The Man Who Invented Borges


Dzanc Books is one of my favorite recently-minted small publishers, and not just because their first two titles were by my brilliant friend Roy Kesey. Just check out their mission statement for an idea why I like them.

They have begun publishing an annual anthology, modeled on the Pushcart Prize, that collects the “Best of the Web.” The 2008 edition was edited by Steve Almond (who, by the way, will be reading at our event next Monday), and the 2009 edition was edited by Lee K. Abbott.

Let’s hope the next editor is checking out the Rumpus right now.

Amongst the collected stories, poems, and essays, I noticed one of my own favorites from my web reading last year, Macedonio Fernández: The Man Who Invented Borges, by Marcelo Ballvé. It appeared in Issue 12 of the Quarterly Conversation, a long essay that was actually among the reasons I decided I wanted to write for the site too.

It’s about the man who was a mentor to Borges, and, Ballvé argues, a formative influence upon his work.

Into the 1930s Macedonio wrote Borges long letters full of scratched out and illegible words, letters detailing extravagant positions on metaphysical problems. In the last extant letter of their correspondence, dating to 1939, Macedonio wrote to console Borges after the death of his father the year before, and stated, among other esoteric asides: “I deny the world as unity, identity, continuity.” Toward the end of the letter he added: “I think death has a little twist to it.”

For anyone who has a passing familiarity with Borges’s career-making 1940s story collections Ficciones and The Aleph, the two statements above will strike a chord. Simply taking Macedonio’s propositions, and slightly reformulating them, one might come up with a one-sentence summation of many of Borges’s famous stories: they portray reality as endlessly mercurial and death as something slightly other than what we might make it out to be.

These two themes—the illusive nature of reality, the idea of death as a metaphysical rabbit-hole—are fused in “The Circular Ruins,” among the most anthologized of Borges’s stories. It is at once an allegory anatomizing religious belief and a devastating diagnosis of life, death, and individuality, which the story says may be nothing more than dreams—self-deceiving phantasmagoria. This is the story’s last line: “With relief, with humiliation, with terror, he understood that he also was an illusion, that someone else was dreaming him.”

And he adds farther down:

Reading Borges in the light of Macedonio’s ideas enriches Borges, fleshes out the context from which he emerged, and has the overall effect of making Borges more approachable. With Macedonio as a precursor, Borges seems less monstrous, less a preternatural intelligence emerging freakishly in splendid isolation.


Borges’s writing, so obnoxiously perfect, can seem an impenetrable construction, much like the city featured in his story “The Immortal,” built on a foundation that does “not reveal the least irregularity, the invariable walls not indulging a single door.” After a dose of Macedonio, though, the reader suddenly feels empowered to tunnel in with multiple points of entry.

It’s a really great essay, well-worth spending time with. Link.

Jeremy Hatch is a writer, musician, and professional bookseller leading a cheerful, aimless life in San Francisco. He is the Junior Literary Editor of the Rumpus and has a blog which he updates once in a while. More from this author →