The Library of Babel by Jorge Luis Borges; illustrated by Erik Desmazières
(David R. Codine Publisher, 2000, 39 pages)
Jorge Luis Borges’ short story, “The Library of Babel,” imagines the universe as a vast library “composed of an indefinite, perhaps infinite number of hexagonal galleries” (19). It deals with such expansive topics as the nature of rationality and the existence of God as it depicts a labyrinthine library containing every possible book. This edition pairs Borges’ story with equally imaginative etchings by Erik Desmazières.
Borges’ story could be considered a parable, a thought experiment, a fantasy, or possibly even a mystical vision. Whatever it is, the library galleries are described with concrete precision while trying to conceptualize the library as whole is dizzying. The appearance of rationality and order gives way to the possibility of endless confusion and incoherence as searchers try to find meaning and order amongst the library’s collection. It would seem that this paradox would make illustrating this creation an incredibly difficult task.
Desmazières handles the task well. His engravings, both intricate in detail and expansive in scope, depict the hexagonal galleries of the library and the tower like exterior of the building. They communicate the vastness and complexity of the library’s galleries, but they do not adhere to the precise layout and dimensions that Borges describes. As Angela Giral says in the book’s introduction, “Desmazières’s etchings are no mere illustrations of the writer’s words; they are the product of a parallel imagination, inspired to create in visual images his own, equivalent, universe” (9). While I initially read this story in Borges’ Collected Fictions, reading it again in this edition added a lot to the experience.