into two broad categories. Chapters 1–7 discuss Borges’s attitude towards the Banda Oriental (now Uruguay), his family history, the influential women in his life, as well as the relevance of both World Wars, Peronism, the Argentine military dictatorship, and the Falklands War in his life and work. Chapters 8–16 ‘centre on the cultural context of Argentina, from the mid-nineteenth century […] until the end of the twentieth century’ (6), touching on gauchesque literature, Argentine identity and aesthetics around the time of the Centenary, popular culture, tango, the collaborative writing with Adolfo Bioy Casares, and his influence on writers César Aira and Ricardo Piglia.

            In Part Two, entitled ‘The Western Canon, the East, Contexts of Reception’, Chapters 17–24 trace the relation between the Western Canon and Borges (specifically Cervantes, Shakespeare, Idealism, the English Romantics, the first Spanish avant-garde, Joyce, Kafka, and the Bible). Three studies examine the roles of Judaism, Buddhism, and Persian literature in Borges’s life and literature (Chapters 25–27), and the final five essays are devoted to ‘contexts of reception and afterlives’ (7) of his literary production, which consider his influence on the Latin American ‘Boom’ and on J. M. Coetzee, as well as the reception of his work in Cuba, Italy, and Portugal. Some chapters echo each other in reinforcing central contextual considerations which become major themes, permeating the whole collection: Borges’s avowed anti-Peronism as a cornerstone of his political beliefs; his perception of the orillas (neighbourhoods in Buenos Aires facing the pampas) as a mythical space on which to build an ideal of Argentine identity; as well as his irreverent attitude towards the Western canon, are some of the topics that recur throughout the book.

            Aside from a few chapters which are almost wholly biographical, most contributors attempt to strike a balance in foregrounding a contextual aspect of Borges’s life, while conducting a concise analysis of selected pieces of writing. Ben Bollig’s ‘Borges and Las Islas Malvinas’ (Chapter 7) is illustrative of an approach where the personal, political, and aesthetic are fruitfully explored in tandem. Borges’s caustic quip comparing the Falklands War to ‘two bald men fighting for a comb’ is the starting point for a study which argues that his attitude to this conflict evidences a progressive politics in contrast with his early comments welcoming the dictatorship. While contemporaneous military feuds were rarely represented in Borges’s literary works, the Argentine writer devoted both ‘Juan López and John Ward’ and ‘Milonga del muerto’ to address the regrettable death of rank and file soldiers in the 1982 war between the United Kingdom and Argentina. His unequivocal challenge to the nation’s jingoism during this conflict marks a turning point in his own attitude towards the military government, as examined also by Annick Louis in Chapter 5.

            Focusing on a detailed contextual understanding of Borges’s lifetime in relation to his work yields insightful findings in each chapter. In ‘Borges and the Bible’ (Chapter 24), Lucas Adur’s contextualisation of the rise of Catholic integralism in Argentina during the first half of the twentieth century, ‘characterized by its intransigence and intolerance’ (195), renders Borges’s use of the Bible a defiant and bold strategy. His non-reverential attitude towards the sacred text, the questioning of anti-Semitic discourse, as well as his use of Protestant versions of the Scriptures, all serve to undermine the discourse of Catholic integralists at a time when they were consolidated as a political force in Argentina. In ‘Borges and Cervantes’ (Chapter 17), Roberto González Echeverría looks beyond the usual links drawn between these two towering figures in Hispanic letters, and considers the impact of both Franco’s victory in the Spanish Civil War and the 400th anniversary of Cervantes’s death, two events which promoted the work of Cervantes during Borges’s lifetime. In turn, Borges’s criticism of the use of Cervantes for nationalistic purposes, ‘the ultimately fascistic linking of language, culture and politics’ (146), illustrates his long-held views on the problematic intermingling of literature and nationalism. These are simply two examples amongst countless others, where the focus on contextual considerations not immediately obvious to the reader of Borges (at least not to this reader) can be especially rewarding.

            The different chapters cover several of Borges’s best-known pieces of writing, especially his short stories from Fictions and The Aleph, yet the collection also includes analyses of some of Borges’s lesser known (and less philosophical) writings. For example, Ana C. Cara’s ‘Borges, Tangos, and Milongas’ (Chapter 13), takes the reader on a tour-de-force of the beguiling world of tango and milonga, and examines Borges’s profound interest in these practices through his writings. In this vein, Philip Swanson (‘Borges and Popular Culture’) posits that Borges’s focus in much of his work was ‘the popular or even the vulgar’ (123). The misguided yet pervasive perception of Borges as a mind without a body, aloof from political reality and preoccupied with logical puzzles and aesthetic dilemmas alone, is compellingly subverted in this volume.  

            In Chapter 12 (‘The Argentine Writer and Tradition’) Humberto Núñez-Faraco examines Borges’s views on tradition, allowing us to grasp why he became an unavoidable reference point in the fields of ‘World Literature’, comparative literature, and canon studies. The author’s understanding of literary influence echoes a rallying cry of comparatists: ‘Borges scorned a nationalist version of Argentine literature that sought to eliminate the notion of writing as a complex web of cultural influences’ (100). Though immersed in his country’s literature, Borges proclaimed that Argentine writers should not be constrained by national tradition. Instead, he advocated for an irreverent attitude to the Western canon (as Chapters 17–24 in this volume exemplify), whilst also including non-Western traditions in his work (examined in Chapters 26 and 27). In his rewritings and re-readings of the canon, Borges also upsets traditions of literary history and criticism by undermining chronology in favour of a creative and ludic approach to the canon: ‘For him, reordering the library, placing Homer after Virgil or a French symbolist poet next to Cervantes is a form of literary criticism available to every reader’ (99).

            Fiddian is candid about the limitations of the study: ‘Homer, Anglo-Saxon literature, Quevedo, Pascal, and Hawthorne are notable absentees’ (7). Indeed, the habitual reader of this Review may also be disappointed by the absence of a chapter devoted to Borges’s collaborations with his translator into English, Norman Thomas di Giovanni. Nevertheless, the scope of contexts considered in this volume is impressive, and the dialogue which emerges between the chapters shows that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. For example, whilst there is not a specific chapter considering Borges and José Hernández’s Martín Fierro, thoughtful engagements with this text abound in Chapters 1, 8, 9, and 15.

            Some readers may be taken aback by the brevity of the chapters, as each essay is on average only six pages long (without endnotes). This places stringent constraints on the depth of analysis each contributor can strive for, especially when they attempt to marry detailed contextual considerations with close readings of selected texts. Whilst limited by this format, it would be unfair to claim that the essays do not reconcile these two goals effectively. Akin to how Fiddian extracts principles from ‘Theme of the Traitor and the Hero’ to approach the subject matter, contributors appear to emulate Borges’s ‘legendary economy of form’ (as Robert Gordon aptly describes in Chapter 32) in their own essays. Indeed, some of Borges’s most quoted essays (‘The Argentine Writer and Tradition’, ‘The Flower of Coleridge’, or ‘The Homeric Versions’) are only a few pages long. The articles may well be deemed to be homages to Borges by virtue of their own pithy approach to essay-writing.