Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 17, 2016

‘Partial Magic in the Quixote’, from Labyrinths (1962), by Jorge Luis Borges, translated by James E. Irby


I’m still reading Labyrinths: having finished the Fictions, I’m now enjoying the essays.  In the current context of the identity politics brouhaha, I particularly liked ‘The Argentine Writer and Tradition’ because it tackles issues relevant to ‘Australian’ literature and what its authors may write about.  (You can read the article here).  It’s interesting that this was a live issue in 1951, eh?

But the essay I want to discuss here is ‘Partial Magic in the Quixote’ because I have recorded my adventures with Don Quixote here on this blog (and note that I do not presume to call my blundering thoughts a ‘review’!)  Borges has some interesting things to say about Quixote, which may redress a little of my naiveté in reading the book.

Borges notes that in contrast to other classic books like Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, Dante’s Commedia and Shakespeare’s plays, Quixote is a realistic work, but the realism is not that of 19th century realism.  Joseph Conrad, he says, did not need the supernatural because to include it would be a denial that the everyday was marvellous. Henry James thought that reality was poetic enough but for Cervantes the real and the poetic were mutually incompatible.

To the vast and vague geographies of the Amad’is, he opposes the dusty roads and sordid wayside inns of Castille; imagine a novelist of our time centring attention for purposes of parody on some filling stations.  Cervantes has created for us the poetry of seventeenth century Spain, but neither that century nor that Spain were poetic for him. (p. 228)

So, Cervantes is precluded from the marvellous, but he has to include it in order to parody it. He has to insinuate it with subtlety in his secret, nostalgic farewell to the pastoral novel and the novel of chivalry.  He does this by inserting a novel within a novel, in the sixth chapter of the first part where the priest and the barber inspect Don Quixote’s library.  One of the books is Galatea by Cervantes himself, and the barber knows the author, but doesn’t care for his work, saying that

he is more versed in misfortunes than in verses and that the book contains some inventiveness, proposes some new ideas and concludes nothing.  (p. 229)

This says Borges, is a character passing judgement on the author of the book that the character is in.

Furthermore, in the ninth chapter, it turns out that the entire book is a pretence:

… the entire novel has been transplanted from the Arabic and that Cervantes acquired the manuscript in the market-place of Toledo and had it translated by a morisco whom he lodged in his house for more than a month and a half while the job was finished. (p.229)

I remember being baffled when reading the second part of Don Quixote to find that the characters of the first part are the readers of the second part. But Borges compares this to the play within a play in Hamlet, where the imperfect correspondence of the principal and secondary works lessens the efficacy of this inclusion. (p.230).  Apparently something similar happens in the Ramayana when Rama hears his own story, and also in the Thousand and One Nights about which Borges is not kind:

This collection of fantastic tales duplicates and reduplicates to the point of vertigo the ramifications of a central story in later and subordinate stories, but does not attempt to gradate its realities, and the effect (which should have been profound) is superficial, like a Persian carpet. (p. 230)

In another work, The World and the Individual (1899) by Josiah Royce, the reader asks us to imagine that the soil of England has been levelled and a map of England drawn upon it.  The map is perfect, no detail is omitted, and therefore, crucially, the map must show a map of the map, and that map must have a map, and so on in infinity.

Why, asks Borges, do these stories bother us?

… these inversions suggest that if the characters of a fictional world can be readers or spectators, we, its readers or spectators, can be fictitious.  In 1833, Carlyle observed that the history of the universe is an infinite sacred book that all men write and read and try to understand, and in which they are also written. (p.231)

*chuckle* You may be reading a fictitious post by a fictitious person in fictitious cyber space!

Author: Jorge Luis Borges
Title: ‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius’, in Labyrinths
Translated by James E. Irby
Publisher: Penguin Australia 2011, first published 1962
ISBN: 9780143566342
Source: Kingston Library

Available from Fishpond: Labyrinths (Popular Penguins) and good bookshops everywhere.


  1. […] (Update 17/10/16: I’ve just read Borges’ ‘Partial Magic in the Quixote’ in Labyrinths and made a few notes about it, here). […]


  2. I think I have Labyrinths somewhere, I might drag it out and actually read it. I have an unexplained passion for metafiction – to the point that I’ve written my own 😃 ( not published) And I still must read Don Quixote.


    • I’ve only given you the merest taste of it here, it is challenging stuff and not easy to blog about, but the really good thing is that each one is very short, no more than a dozen pages and a lot of them are less than that. What I’ve been doing is reading 3-4 each night and writing a paragraph or two about them in my journal so that I can remember them.


  3. I’ve had to bookmark this post, it requires more thought than I can muster tonight.


    • I think if you google the title, you can probably find the story online somewhere, then *grin* you can be properly bamboozled, like me.


  4. Borges makes books and the world seem magical. When I attempt Cervantes again I will take him with me!


    • You’re going tor read DQ twice? That’s heroic!


      • The Edith Grossman translation I hope.


        • That would have to be better than the freebie version I read…

          Liked by 1 person

  5. Home, Stead biog. done, time to start on bookmarked posts. I got as far as the first essay, on Identity. You of course have moved on and will struggle to remember what I’m writing about – but thankyou for putting them before us.

    I particularly liked the quote “Mohammed …, as an Arab, was
    unconcerned: he knew he could be an Arab without camels.” In other words don’t lay local colour on with a trowel, which we Australians frequently do.

    Also, he suggested the/some Irish as outsiders have had a revolutionary effect on Eng. Lit. I wonder if we are sufficiently disassociated from our colonial roots to do the same.

    Now I’m going to read on. Sorry!


  6. It’s interesting that meta-fiction was commonplace in early novels, perhaps it was a function of earlier, oral traditions.


  7. I do indeed remember his comments about the Irish, and (the book’s gone back to the library so correct me if I’m wrong) he was one of the first to include countries like Australia and Ireland in post-colonial discussions…


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