Calvino On Borges

If I had to say which fiction writer has perfectly achieved Valéry’s aesthetic ideal of exactitude in imagination and in language, creating works that match the rigorous geometry of the crystal and the abstraction of deductive reasoning, I would without hesitation say Jorge Luis Borges. The reasons for my fondness for Borges do not end here, but 1 will mention only the main ones. I love his work because every one of his pieces contains a model of the universe or of an attribute of the universe (infinity, the innumerable, time eternal or present or cyclic); because they are texts contained in only a few pages, with an exemplary economy of expression; because his stories often take the outer form of some genre from popular literature, a form proved by long usage, which creates almost mythical structures. As an example let us take his most vertiginous “essay" on time, “El jardin de senderos que se bifurcan" (The Garden of Forking Paths), which is presented as a spy story and includes a totally logico-metaphysical story, which in turn contains the description of an endless Chinese novel—and all this concentrated into a dozen pages. The hypotheses on the subject of time enunciated by Borges in this story, each one contained (and virtually hidden) in a handful of lines, are as follows. First there is an idea of precise time, almost an absolute, subjective present: “reflexioné que todas las cosas le suceden a uno precisamente, precisamente ahora. Siglos de siglos y sólo en el presente ocurren los hechos; innumerables hombres en el aire, en la tierra y el mar, y todo lo que realmente pasa me pasa a mi" (I reflected that everything, to everyone, happens precisely, precisely now. Century after century, and only in the present, do things happen. There are innumerable men in the air, on land and on sea, and everything that really happens, happens to me). Then there is a notion of time as determined by the will, in which the future appears to be as irrevocable as the past; and finally the central idea of the whole story—a manifold and ramified time in which every present forks out into two futures, so as to form “una red creciente y vertiginosa de tiempos divergentes, convergentes y paralelos" (a growing and bewildering network of divergent, convergent, and parallel forms of time). This idea of infinite contemporary universes in which all possibilities are realized in all possible combinations is by no means a digression in the story, but rather the very reason why the protagonist feels authorized to carry out the absurd and abominable crime imposed on him by his spy mission, perfectly sure that this happens only in one of the universes but not in the others; and indeed that, if he commits this crime here and now, in other universes he and his victim will be able to hail each other as friends and brothers. The scheme of the network of possibilities may be condensed into the few pages of a story by Borges, or it may be made the supporting structure of immensely long novels, in which density and concentration are present in the individual parts. But I would say that today the rule of “Keep It Short" is confirmed even by long novels, the structure of which is accumulative, modular, and combinatory.

Italo Calvino
Six Memos for the Next Millennium