Essay: Yumna Kassabon Jorge Luis Borges

Borges and the Tiger

For Nell Chaffey

The labyrinth, once entered, becomes impossible for us to leave.


The thread that leads one out of the labyrinth can also be used to explore the labyrinth from within. One can imagine Theseus lost and gripping Ariadne’s thread for passage through the maze. The thread is golden and one can picture it: a yellow light in the dark, the glint of gold, and as Jorge Luis Borges surrenders to his destiny of blindness, it is yellow – gold always – that will be his faithful guide.

The Labyrinth

It is Buenos Aires in the 1930s. Our architect is young. For decades he has been promised blindness, a tiger let loose upon his heels. He reads Shakespeare, who envisions blindness as darkness complete, but Shakespeare, whom Borges reveres, is wrong. Colours are gradations on a spectrum; they are not lost in one go. They fall, a domino at a time, until yellow makes its final stand. When the other colours have deserted him, he will have yellow till the very end.

The writer, the ultimate builder of words and ideas, begins his labyrinth when he is young. From a single point it is devised, a universe of symbols and references that is then offered to the world. The symbols are interpreted and yes, yes, your version is true but imagination is a universe, and its paths fork endlessly with no beginning and no end.

Every structure requires a blueprint and a fictional universe is the same. The Great Wall is a line, Dante’s The Divine Comedy loops on a circle, then there is the unending cycle of The Thousand and One Nights, but Borges devised his universe as a labyrinth, and ultimately it became synonymous with his name.

The Guide

To navigate the labyrinth, one requires a guide. Theseus had Ariadne’s thread, the reader is led by Virgil in Dante’s world but Borges is tracked through the short pieces he wrote. There are the essays and fables and then his little fictional pieces, his words, not mine. Exploring the world of Borges, one wonders why there is no novel attached to his name. He is on record as saying he scorned narrative when young, later realising the poetry he loved had its origins in narrative. Poetry started life as the narrative epic and the narrative epic is poetry and the tiger chases its tail endlessly in a circle.

Why then no novel in the name of Borges? His world is filled with small pieces, mirrors that require only the barest light for the entire labyrinth to be lit up. Taken together, his writing is an infinite line with symbols and ideas shape-shifting across the years of his life.

To walk into his world is to walk into a maze; it is a single book spinning on an axis of innumerable relationships. The best the reader can do is to hold the thread blindly, forgetting all memory of the world outside and what is said to exist beyond the labyrinth’s walls.

The Library

To read Jorge Luis Borges is to be in a loop of symbols in endless conversation with one another. The symbols are mirrors: shine the light from the right and they read one way, shine it from the left and they are something else altogether. His writing is populated with references and in his world the categories have no borders. He freely quotes Shakespeare, Dante and The Thousand and One Nights. The words of Rudyard Kipling, Plato and The Qu’ran are referenced to make points entirely his own. He is a writer at home in the ideas of South America, Europe and the world beyond, and one can trace his freedom to his lifelong residence in libraries and the volumes they contain.

He said the chief event of his life was his father’s library. In 1955, he petitioned to be made the Director of the National Library in Argentina with these exact words:

Quite unwittingly, I have been qualifying myself for this position throughout my life.

One can see him taking his post so that he is surrounded by the books he has long counted as friends. He was promised a million books but the nine hundred thousand he was in charge of seem like so much more. One encounters little tricks like this in his writing. The Thousand and One Nights would not have worked as a thousand but the addition of a single night takes the phrase from flatness to a title that sparkles clearly in the air.

The Director finds his home in the labyrinth and in the library, and the two are one and the same. He surrounds himself with students and they make a study of poetry. On the left page is one language and on the right is another, and this arrangement allows the reader to achieve a layering of words and sound. It is not enough to know the word for yellow. The studious reader lingers over its sisters in other tongues. There is amarillo in Spanish, amariello in its classic form. It is asfar in Arabic and jaune in French, each turn of yellow adding to the richness of a single word.

It is no surprise that, as Borges lost the other colours, all things yellow should occupy a special place in the library labyrinth of his world.

The Tiger

To reference Borges is to reference other writers. He came to the tiger through the tyger, tyger of William Blake and the predator in Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book.

In his work, the tiger rears its head. The writer is the creature flitting through the shadows of the library. It tracks ideas from book to book. There are the sharpest stripes and then the shimmer of gold.

The writer is the tiger and is solitary and finds a home in the library where ideas can proliferate randomly.

The tigers of Borges are free upon the page. The tiger is blue in Shakespeare’s Memory, it is fashioned as the Other in a poem, best studied with English and Spanish face to face. There is The Gold of Tigers and The Dreamtigers in whichBorges declares himself a fervent worshipper of this endangered beast. It is the spot of yellow and orange, a faithful joy, before the finality of the night. This creature is the library’s guardian, and in the world of interpretation, the creature becomes a symbol which can then mean many things.

In this play of tigers, there is the fragment of a photo. There is our writer Borges posing with a Bengal tiger that stands taller than him. It is an echo of a little boy pressed with his face to the bars, perplexed by the tiger in the zoo. When you consider the work of this writer, it is much like this rare creature. Words are written about the tiger but ultimately the tiger will be solely known as its tiger-self.

Zoología Fantástica

Imagine the man recalling the boy on his outing to the zoo. The creature Borges watches belongs in a book for creatures fantastical and imaginary, except it is real.

Its stripes are bars against its golden-brown fur. It has the head of a dog and the pouch of a kangaroo. The creature, Thylacinus cynocephalus, is said to be nocturnal but there it is barking in the day. It licks its paws and lies down to enjoy the sun. The tiger of Tasmania would have confounded the classifier but had he known of it, the thylacine would have posed no trouble for the mind of Borges.

That tiger, now extinct, would have found a home in his labyrinth with the other tigers.

Blue tiger, golden tiger, dreamtiger and the mythical tiger said to have lived on the island of Tasmania.

This tiger, along with all of its kind, flits between the categories arranged along a continuous line. Imagination encounters reality, and the fantastical and factual are two sides of the same coin. The child carries the adult-to-be just as the adult is endlessly referencing the child he knew himself once to be. There is no bar that separates childhood from adulthood, and Borges the librarian was happy for his feet to pick out the path of the day. In The Book of Sand, there is no beginning, no end, the pages forming inexhaustible combinations of their own. Whatever distinctions live in the world outside vanish entirely in the labyrinth of Borges.

The world lives with its distinct categorisations. Literature is placed to the left and the fantastical is to the right, but Borges made unique combinations of the two. In his compilation The Book of Imaginary Beings, each creature is two parts fact to form a creature completely new. There is the Siren, satyr and Scylla, there is the mandrake, Minotaur and manticore, and there is the librarian honouring the imagination with a tower. It is a single point and it is built upwards, upwards, stretching to infinity and to whatever lies in the darkness beyond.

The Book of Sand

And then God said, ‘Let there be light.’ This line is from the book found in multiple forms in The Book of Sand.

Life begins in light. Before our lives, there is darkness and once we go to sleep finally there is darkness again.

This too is the lifecycle of the star. There is darkness, it becomes briefly golden, and then it disappears to darkness once more.

The student of science knows that the universe was once concentrated as a single point, and from there it expanded in an infinite interplay of matter and energy. The labyrinth of the writer is built along the same line. From the one point of birth, it is built as the labyrinth library tower stretching to the night sky.

The writer puts his head down, asleep before the mirrors, and then his multiples begin their infinite play.

He is the blind brother who is the protector of the library in The Name of the Rose.

He is the photograph handed from Colm Tóibín to Don DeLillo to watch over the writer at his desk every day.

He is the shadow in the writings of Alberto Manguel with his books about libraries and all they contain.

The question then is how does one safely navigate the labyrinth when its purpose is to make sure the reader remains dizzied and lost? The answer is close your eyes and allow the gold of tigers to lead the way.

The Five-Pointed Star

To construct a tower is to construct a monument in reverence of a man. He chose the hexagon as his foundation but this labyrinth has been devised with the use of a star. The star is perfectly balanced and has multiple points of symmetry. It is made along these five points:

Point 1: Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges, a compilation of fictions, essays and fables. Begin with silver at The Shape of the Sword.

Point 2: Seven Nights by Jorge Luis Borges. His title is a nod to The Thousand and One Nights he loved so much.

Point 3: The Book of Imaginary Beings by Jorge Luis Borges with Margarita Guerrero. Study the tigers and then watch them multiply.

Point 4: Ariadne’s Thread. Every work requires a thread for entrance and this proved the golden thread.

Point 5: The Dream of the Thylacine by Margaret Wilds, illustrated by Ron Brooks and One Careless Night by Christina Booth. These are books for children. When I was ready to abandon the tiger, it was Nell Chaffey – a librarian – who provided me with these two books and told me to persist.