Mystery #3 for Literary Snobs: Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges

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8465_original[1]Any excuse to read this South American grandmaster is a good one. Luckily for us, mysteries were his favorite fiction. As fellow South American author Alberto Manguel reminisced about Jorge Luis Borges in his piece in the 2006 Criminal Content issue of Words Without Borders:

“He loved detective novels. He found in their formulae the ideal narrative structures that allow the fiction writer to set up his own borders and to concentrate on the efficiency of words and images made of words. He enjoyed significant details. He once observed, as we were reading the Sherlock Holmes story “The Red-Haired League,” that detective fiction was closer to the Aristotelian notion of a literary work than any other genre. According to Borges, Aristotle had stated that a poem about the labors of Hercules would not have the unity of the Iliad or the Odyssey, since the only uniting factor would be the single same hero undertaking the various labors, and that in the detective story, the unity is given by the mystery itself.”

Their influence — especially the works of Poe and Chesterton — are obvious in many of the stories in the extraordinary collection entitled Labyrinths.

Start with “Death and the Compass,” a seemingly familiar murder mystery in which the detective hero, Erik Lönnrot, a “pure reasoner” of the Sherlock Holmes variety, agrees to help find a serial killer whose victims are rabbis and Hebrew scholars. Lönnrot eventually traces the killer to an isolated villa, but the tale ends with a surprise denouement that is part mathematical puzzle, part philosophical conundrum, and all Borges.JorgeLuisBorges[1]

Other personal favorites in Labyrinths include “The Lottery of Babylon,” an unsettling riff on the role of chance that makes Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” seem crude by comparison, and “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” where our detective tries to solve the mystery of an article on the strange country of Uqbar that appears at the end of apparently a rogue edition of Volume XLVI of The Anglo-American Cyclopedia. The solution to the riddle of Uqbar is straight out of “The Twilight Zone.”

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