I decided to tackle Jorge Luis Borges short story The Library of Babel after reading that it was one of the influences on Susanna Clarke when she wrote her recent award winning book, Piranesi.
The influence is obvious. A labyrinthine library that contains every single book that could possibly be written (even the books that don’t make any sense whatsoever), a library that is in fact the universe, a library that repeats ad nauseam through time and space, a library that some believe must contain the one true book that contains the key to all other books.
At only eight pages long it is barely a short story, in fact, it’s not so much a story as an intellectual exercise – an essay of ideas. An idea that has spread its influence far and wide. Authors (and screen writers) all around the world have taken Borges’ ideas about infinity, order, and reality and imagined a much larger story.
I’m sure there are many more examples, but after reading The Library of Babel, I realised that I had unknowingly read several books (besides Piranesi) written in homage to Borges’ idea a world within a within with infinite knowledge. In 2005 my old book group read The Shadow of the Wind by Spanish writer Carlos Ruiz Zafón about a library cemetery full of old forgotten books.
The movie Interstellar, starring Matthew McConaughey features a confusing, disturbing scene towards the end of the movie where McConaughey’s character is confined in an otherworldly space-time labyrinth (called the tesseract) that somehow exists behind the bookshelf in his daughters bedroom back on earth. I have now watched this movie several times (Mr Books is fascinated by it) and neither of us can tell you what it is about, at least now, one scene makes more sense than it did before.
And finally, just last week I started reading Sosuke Natsukawa’s The Cat Who Saved Books. By the end of the first chapter, we have entered, thanks to a talking cat, an endless room of books hidden behind the second hand bookshop that young Rintaro has inherited from his grandfather – the challenge – to rescue the books imprisoned there.
Besides the spreading web of influence and inspiration, the other factor that fascinates me endlessly is translations. Borges originally published The Library of Babel in his collection of stories El jardín de senderos que se bifurcan (The Garden of Forking Paths) in Spanish in 1941.
There have been three main translations of his work. I have included an example of the opening lines of each below. I read the Andrew Hurley translation in full.
The universe (which others call the Library) is composed of an indefinite and perhaps infinite number of hexagonal galleries, with vast air shafts between, surrounded by very low railings.James E. Irby | 1962
The universe (which others call the Library) is composed of an indefinite, perhaps an infinite, number of hexagonal galleries, with enormous ventilation shafts in the middle, encircled by very low railings.Anthony Kerrigan | 1962
The universe (which others call the Library) is composed of an indefinite, perhaps infinite number of hexagonal galleries. In the center of each gallery is a ventilation shaft, bounded by a low railing.Andrew Hurley | 1998
I’m not sure I am any the wiser for having read The Library of Babel, but others obviously obsess over it. It has spawned a website and a whole internets worth of discussion papers, analysis and art. Perhaps if I had come across this story in my twenties when my own thoughts on the world, universe and everything were still forming, these ideas might have felt more profound or life changing. But now it just seems like Borges had the uncanny ability to predict a future world of Big Data!
Whether I am brave enough to tackle the second short story, The House of Asterion, that inspired Susanna Clarke remains to be seen! However, like our unnamed librarian narrator, ‘my solitude is cheered by that elegant hope.’
By this art you may contemplate the variation of the 23 letters….Anatomy of Melancholy, Pt. 2, Sec. II, Mem. IV | Robert Burton | 1621
Title: La biblioteca de Babel Author: Jorge Luis Borges Translator: Andrew Hurley (1998) Imprint: Viking Published: 1941 Format: PDF Pages: 8
- This post was written on the traditional land of the Wangal clan, one of the 29 clans of the Eora Nation within the Sydney basin. This Reading Life acknowledges that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are this land’s first storytellers.