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Reviewed by:
  • Signs of Borges
  • Debra A. Castillo
Sylvia Molloy. Signs of Borges. Trans. Oscar Montero. Durham: Duke UP, 1994. 142 pp. $32.50 cloth, $15.95 paper.

With this superb new translation of Molloy's 1979 book, English-speaking fans of poet, essayist, and short story writer Jorge Luis Borges finally have access to this important study of the Argentine master. This is a book to read cover-to-cover, in order to delight in the fluid interplay of Borges' texts and Molloy's interpretations, to enjoy the flashes of humor, to learn from [End Page 391] the carefully wrought analyses. One of things I like best about Molloy's book is its clarity of exposition. While a sophisticated understanding of current theoretical trends underlies and informs her analysis, Molloy has the confidence not to overburden her text with unnecessary quotes, and the result is a tightly focused monograph.

This is not to say that the book is an easy read. Molloy notes in her 1993 preface that "Borges taught me to think about literature, even to write it": a useful warning for students who find Borges' stories difficult, uncanny, or inhospitable upon first reading. Certainly, one of the ways that both Borges and Molloy think about literature is abstractly, and one of the delights of this book for me is to see how Molloy utilizes Borges' scattered, unsystematic, and frequently contradictory statements about literary form as the basis for a coherent and systematic theory for reading Borges. Molloy's chapters are, as the title of the book indicates, arranged around semiotic—rather than more user-friendly thematic—structures, but they are structures that echo and expand upon familiar Borgesian tropes. Among her topics are "a surface of images", "mask and displacement," "deflected signs," "lack of symmetry," "the waste of the circumstantial," "the pleasure of interpolation," and "heterogeneous enumeration and overcrowded series."

Molloy begins the book with a statement that seems to me even more compelling now, given the vast Borges industry, than it was in the late 1970s: "To read Borges, to consume a predictable Borges who no longer surprises us, has become a habit. By common accord, it would seem, readers of Borges, with the collaboration perhaps of the author himself, have turned an unstable text into a solid monument." In essence, Borges has taught all of us how to read literature—his literature—but something has been lost in the reading and in the canonization of this eccentric and brilliant figure. Molloy's intent in this book is to restore to her reading of Borges' narrative a recognition of its potentially disquieting and provocative effects, and to do so without falling into the trap of an overfacile categorization of rhetorical modes that both she and Borges would decry.

The tactic requires an elegant balancing act, in which Molloy, like the author she studies, established a "surface of images," which, in her words "sets up a multiplicity of dialogues and of possible, variously interchangeable complicities." If Molloy's study does not shift quite as paradoxically and unpredicatably as the author she studies, she is continually aware of the Borgesian dialogue and its possibilities, and she opens herself up critically to the game of masking. In other words, we would do well to remember that her critical "I" is as much a ritual imposture as the narrative "I" of the author she studies. It is, I think, this feature more than any other that helps Molloy cut through the paralyzing seriousness that often attends Borges studies and to remind us of that other Borges: the masked reveler in a literary carnival.

The overriding metaphor in the entire book is one familiar to us from Borges' short stories and essays: the metaphor of the face, and of the shadow play of a mirrored identity which is both accepted and decried in [End Page 392] the same tragi- comic gesture. Molloy's preface, with its evocation of "el otro, el mismo" reminds us of Borges' famous discussions of artistic identity: of authors and characters including Shakespeare, Cervantes, Funes, Pierre Menard, Herbert Quain, Hamlet, and Borges himself, all of whom meet and exchange ideas in the atemporal world of the library...


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pp. 391-393
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