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On the House That the Writer J.L. Borges Shared With the Minotaur

J.L. Borges was arguably the author who brought Latin American literature into prominence. His stories are written in a unique style.

Being Different

There are few authors that manage to—as Charles Baudelaire put it in one of his letters to Flaubert—“not be the same as their neighbor”. To be distinct enough, in other words, from other authors, that their name is linked forever to a specific type of narrative. For Franz Kafka there is the particularly closed-up nature of his intricate allegories; Baudelaire may be singled out for his brand of sentimental symbolism; and, in the case of the Argentinian writer, J.L. Borges, the careful reader will have much to note regarding this: for his stories often are formed as if they were scribbled cryptically onto the walls of a dreaded labyrinth.

Like a number of other celebrated authors (one very notable example being Guy de Maupassant), Borges produced virtually the entire body of his most characteristic work—two collections of short-stories, which made him world-famous—in little over a decade. The collections “Ficciones” and “El Aleph”, were written in the 1930s and 1940s. Borges would lose his eyesight entirely in the mid-50s, and, despite continuing to write for the remaining three decades he still had to live, the work of those periods is frequently described by his biographers as having less quality; some even went on to suggest that the late-era Borges was, unwittingly, “a parody of the previous Borges.”

And yet, despite those two collections barely numbering more than twenty stories, they do include some highly original works. Works that indeed have a form and style deservedly identified as unique; a style singled out as that of Borges.

J.L. Borges

J.L. Borges

The House of Asterion

“The House of Asterion” is one of the briefest tales ever produced by Borges. And yet it is also one of his most complicated, multileveled creations. First of all, as any reader of the story is bound to notice, the text features three distinct narrators: The main body of the text is written (or narrated) by Asterion, who lives in his vast house–later on to be revealed that it is the Labyrinth, and Asterion is the Minotaur. There is also a commentator, who leaves foot-tones to the text; a kind of editor. This editor’s role mainly consists of providing the reader with the information that whenever Asterion uses the seemingly anodyne number “14”, in reality Asterion means to say “Infinite”. Lastly, there is a third narrator, only making an appearance in the ending paragraph.

This ending paragraph is written in third-person narrative (the rest of the text was in first-person narrative) and describes how Theseus, having killed the Minotaur/Asterion, finds it strange that the beast barely fought back.

Now, on the surface of things, we only notice the three distinct narrators, but do not have any insight as to why they are there. On closer inspection, though, we can pick up a number of clues from what Asterion himself claims. Namely, Asterion insists that he never learned how to read (therefore he couldn’t have possibly known how to write either). From this follows that he couldn’t have written the text himself. But he also cannot have narrated it to someone else: there wasn’t anyone else there, other than the people sent to be killed, and, in the end, Theseus; regarding whom we are specifically told in the ending paragraph that he was utterly unaware of the depression and the will to die that Asterion had to a soul-crushing degree. So, given Asterion can’t have written the text, and neither was there anyone to narrate it to, it has to be that the text isn’t quite what it seems.

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Looking deeper

We know—because Borges himself noted this elsewhere—that the story was inspired by a painting of the Minotaur. To be exact, it was the painting by George Frederic Watts. Borges describes the Minotaur in the painting—and in his story—as being miserable. The creature is forever having to live in a world of great complexity, of repeating passages and rooms and pits and floors—and even of repeating exits: to the grand temple of the Labrys, in Minoan Crete, and to the Ocean. This Minotaur is tired of the labyrinth, and despite knowing that he can never hope to live outside like everyone else (one time he did go out, and the people were terrified of him, thus forcing him to return inside) he doesn’t wish to carry on living in the labyrinth either. Indeed, he only wishes that someone will come to kill him—to "liberate" him, as he puts it.

Therefore this Asterion/Minotaur can be identified as an alter-ego of Borges himself—given we also know that Borges was very introverted, very reserved and even frightened of most other people, and maintained his sense, borne from childhood, that he was “a man of letters” and “sadly not a man of action”. It is known that Borges lived in something of a labyrinth himself; both in an external labyrinth, consisting of his family house where he kept being under the supervision of his elderly mother, and an internal one: his world of imagination, where he crafted his stories.

"The Minotaur", by George Frederic Watts.

"The Minotaur", by George Frederic Watts.

Deeper Still

But if the one of the three narrators in this story is the figure of an introvert and a hermit, who are the other two narrators we came across? Who is the editor of the story of Asterion?

This editor, as already noted, merely informs the reader—on a few occassions—that Asterion uses the numeral “14” when in reality he means “Infinite”. 14 may refer to a few things in the story, but perhaps to no other as much as to the number of youths sent (as part of the agreement between King Minos and Athens) to be devoured by the Minotaur. Every few years, seven young girls and seven young boys would be sent to Crete, to be killed and eaten by the Minotaur (in this story we are told by Asterion himself that he doesn’t eat them; he just kills them so as to use the bodies as markers to help him find his way in the vast labyrinth). Assuming that Theseus—as the Attic circle myth has it—reached Crete with the second ever group to be sacrificed, it is logical to suspect that the number of such “markers” that Asterion had to use reached their end at 14.

But why would the number of markers be alluding to infinity?

Borges, now fully blind

Borges, now fully blind

Finding the Center of the Labyrinth

My impression, going from the use of this term [infinity] in so many works by Borges, both fictional and treatises, is that he means to say that for Asterion the dream-like prison of his (metaphorical) labyrinth always reached an end after a circle had been completed. When no more markers were to be found, the labyrinth had to be recreated, for it had to end after the set number, and the dreamer-prisoner should once again return to the role of editor of this attempt to go on living. Also act as executioner of the newly failed attempt and its debris. Thus, the Minotaur is to suffer not just his fate as being inside the mental labyrinth of exclusion from social life, but also to keep repeating this fate, and reliving it—much like his equally sad creator, the great author, the highly original author, J.L. Borges, had to suffer, decade after decade, despite so many works of genius he was never quite accepted by others in the roles of lover or—as he put it—“man of action”.

The collected fictions of Borges

© 2018 Kyriakos Chalkopoulos

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