Borges is best known in North America as one of the stars of “magical realism.” Such stories as “Funes, the Memorious,” “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” “The Garden of the Forking Paths,” and “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote” cemented his reputation as a meta-fictional writer concerned with the relationship between memory-as-story, life’s narrative arc, and the art of writing. After reading the stories in Ficciones or Labyrinths, one can never feel quite the same when browsing the stacks of a library which, for Borges (himself employed for many years as a librarian at the National Library in Buenos Aires), was a kind of labyrinth.
But there is another Borges, a Borges of the streets, the brothel, the knife fight, who is unknown, except to specialists, in the Anglophone world. Brodie’s Report will probably do little to change the canonical reputation of the “magical realist,” but for the interested reader, for the reader seeking the complete Borgesian experience, it is an essential volume. Indeed, teachers of literature owe to themselves and their students an acquaintance with this aspect of Borges’ work, especially as Brodie’s Report goes a long way toward breaking up the critical hegemony of the colonialist imposition signified by the term “magical realism.” Magical (or “magic”) realism was imposed by North American critics on various Latin American writers such as Julio Cortazar and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, as well as on Borges, who were seen from a distance as part of a single “school.”
Borges never particularly objected to the term, but Cortazar, the author of the short story “Blow Up,” which was made into a beautiful film by Michelangelo Antonioni, screamed. What Anglophone critics failed to acknowledge, Cortazar said, was that the “magical” elements of his stories were not magical but rather were political. In one of Cortazar’s stories, “Bestiary,” there is a tiger roaming through the house. North American critics said, How marvelous! How magical! and sought psychological interpretations. As Cortazar pointed out, his story was (almost) literally accurate: the secret police of the junta lurked in everyone’s homes because dime-dropping informers, in Argentina at that time, were a dime a dozen. But Anglophones, particularly Americans, prefer to erase unpleasant truths in favor of a fairy-tale fantasy, and this, said Cortazar, is the continuation of colonialism by other means.
If Borges never objected to the term, it is probably because he was indeed influenced by the European sources of magical realism, E.T.A. Hoffman and others. Borges, unlike his fellow Argentinean Cortazar, always insisted his writing wasn’t political. His realm was instead the metaphysical, the cognitive and the ethical—but at some point it becomes very difficult to separate the ethics of memory from the political histories of the Americas. That point arrives very early in Brodie’s Report. The stories in this slim volume all involve “incidents” and are delivered in Borges’ characteristic prose style: dry, journalistic, pragmatic. What makes them so different from the “magical” stories is their violence: in a bar, a fight is picked, and to prove his manhood a young boy borrows a knife and makes his first kill; a young boy, considered “girlish,” is taken under the wing of a gangster; two brothers kidnap and share a young woman but then, when they both fall in love with her, kill her to settle their dispute. Each “incident” is dispassionately reported; Borges has never been one to overtly moralize. The ethical predicaments arise from the accumulation of observed details—the dreams, bits of conversation, and diversions of attention.
Borges was a man of many faces, as we learn in Edwin Williamson’s biography. It is not surprising that he wrote from the various aspects of his personal experience: jilted lover, street tough (or, at least, kid who grew up in a tough neighborhood), and bookish librarian.