The novelty, in rereading Jorge Luis Borges, is to see that his memorably cerebral stories are also human stories, rich with moral fears and consequences. His voice is not merely that of an eccentric librarian; it is also that of the engrossing magus the librarian has imagined. In other words, Borges is as good as or better than you remember him to be.
That his trickiness might have grown stale, is an inevitable prejudice in the age of Dan Brown. If "The Da Vinci Code" came out of a chapter in Umberto Eco's "Foucault's Pendulum," and if Mr. Eco's other best seller, "The Name of the Rose," itself came out of an eightpage Borges story, might each Borges story be no more than a thriller in kernel?
Perhaps, but these are thrills of a deep kind. The author of the stories collected in "Labyrinths" (New Directions, 256 pages, $13.95) is truly obsessed. His interest, in immortality or in an infinite library, does not close in on a positive discovery (that Jesus wed Mary Magdalene) or a cheap rectification (proving the Church wrong). Rather, his mysteries are those that expand. Uninterested in proof, he follows an implication on to exhaustive reaches, until it at least seems symbolically real, like a myth. In "Three Versions of Judas," Borges considers a theory that Judas was the real son of God and that his sacrifice, to go from being an apostle to being a disgraced suicide, was greater than that of Jesus. Although Borges's protagonist turns up his own textual evidence, the arcana of theology is tilted against him. Yet Borges, through the charisma of his own interest, gets us to take the theory seriously, and the unfolding possibility carries the story.
Vertigo becomes synonymous with meaning in Borges's work. He understands a story's depth not metaphorically, but spatially, equating the superficial, pejoratively, with a Persian carpet. His own "Library of Babel," by contrast, opens up on "vast air shafts [...] From any of the hexagons one can see, interminably, the upper and lower floors." The crucial moment comes when the terra firma is seen to be one plane among many, as when Don Quixote realizes he is just another character in Cervantes's novel.
Again, Borges betrays a whiff of the non-literary, or at least of the adolescent: Isn't vertiginous meaning akin to that which is mind-blowing, sensational, and macho?
New Directions first published "Labyrinths" in 1962, gathering together translations of stories that had been appearing in scattered American journals since 1956, following the publication of Borges's first major collection in Spanish, "Ficciones," also in 1956.
The old cover of the New Directions edition, with its black and white suggestion of a murky, possibly pre-Columbian maze, has become visually synonymous with a postwar writer of almost inestimable influence. It is impossible to imagine Italo Calvino, Umberto Eco, Jose Saramago, or even Roberto Bolaño without Borges; and this new edition's preface, by William Gibson, reminds us that much science fiction, and even our own cyberspace reality, seems to have been envisioned by this Argentinean.
But it is along this path, toward science-fiction, that we find Borges's adult content. Time and again he mentions terror, the fear that an idea has become a trap, and that real life has therefore been lost. Conversely, he acknowledges the terror of humility, of the realization that one belongs to a series. In "The Garden of Forking Paths," the narrator, pursued by police, briefly wonders, "In spite of my dead father, in spite of having been a child in a symmetrical garden of Hai Feng, was I — now — going to die?" Why should the death of a father ensure life? This is a forgettable wrinkle in an unforgettable story, it is background noise, but it is also a sudden glimpse of Borges's naked grasp of our mistakenness. His great subject is the tragedy of conceit.
Of the children of Borges who currently dominate New Directions' excellent Spanish-language list, Enrique Vila-Matas is my least favorite. But he is still quite good. "Montano's Malady" (New Directions, 224 pages, $14.95), his second novel to appear here, recounts the author's bout with a dual obsession, centering on literature and death. Soon enough he realizes that literature itself shares his malady — it is self-obsessed and morbid — and the novel becomes a romp of quotation. You can find in this book Cesar Aira, another New Directions author, talking about rereading Borges, for example. But read Mr. Vila-Matas for his full, forthright sentences, his gripping sense of narrative, and his command of a confident humor, at once bookish and cosmopolitan, that hardly makes sense in our culture. Plus, the quotations are great.