Today, August 24, is the birthday of Jorge Luis Borges. Or rather, it would be if he was still alive. That would make him 112 years old, so the likelihood of that would have been slim anyway. I still want to give him a birthday present, though. It’s a story.
When I was a freshman in college, I had a pretty narrow conception of what fiction could be. I more or less only read the same kind of story (horror stories), and many of those followed the same kinds of patterns, at least among the stories I read. My freshman year, I elected to take a fiction writing class because I wanted to be a writer. Ever since my eighth grade teacher told me I would be a good writer, I tried to write stories on a regular basis. I failed. I didn’t have the attention span for it. I’d get twenty pages into a story, get bored with it, and delete it. I never finished anything. And yet, when anyone asked me what I was going to do with myself, I told them I was going to be a writer, like Stephen King or H.P. Lovecraft (I still love them to death, but I really needed to go off and do my own thing, not copy those two for the rest of time).
My teacher, a graduate teaching assistant, assigned a story for the class to read a few weeks into the semester, just before the due date for our first stories. He gave us all copies of “The Garden of Forking Paths,” the first Borges story to be translated into English. We read it and discussed it as a class. On the first read, it confused me. I thought it was a simple detective story at first. Why all of the philosophical whining about decision and consequence? Why did he chase Dr. Albert down in the first place? And that long discussion in the middle about the main character’s ancestor, who retired from a government post in Imperial China to create both a book and a labyrinth, who fooled everyone by writing a book that was itself a labyrinth. That was a cool idea, but what the hell was the point of it? And why put the story of the man’s descendant around it?
But the more I read the story, the more it wouldn’t let go of me. That book the protagonist’s ancestor wrote. It presented a radically different view of time. Rather than commit to a single course for the story, where a character makes a choice and the narrative follows the path determined by that choice, the ancestor’s book followed every choice and every possible path from that choice. There was no one true narrative, and yet it was truer than any other because it contained within it all possible narratives. The book did what the protagonist’s life, regrettably for him, could not do: follow all forking paths of life, rather than commit to an unwanted path.
The story blew my mind. Here I was, the big science fiction geek (in addition to being addicted to horror), and I had just read the best metaphorical depiction of parallel universes ever. I saw through the facade of narrative and how it was constructed, and what its construction said about the builder involved. I learned whole new ways of writing stories, and what narrative itself could be capable of. In effect, I became a different, more studious writer, aware of the paths that I could forge with my own stories.
(If this sounds similar to my post about Choose Your Own Adventure books from earlier, you’re not far off. Among other things, this story prefigured the CYOA format and hypertext narrative in general. The whole notion of branching narratives in stories owes a tremendous debt to “The Garden of Forking Paths.” The story has also been cited by physicists as an excellent example of the Many Worlds Interpretation of quantum physics, where multiple universes are created by the outcomes of branch events where more than one option exists; for every outcome, a new universe is born, basically.)
But the story passed out of my consciousness after that semester, for some reason. I don’t remember why. I do remember, over the course of the years, feeling my ambition of becoming a writer be battered by events in real life and negative experiences in creative writing classes (there’s nothing as disheartening as taking a creative writing workshop with teachers who clearly don’t give a shit about actually teaching or maintaining a professional interest in their students’ writing). So, by my senior year I came to seriously doubt what I had chosen to do with myself. I actually came to a point where I was ready to give up on my writing.
Intervention came in the unlikely form of my Spanish class. Our teacher assigned us to translate a short story into English. The story? “El Sur,” or in English “The South.” Written by one Jorge Luis Borges. The name resonated with me and I asked my teacher about him. He raved about his writing and recommended I seek out a copy of his acclaimed collection, Ficciones.
I found a copy of Ficciones in my university library, on the second floor. When I removed the copy from the shelves and opened to the Table of Contents, a penciled-in arrow pointed to one story and one story only: “The Garden of Forking Paths.”
I read the whole story again right there in the library, standing at a balcony that overlooked the periodical stacks below. I always felt like the stacks of old academic journals resembled a cold, tile-floored version of a corn maze, one that pointed to no particular exit. When I read the story, the memory of my earlier reading overlapped with my more current reading. At that point, I felt like I was encountering and merging with a younger version of myself, one that had something to say to the older, more hesitant me. The experience cleansed me and reminded me of why I loved to write in the first place.
At one point in the story, Dr. Albert tells the protagonist, “Once in a while, the paths of that labyrinth converge: for example, you come to this house, but in one of the possible pasts you are my enemy, in another my friend.” I see the applications of this model to life in a very real, vivid way. In one possible past, I gave up on my writing. In another, I never read “The Garden of Forking Paths” in the first place, let along again in the library years later. In some horrid, forsaken universe, that story was never written, or Borges never existed.
The wonderful thing is, I do live in the universe where Borges existed. “The Garden of Forking Paths” was written; I did read it, again and again. I not only received an impression of what fiction could do, but decided to stick it out and try to achieve those goals in my own writing. I sometimes regret that I cannot see all possible paths of my life, or of this world. I do live in a universe where Borges wrote his marvelous works, though, and I am thankful for that.