Reading the South Through Northern Eyes: Jorge Luis Borges’s Australian Reception, 1962–2016


Three decades on from his death, the Argentine Jorge Luis Borges (1899–1986) remains arguably Latin America’s most widely-translated and influential twentieth-century writer at a world-scale (Sánchez-Prado 33). This study provides the first detailed account of Borges’s Australian reception, covering the period from the publication of the first two English anthologies of his work until the thirtieth anniversary of his death. Borges raises some interesting methodological questions for Australianists. What happened when this great Latin American modernist, having been translated and canonised by the northern metropole, suddenly became widely read and highly influential in another space at the southern periphery of the world republic of letters? What are the implications of the way Borges’s work has been read in Australia for recent transnational critical methodologies that tend to view world literature as a series of interactions between a Northern centre and Southern periphery? To what extent can world literature, as it has been formulated in Europe and the United States, account for the flow of texts, literary forms, and influence between Latin America and Australia? A diachronic survey of Australian responses to Borges’s writing – including texts by Martin Johnston, Helen Daniel and Michelle Cahill – allows the essay to track Australian literary culture's deepening engagement with Latin American writing across the Cold War period and beyond.

Everything, as is well-known, happens first in other countries, and then in ours.

– Jorge Luis Borges1

The labyrinthine corpus of scholarship on the work of the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges (1899–1986) has expanded in the three decades since his death, bolstered by new editions2 and by successive waves of interpretation. While the study of his international reception has been a significant subfield of specialist criticism since the 1990s, this body of research focuses overwhelmingly on how the Argentine has been read in Western Europe and the United States, and occasionally Latin America. With Africa, Asia, and Oceania more or less absent from the literature, there is a sense this ‘writer on the edge’ (to borrow the Argentine critic Beatriz Sarlo’s term), matters mostly because he is read in the centre.3

Here, I examine how Borges was read in Australia from the publication of the first two English anthologies of his work in 1962 until the 2016 commemorations marking thirty years since his death. The Argentine writer raises some interesting methodological questions for Australianists. What happened when this great twentieth-century Latin American modernist, having been translated and canonised by the northern metropoles, suddenly became widely read and highly influential in another space at the southern periphery of the world republic of letters? What are the implications of the way Borges’s work has been read in Australia for recent transnational critical methodologies that tend to view world literature as a series of interactions between a Northern centre and Southern periphery? To what extent can world literature, as it has been formulated in Europe and the United States, account for the flow of texts, literary forms and influence between Latin America and Australia?

This essay, a case study in Southern comparitivism, presents a diachronic overview of the way Australian critics and creative writers have taken up Borges’s writing. I focus on Australian texts in which Borges is explicitly mentioned by name – whether as the subject of an essay or poem, a character in a story, or as an intertext.4 Three main contentions emerge. Firstly, that Borges’s work has been widely read by Australian writers and critics since the 1960s and remains frequently cited as an ‘influence’ (see Appendix). Secondly, that in Australia during the Cold War period, Borges was read virtually without reference to his Latin American context in a manner profoundly shaped by the translation, publishing and literary critical infrastructure of the North – especially the United States. Thirdly, I suggest that since the 1990s, Australian creative and critical treatments of Borges have begun to display increased awareness of the Argentine context for his work. Following Edna Aizenberg’s influential reading of Borges as a ‘postcolonial precursor’, I suggest that iconic Borges texts like ‘The Argentine Writer and Tradition’, and ‘Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote’, have proved generative for Australian writers – among them Martin Johnston, Peter Boyle and Michelle Cahill – because they first theorise and then demonstrate a set of strategies for writing from the Southern margins of world literature.

Borges, Australia and the New World Literature

Borges has already featured prominently in recent theoretical debates about Latin American writing’s relationship to world literature. His work’s global reach has made it an essential test case for frameworks, such as those proposed by Casanova, Moretti, Apter, Damrosch and Dimock, that try to account for the flow of literary texts across borders and between languages. In The World Republic of Letters, Pascale Casanova cites Borges as an example supporting her model on no less than nine occasions (405). For her, the Argentine’s international reception illustrates Paris’s role as the ‘Greenwich Meridian’ of world literature. Borges is a ‘revolutionary writer’ in the sense that he succeeded in liberating himself from a ‘literarily impoverished’ space of the periphery by orienting himself to the particular tempo of its Parisian centre – that of literary modernity (101). The French role in discovering and promoting Borges internationally is held to support Casanova’s account of world literature, derived from Wallerstein’s world-systems analysis and Bourdieu’s sociology of cultural production. Under such a scheme, writers from the nations of the periphery compete in the intellectual marketplace for the symbolic capital accumulated in Paris, London, New York and Barcelona, the ‘central banks’ of literary credit.

Many critics have expressed serious reservations about Casanova’s model, and about the wider resurgence of the world literature paradigm in recent years. The critique of the new world literature – whether for its ‘anglo-globalism’ (Arac 35), ‘oneworldeness’ (Apter, Against 83) or ‘banal cosmopolitanism’ (Beck 134) – is ultimately a critique of its implicitly Northern worldview. For its most trenchant critics, the discipline represents little more than ‘US nationalism masquerading as globalism’ (Spivak 108) and its advocates risk ‘upholding a cultural hegemony they consciously profess to be combating’ (D’haen 93). Given the charge of veiled US imperialism sometimes levelled at world literature, it is not surprising to find Latin Americanists among its most forceful detractors. For many of them, such methodologies reproduce a long-entrenched power dynamic in which the South may absorb the influence of Northern literary forms and may serve as a case study for Northern Theory but can never be a locus for the generation of original forms or the enunciation of Theory (Sánchez-Prado 9). What Latin American critics have objected to, above all, about the idea of Weltliteratur – which even in Goethe’s nineteenth-century formulation was the literature of an emergent transnational modernity – is its erasure of coloniality: the ‘untold and unrecognized historical counterpart of modernity’ (Mignolo xi).

World literature’s critics, like its advocates, have employed Borges – ‘a heraldic figure of Latin American literature in the world’ (Sánchez-Prado 31) – in support of their arguments. In a 2004 response to Franco Moretti’s ‘Conjectures on World Literature’, the Peruvian critic Efraín Kristal stressed that the centre does not have a monopoly over the creation of literary forms (73). Models of the international literary system, he argued, need to account for multi-directional flows of influence. He cited Borges, along with Rubén Darío, Cesar Vallejo, Octavio Paz, Gabriela Mistral and Pablo Neruda, as examples of Latin American writers who generated literary forms that decisively influenced writers of the centre. Kristal’s essay raises the possibility – almost as an afterthought – of mapping the flow of literary texts and forms between peripheral regions of the world system.

Mexican critic Ignacio Sánchez-Prado also refers to Borges in his critique of world literature. Contrary to the clichéd image of Borges as a European writer who happened to have been born in Latin America, Sánchez-Prado stresses the specifically Argentine speaking-position for his writing. For him, Borges’s work is both a reinvention of the Argentine national tradition and a creative and distinctive re-reading of foreign literatures – a double redefinition of national and transnational literary space, articulated from peripheral modernity. From the perspective of Latin American studies, Borges’s extraordinary influence on world literature cannot be reduced to the fact he was published and consecrated in Europe and later the United States. Rather, it is Borges’s aesthetic of the margins, his ‘profound rupture with the intellectual assumptions of European modernity’ [my translation] that explains his universality (Sánchez-Prado 32).

The Latin American critique of the new world literature echoes concerns raised by area studies and national literature specialists elsewhere, including Australia. Robert Dixon begins ‘National Literatures, Scale and the Problem of the World’ (2015), with a brief reading of Borges’s The Aleph as ‘a parable about the madness of desiring a total or encyclopaedic vision’ (1). ‘Where exactly’, Dixon asks, ‘is the here, the Archimedean point from which the practitioner of world literature adopts the perspective of a transcendental witness upon the world? . . . The answer might well be Boston or New York or Paris, but not Sydney or Bourke or Hungerford’ (6). Equally aware of the limits of methodological nationalism and the potential hubris of literary studies on a planetary scale, Australian critics like Dixon, Brigid Rooney, Paul Giles, Phillip Mead, Ken Gelder, Gillian Whitlock and Paul Sharrad have all made nuanced and thoughtful contributions to the body of theory on world literature – articulated from a distinctly southern vantage point.

At the same time, a wave of social science research into the geopolitics of knowledge production at a world-scale has been emerging from across the Southern Hemisphere.5 The Australian sociologist Raewyn Connell’s 2007 book Southern Theory made a key intervention in the field. Connell argues that modern sociology, like world literature, embeds a metropolitan perspective while presenting itself as universal knowledge. ‘Colonised and peripheral societies produce social thought about the modern world which has as much intellectual power as metropolitan thought’, she argues, but their perspectives tend to be ignored due to the structurally entrenched dominance of metropolitan knowledge (vii). In Southern Theory, Connell points out that Southern intellectuals’ practices of connection – their research networks, professional memberships, conference travel, and the journals in which they seek to publish – generally tether them to the North. The book argues there is a need to build non-metropolitan bases of cultural authority. Contentiously and excitingly, Connell suggests that intellectuals from ‘rich peripheral countries’ of the Southern Hemisphere like Australia ought to take a leading role in forging networks of cooperation that run around and across the South (228). Due to their location in the postcolonial world and their access to significant resources, Australian scholars, along with their counterparts from the privileged classes of countries like Mexico, Chile, India, South Africa and Brazil, have a role to play in boosting the circulation of knowledge produced in the South.

Clearly any crude attempt to position Australian intellectual or cultural production as ideologically ‘South’ would be hard to defend. By any measure of human development non-Indigenous Australia is not part of the socio-economic entity known as the Global South. Within mainstream political science, economics and development studies ‘South’ functions as convenient shorthand for ‘The countries of the southern hemisphere, viewed as industrially and economically less developed than those of the northern hemisphere’ (‘South’). The term is deployed in a similar way in the anti-globalisation literature and in Latin American decolonial theory. For Mignolo, the South is a metaphor representing ‘the places on the planet that endured the experience of coloniality’ and are now ‘at the receiving end of globalization’ (184). When the term is applied in this way, Australia, geographically south, appears culturally and ideologically northern.

But the South is a multivalent term; in its geographic and mythopoeic senses it clearly can be applied to Australia. Our geographic position is self-evident: we are the only settled continent in the Southern Hemisphere not linked to the North by a land bridge (Murray 24). In its literary-historical sense, the South has existed as an imagined geography in the minds of Europeans since before the discovery of the New World (Mead, Networked Language 219–20). Australia is so integral to the mythology of the South that to try to exclude it, in the way some critics argued the settler colonies should not be considered within the field of postcolonial studies (Johnston and Lawson 364), risks reinforcing an unearned sense of exceptionalism. For all their differences, Argentina, Uruguay and Chile – countries with which we share latitudes, climates and landscapes – were also colonies of settlement (Denoon 2).

One subsidiary purpose of this study of Borges’s Australian reception, then, is to explore what the greater South-South connectedness that Connell advocates in the social sciences might look like in literary studies. How could a Southern-Hemisphere comparativism contribute to our evolving understanding of Australian literature’s location in world literary space? An important recent initiative in this area is the ‘Literatures of the South’ seminar established by J. M. Coetzee in 2015 at the Universidad Nacional de San Martín in Buenos Aires. At this ongoing biannual event, prominent writers and critics from Argentina, Australia and Southern African teach introductory courses on their respective literatures to their counterparts from other Southern Hemisphere countries, sharing knowledge and building comparative perspectives. Coetzee has used the seminar to promote South-South translation and publishing ventures in Argentina and Australia, including Giramondo’s new Southern Latitudes series. Several of Coetzee’s recent books have made their first appearance in Spanish translation as a gesture of resistance to the global dominance of English (Marín). At the seminar, Coetzee has urged writers and critics from the South to learn to ‘ignore the gaze of the North’, and ‘to see the South through Southern eyes’ (‘Literaturas del Sur’). In contrast to Borges, who spent the final decades of his career studying dead languages of the Northern Hemisphere, Coetzee has leveraged his international prestige to create opportunities and networks for younger writers from across the South.

Global Borges: An Argentine in the World Republic of Letters

Sylvia Molloy’s 1972 study of the reception of twentieth-century Latin American literature in France pioneered research into how Borges’s work has been read beyond Argentina. A good deal of quality scholarship has followed.6 Though Borges produced a vast, diverse body of poetry, criticism and fiction between Fervor de Buenos Aires (1923) and Los Conjurados (1985), he remains best-known outside his native country for the short stories he published in the 1940s, which originally appeared in the Spanish-language collections, Ficciones (1944) and El Aleph (1949). Lies Wijnterp has provided a valuable examination of the role French intellectuals like Néstor Ibarra and Roger Callois played in the post-war dissemination of Borges’s work internationally. While it was the early French translations that began to build Borges’s reputation beyond the Spanish-speaking world, it was not until he won the Prix Formentor International Publisher’s Prize in 1961 that his writing was translated and published more broadly. As part of the prize, six major publishing houses in Western Europe and the United States put out editions of Borges’s work. So it was that a small fraction of his oeuvre – a handful of formally innovative, extravagantly intellectual short stories, written immediately before and immediately after World War II – became a critical sensation in English in the 1960s and 1970s.

The first two English anthologies of Borges’s writing, Ficciones, published by Grove Press in the United States and Weidenfeld and Nicolson in the UK, and Labyrinths, published by New Directions in the United States, both appeared in 1962. As Wijnterp and Sarlo have shown, these anthologies – through their choice of texts and their accompanying critical apparatus – de-emphasised Borges’s Argentine context. The New Directions anthology, for example, chose to exclude at least five now-classic stories that foreground aspects of Argentine national mythology (Wijnterp 80). Gauchos, criollo identity and the Argentine pampa, were not deemed to be of interest to discerning metropolitan readers. Meanwhile, Andre Maurois’s translated preface to the New Directions anthology framed the author as a deracinated cosmopolitan: ‘Argentine by birth and temperament, but nurtured on universal literature, Borges has no spiritual homeland. He creates, outside time and space, imaginary and symbolic worlds’ (qtd. in Borges, Labyrinths ix).

This ‘irrealist’ reading of Borges, also advanced by influential early critics like Alazraki, Barrenechea and Sturrock, dominated the critical literature until the 1990s. However, by the 2013 special issue of the journal Variaciones Borges on the writer’s reception, a much wider range of interpretative paradigms was in evidence. In many ways, the course of Borges’s international reception resembles that of Kafka, another archetypical modernist master from a peripheral country, who was read for decades as a creator of universalist parables, before critics set about restoring the linguistic and historical context for his writing (Damrosch 187). Two key critical texts of the 1990s prompted increased attention to context in Borges Studies: the US Latin Americanist Daniel Balderston’s Out of Context: Historical Reference and Representation of Reality in Borges (1993) and the Argentine critic Beatriz Sarlo’s Borges: A Writer on the Edge (1993). In the latter, Sarlo writes:

There are many reasons for seeing Borges as a universal cosmopolitan writer . . . But a reading constrained within these limits would not pick up the tension that runs through Borges’s work, that almost imperceptible movement which destabilizes the great traditions once they intersect with a River Plate dimension. (1–3)

Since Sarlo, postcolonial approaches to Borges’s writing have become well-established. But when Borges first began to be read in Australia in the 1960s, the fabulist reading still ruled.

Following his 1961 Prix Formentor Prize, and the publication of the first two English anthologies of his work in 1962, Borges gradually entered Australian literary culture through articles in major English-language literary periodicals like The Paris Review, The Times Literary Supplement and The New Yorker. Gerald Murnane was among his earliest Australian readers. Murnane discovered Borges in Time in 1962 and tracked down a copy of Ficciones at Cheshire’s bookstore in Melbourne. ‘I have no doubt that reading Ficciones started me on a journey of discovery’, Murnane wrote to me in a July 2016 letter. ‘Not only did I begin to read short fiction, but I came to see that a short story could, paradoxically, be richer in meaning than a novel of several hundred pages’. Borges’s influence is readily observed in early Murnane short stories such as ‘There Were Some Countries’ and ‘Land Deal’, but The Plains and many of his later book-length works also owe much to the Argentine writer in their exploration of radical idealist worlds within the mind.

Peter Carey, meanwhile, encountered Borges in an illegally imported American paperback at the Whole Earth Bookstore on Bourke Street while writing The Fat Man in History (1974) – a key text in the genealogy of fabulist Australian fiction (Ross 45).7 Though they were not easy to find, both Labyrinths and Ficciones were widely read in Australia in the late 1960s and early 1970s and became integral to the flourishing of literary postmodernism in subsequent years (Falconer 9–10). Numerous critics have cited Borges’s work as a decisive influence on the newly international outlook, formal playfulness and reflexivity of the New Australian narrative of the 1970s and 1980s (Daniel, ‘Australian and Latin American Fiction’ 94; Moorhouse 196–97).

The highpoint of Borgesian influence on Australian writing coincided with the boom in Australian literature of those years. Martin Johnston’s ‘Games with Infinity: The Fictions of Jorge Luis Borges’ (1974), the earliest substantial critical essay on Borges published in Australia, appeared in the wake of Patrick White’s Nobel Prize for literature, and the establishment of the Literature Board for the Australia Council for the Arts. Borges’s work became widely read in Australia at a cultural moment when increased financial support for writers, publishers and literary magazines was leading to a significant increase in the production and visibility of all forms of literature in Australia. It was also a time when British dominance of the ‘colonized market’ of the local book trade was beginning to be challenged by North American publishers (Nile and Ensor 532). North American publishers and academic institutions directly determined which Latin American writers were translated into English and critically championed. In an October 1977 special issue of Australian Literary Studies on ‘New Writing in Australia’, Borges was the only non-English language writer cited as a key influence by representatives of the younger generation of Australian prose writers (Moorhouse 181). His name was mentioned alongside mostly North American (male) fiction writers: Charles Bukowski, Jack Kerouac, Leonard Cohen, John Barth, John Cheever and Donald Barthelme. Similarly, the introduction to Brian Kiernan’s influential short-story anthology, The Most Beautiful Lies (1977), lumped the Argentine in with a group of North American fabulists: ‘Barth, Barthelme, Borges, Brautigan’ (xi).

Borges’s anomalous inclusion in these lists illustrates how the cultural economy of Cold War-era area studies framed the nature of Australian engagement with Latin American writing. In 1960s Australia, Borges the Argentine modernist was read as a North American postmodernist; the South was read through Northern eyes. This is the paradox of Borges’s Australian reception: he managed to be highly influential among writers who knew virtually nothing of the country and literary tradition from which he was writing. While the lack of knowledge of the Argentine context for Borges in no way prevented Australian creative writers from drawing on his work as a rich source of philosophical and formal ideas, the contextual gap does seem to have restricted the range of interpretive paradigms critics brought to bear on his work. Thus, while Australian poetry and prose informed by Borges was at the forefront of the New Australian writing of the 1970s and 1980s, Australian criticism’s most significant engagement with his work came later, in the form of book-length studies by Valverde (2009) and Butler (2010).

Introducing Borges to Australia

The poet Martin Johnston, Borges’s earliest critic in this country, was a rare Australian example of a polyglot intellectual in the Borgesian mould. The son of the novelist, George Johnston, and the nonfiction writer, Charmian Clift, Johnston’s cosmopolitan sensibility was shaped by his upbringing between Sydney, London and the Greek island of Hydra. He read and spoke fluent Greek, translated Greek poetry and, like Borges, had immersed himself in the work of Homer from childhood. Johnston’s life was marked by a series of tragedies that had a profound impact on his poetic output: his mother’s suicide in 1969, his father’s death from tuberculosis in 1970, and his own long battle with alcoholism (Tranter xviii–xix). The strength of his introduction to Borges is the way it brings out the tragic quality of the Argentine’s vision: ‘we are swept along and away by a Time which we do not understand, through a life we vainly try to interpret . . . Since we must construct falsely, let us admit the fact, says Borges, and “play games with infinity”’ (Johnston, ‘Games’ 174).

While much has been written about the influence of North American poetry on Johnston’s generation of Australian poets, ‘Games with Infinity’ (1974) underlines the important Latin American contribution to the rise of modernist and postmodernist experimentation in Australian writing during the 1970s. The piece, originally published in Don Anderson and Stephen Knight’s anthology, Cunning Exiles: Studies of Modern Prose Writers, embedded Borges in an explicitly modernist context, alongside essays about Christina Stead and Patrick White.

The range of European philosophical and literary figures to whom Johnston refers in his explication of Borges is deliberately Borgesian in scope: Wittgenstein, Russell, Hegel, Eliot, Beckett and many more. This is cultural terrain the Australian critic shares with Borges. But Johnston, with a poet’s attentiveness to language, recognises that he is missing Borges’s Latin American dimension:

Borges’s interest and influence outside the Hispanic culture is ideational in the same way as that of Kafka and much of Rilke . . . We are not, most of us, particularly well versed in the pros and cons of Gongorism, the heritage of Guiraldes and Quevedo, the proper placing of gaucho usages. I’m certainly not . . . The metaphysical, symbolic and imagistic content of Borges is quite enough to keep anyone going. My Spanish is minimal. The writer with whom I am dealing is therefore Borges-in-English. (Johnston, ‘Games’ 166)

This focus on the ‘metaphysical, symbolic, and imagistic content of Borges’ set the pattern for the Argentine’s reception in Australia across the Cold War period, reasserting the inherited irrealist reading. Both Johnston’s essay and Greg Deakin’s ‘Jorge Luis Borges: An Introduction’ (1976), which followed soon afterwards in Meanjin, cite a handful of Borges’s better-known North American critics of the period – John Barth, Anthony Kerrigan, Jean Franco, Ronald Christ – without naming a single Argentine or Latin American critic. And both mount extended readings of Borges’s short story, ‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius’ that completely exclude its Argentine setting and historical context.

This eighteen-page metaphysical detective story is one of the most famous and most interpreted short stories of the twentieth century. In ‘Tlön’, the narrator, Borges, and a group of characters named for his real-life Buenos Aires literary acquaintances, unearth a conspiracy by a seventeenth-century secret society named Orbis Tertius. The cult, they discover, has invented a perfectly ordered fictional universe built to accord with the principals of philosophical idealism – first an imaginary country (Uqbar) and then an imaginary planet (Tlön). Orbis Tertius has secretly interpolated the histories of these invented places into various encyclopaedias and library catalogues. The story gives a plausible encyclopaedia-like summary of life on Tlön ‘with its architecture and its playing cards, with the dread of its mythologies and the murmur of its languages’ (Labyrinths 23). But just when the narrator and his friends seem to have solved the mystery, objects from the fictional universe of Tlön begin to appear in Buenos Aires (Labyrinths 31). Their discovery becomes a media sensation, and pirated editions of The Encyclopaedia of Tlön flood the world. In a postscript dated 1947 (seven years after the story’s original publication), the narrator informs us that the languages of Tlön, and the study of its perfectly ordered history, are beginning to wipe conventional subjects from school curriculums. In one hundred years, he concludes ominously, ‘English and French and mere Spanish will disappear from the globe. The world will be Tlön’ (Labyrinths 33).

There are sound reasons to interpret this story as a philosophical parable about ‘epistemological unreality’, as Johnston and Deakin both do (‘Games’ 40, 49). But there are other ways to read it. Argentines first encountered ‘Tlön’ in Sur magazine, in Buenos Aires in May 1940 – the month Hitler occupied Belgium, Luxemburg and Holland – with the supposedly neutral Argentine government of Ramón Castillo more or less openly supporting the Axis powers (Aizenberg, ‘El Borges Vedado’ 113). At the time, Borges and his intellectual circle were involved in a vigorous critique of European fascism’s Argentine sympathisers. Thus, ‘Tlön’ can be read, not only as a generalised attack on the harmonious ideological systems of Nazism and dialectical materialism mentioned in its pages (Labyrinths 33), but as a warning of the imminent rise of home-grown versions of them. The names of real Buenos Aires neighbourhoods, streets and historical figures that disappear from Australian critics’ readings are vital to the story’s menacing effect because they ground the dystopian future described in a recognisably local reality. Borges’s ‘Tlön’ has often been read as a statement of the unreality of the world and of history. But it can equally be read as a warning that the nightmare of history is real, and the nightmare is coming to the South.

Such a historicised reading is not necessarily superior to Johnston’s and Deakin’s irrealist one; but both ought to be possible. In this instance, Australia’s relative alignment to Argentina within world literary space resulted in an ‘elliptical refraction’ (Damrosch 281) of Borges that erased the local, and reproduced the universalist reading imported from the North.

In Australia, in the years following Johnston’s and Deakin’s introductory essays, Borges became synonymous with the fabulist, internationalist aesthetic championed by some younger writers. In Martin Johnston’s most-anthologised poem, ‘The Sea Cucumber’, Borges stands for a generation-defining rupture with the dominant Australian literary tradition of journalistic realism. The poem recounts one of his last encounters with his novelist father before George Johnston’s death. The two men get drunk on whisky in a Sydney kitchen as the painter, Ray Crook, shows them his latest. An unfinished copy of Borges sits on the table throughout. Martin has loaned the book to George, but the older man will die before he finishes it. The poem is at once an elegy for the father and for his ‘style of art’ – a double-edged tribute voiced in the painterly, impressionistic language of the new poetry:

And we were all waiting, though not in your style of art:

more of a pointillism in time, disconnected moments,

a flash of light over an empty glass, a half-finished volume of Borges,

the cabbage palms stooping at dusk into the chimneys.

(Johnston, ‘The Sea Cucumber’ 13)

Borges and the New Australian Fiction

By the 1980s, Borges’s lecture tours in the United States and Europe had made him one of the most famous writers in the world. Essays, stories and poems about the Argentine became a frequent fixture of Australian literary magazines. Some of these short pieces remain of interest for the way they embed Borges in Australian cultural debates of the period and imbue his work with their own ideological agendas. At a time when the Argentine was being hailed across the English-speaking world as an aesthetic revolutionary, Quadrant was fixated upon his reactionary politics in old age and his Anglo-Celtic heritage (his grandmother was born in Staffordshire). Shaun McCauley’s lyric ‘Borges at 83’, quotes approvingly from an infamous interview in which the elderly writer declares the Argentine people unworthy of democracy: ‘The people always choose demagogues’ (70). O’Grady’s and Morrisby’s 1984 and 1992 profiles of Borges for Quadrant are both fascinated with the idea of him as an exiled ‘Britisher’.

Meanwhile, Leonardo S. Rodríguez’s profile in Southerly draws our attention to the fact that at the same time Borges began to be widely read in Australia, the earliest substantial wave of Latin American migrants was arriving in the country: mostly exiles from the Chilean, Argentine and Uruguayan military dictatorships (Kath 5). Rodríguez, an Argentine-born psychoanalyst who was part of the 1970s exodus to Melbourne, interviewed Borges in Buenos Aires in 1984, the year after Argentine democracy was restored. We know from this interview that Borges, one of the great readers of the twentieth century, could not identify a single Australian writer: ‘I cited amongst others, Henry Lawson, Frank Hardy, Patrick White, A.D. Hope, Judith Wright, Judith Rodriguez. Borges knew none of them, and told me so’ (Rodríguez 11).

We might take this anecdote as a sobering reminder of how little-known Australian literature is beyond our traditional network of Anglophone cultural alliances. Borges himself never set foot in Australia and mentions the country on only three occasions in a body of work that often resembles an encyclopaedia of mythologies from exotic locales.8 Still, the touching scene of the exiled Argentine psychoanalyst describing a wombat for the elderly blind writer also hints at the possibility of greater dialogue between the two literatures in future. By the end of the Cold War, there were small, but vibrant Latin American migrant communities in Sydney and Melbourne, and a network of centres for Latin American Studies at Australian universities. Greater awareness and specialised knowledge would soon change the way Latin American literature – including Borges – was read in Australia.

Throughout the 1980s, the influential Melbourne editor and literary critic, Helen Daniel (1946–2000) took up and enthusiastically championed the idea that Borgesian fabulism could renovate Australian fiction. She was the Argentine’s most influential advocate in Australia at that time and was also one of the first Australian critics to devote serious attention to Latin American writing more broadly. Daniel was a long-term editor of the Australian Book Review and the author of the important book-length critical study of postmodern Australian fiction, Liars: Australian New Novelists (1988). In that book, her major critical work, Daniel considers the writing of eight Australian ‘New Novelists’ (‘liars’, she calls them), who ‘play on our disbelief’ and ‘celebrate the artifice of fiction’ (Liars 4). Although the reference to ‘new novelists’ in Daniel’s subtitle is an allusion to the French nouveau roman, she argues that the genre’s Australian incarnation is closer to twentieth-century Latin American writing (Liars 21).

For Daniel, ‘Borges’s work is so integral to the Lie that Borgesian is almost a synonym for lying’ (30). Borges’s principal influence on the new Australian writing, according to Daniel, is an ‘emphasis on perceived reality’ (Liars 16) – a reading very much in keeping with the irrealist consensus. Daniel’s project of canon formation is heavily focused on formal innovation. The Australian prose writers in her anti-realist clique – Peter Mathers, Nicholas Hasluck, Peter Carey, Murray Bail, Gerald Murnane, Elizabeth Jolley, David Foster and David Ireland – are of the generation who came of age in the shadow of Patrick White, and who tried to meet the challenge posed by his lofty modernist dismissal of Australian fiction’s realist tradition. Latin American writing, in Daniel’s view, offers a model for how Australian prose might break with realism: ‘South American fiction, particularly the work of Borges and Marquez, offers a topography for the Australian Lie, the co-ordinates from which we might take our bearings’ (Liars 22). In Liars, Australian fiction is seen to be trailing behind Latin American fiction, because it is less attuned to literary modernism, and has won relatively little recognition in the metropolitan centres (23).

The texts analysed in Daniel’s book were all published between 1966 and 1988, when the Latin American literary boom was at its height in Europe and the United Sates, and when Borges’s influence in Australia was at its peak. The bibliography of another of Daniel’s essays from the same period, ‘Australian and Latin American Literature: A Prelude’, reveals she was reading the Argentine’s 1940s fictions alongside writers of the 1960s boom generation. Due to ‘the translation problem’, she notes, ‘the current Australian interest in South American literature seems curiously belated, with anachronistic cries of discovery uttered decades after the novels of García Márquez, Borges, Carpentier, Fuentes, Asturias, Amado, Donoso and others were written’ (Daniel, Liars 22). Here, Daniel is articulating a sense of cultural belatedness that Borges satirised in his character, Teodelina Villar, the Buenos Aires socialite who follows Parisian fashions from afar – always a few years behind (Obras Completas 2011, 1: 892).

Subsequent literary history has not borne out Daniel’s argument that the work of eight innovative Australian novelists marked a definitive break with realism and a turn to Borgesian postmodernism: realist literary fiction has remained a significant strand of Australian writing in the decades since her book (Gelder and Salzman 136). Still, Liars remains interesting, in the context of the recent transnational turn, for the way it makes ‘internationalism’ central to a coming-of-age story about Australian literature. On closer examination, Daniel’s cosmopolitan embrace of Borges and Latin American writing proves to be deeply imbued with the cultural nationalism that characterised the lead up to the 1988 bicentenary. The book’s conclusion describes the New Australian novel as ‘already more than twenty-one years old, mature, with its own independent existence, its own power and authority . . . Ready to take its place in world literature’ (Daniel, Liars 345–46).

Borges in Australia from the 1990s: Postcolonial Precursor

Australian writers and critics’ engagement with Borges shifted from the 1990s onward. Although the decontextualised, fabulist reading was never completely dislodged – Borges’s writing will always invite such interpretations – greater attention came to be paid to the peripheric locus for Borges’s textual practices. Australian critics increasingly interpreted his work through the lens of postcolonialism; Australian writers increasingly read it as a model for how literature might be made at the edges of the world system. The touchstone text for this wave of readings was Borges’s essay, ‘The Argentine Writer and Tradition’.

To talk about Borges in relation to postcolonialism requires immediate qualification. Due to his anti-communism and flirtation with right-wing authoritarian regimes late in life, many Latin American critics of the left dismiss the notion of a Borges poscolonial out of hand. For them, he remains an arch reactionary, and an enemy of anti-imperial struggles (Galeano). We should bear in mind that the great 1940s short stories – his most influential work at an international level – were produced before the era of post-war decolonisation, and that Borges’s attitudes to Latin America’s indigenous cultures seem to have been those of his social class and era. Nonetheless, it is indisputable that Borges has had a profound influence on postcolonial writing. Postcolonial readings of his work by critics like Edna Aizenberg, Robin Fiddian, Alfonso del Toro, Daniel Balderston and Beatriz Sarlo, are among the most interesting and influential to have emerged in recent decades.

‘The Argentine Writer and Tradition’ is the most cited text in discussions of Borges and postcolonialism. The essay is actually a transcript of a 1951 lecture. There has been understandable confusion about the date of its publication because the written version, first published in 1953, was anthologised two years later in the second edition of Borges’s essay collection, Discusión (1932, 1957). The casual reader could be forgiven for assuming this text from the early 1950s was written in the 1930s. On closer observation, it becomes apparent that the essay’s central argument is deeply marked by the post-war Argentine milieu (Balderston, ‘Detalles circunstanciales’ 2). It is, in the first place, a meticulous demolition of the arguments for cultural nationalism in Argentine literature, which were widely propounded during Perón’s first presidency (1946–1955):

The idea that Argentine poetry must abound in Argentine differential traits and Argentine local colour seems to me to be mistaken . . . the idea that writers must seek out subjects local to their countries is also new and arbitrary . . . a recent European cult that nationalists should reject as a foreign import. (Borges, Total Library 422–23)

As in much of Borges’s writing, local and international contexts overlap and enrich each other. The essay can also be read as a belated Southern-Hemisphere response to T. S. Eliot’s 1919 lecture, ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’. Eliot’s notion of literary tradition as an ideal order that is modified by the new was important for Borges, as was his idea that artistic innovation occurs within tradition, rather than as a break with it (Eliot 1093). Both assert the importance of the European literary tradition and argue that writers from elsewhere are entitled to feel part of it. But Eliot’s argument is made after his move to Europe, and has strong Eurocentric overtones: ‘The historical sense compels a man to write . . . with a feeling that the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer and within it the whole of the literature of his own country has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order’ (1093).

Against this, Borges makes the startling assertion that non-European writers have a right to the continent’s cultural tradition ‘greater than that which the inhabitants of one or another Western nation might have’ (Total Library 426). The Argentine experience of operating – like the Jewish or the Irish – at once within and on the edge of the West, for Borges, permits an irreverent treatment of the Western tradition not available to the ‘centre’. The essay’s conclusion proposes an alternative relationship with European cultural canons that has often been taken as a programmatic statement:

I believe that our tradition is the whole of Western culture . . . I believe that Argentines and South Americans in general . . . can take on all European subjects . . . without superstition and with an irreverence that can have, and already has had, fortunate consequences . . . we must believe that the universe is our birthright and try out every subject; we cannot confine ourselves to what is Argentine in order to be Argentine. (Total Library 426)

This argument is one that many postcolonial writers and critics have found enormously suggestive. The Venezuelan-American critic, Edna Aizenberg, for example, writes that:

For postcolonial writers Borges is a reference point beyond his general pre-eminence in a European-North American repertoire of culture . . . Argentina is part of a geography of the imagination, a territory away from the centre . . . The successors . . . realize and transgress Borges. (‘Borges, Postcolonial Precursor’ 24–26)

Aizenberg suggests that many of the ‘post-modern’ formal devices in Borges’s writing can actually be seen as ‘a correlative of a colonized history’ (21). For her: ‘Borges provided a model of literary postcoloniality: a writer writing in a major Western language, both within and without the West, who used the potential of non-Western elements . . . to undermine and enrich Western Literature’ (26).

In Australia, many writers and critics have taken up Borges’s notion that distance from Europe allows a writer to ‘reinterpret the Western literary tradition’ (Flanagan 276). The examples by Rundle, Boyle and Cahill that follow illustrate several distinct strands of contemporary Australian writing marked by Borges: the literary hoax, heteronymic poetry and postcolonial migrant writing.

The satirical writer Guy Rundle’s 2002 Borges hoax, ‘A Surreal Visitor’, was published as a news story in Melbourne’s Saturday Age. Adopting Borges’s characteristic combination of apocryphal and real sources, the article reports the Argentine writer spent ten days in Melbourne in 1938. The details of this forgotten journey, Rundle tells us, recently surfaced in a house in Córdoba through ‘a few notes for a poem (never written) that Borges made in a notebook . . . and some letters written to a fellow novelist [sic] Bioy Casares’. Borges is supposed to have been invited to give a lecture in Melbourne by the British-born cartoonist and photographer, John Willie (1902–1962). Willie, a real historical figure who was part of Melbourne bohemia in the 1930s, later made his name as the editor of the long-running New York bondage magazine, Bizarre. In Rundle’s piece, he learns of Borges via an edition of Sur – Latin America’s most important twentieth-century literary magazine – that has found its way across the Pacific on a cargo ship. Impressed by the Argentine’s work, Willie offers to fund Borges’s passage to Melbourne on the passenger-cargo Koumoundouros, in the hope that this ‘surreal visitor’ will shake up the parochialism of Norman Lindsay’s artistic circle.

For Rundle, as for Helen Daniel before him, importing Borges into Australia signifies importing the cosmopolitan outlook and avant-garde aesthetics of Latin American modernism. However, in only a few hundred words, Rundle’s piece demonstrates far greater interest in the cultural and historical context of Borges’s writing. The Argentine is no longer a fabulist creating worlds outside time and space, but a writer from a particular Southern Hemisphere location, that is, to some extent, parallel to Melbourne:

Borges found Melbourne to be evocative of Buenos Aires, albeit more staid. The wide Victorian streets and languorous gardens, the tang of rusting air from the wide verandas, the stately trams, the pompous stone buildings shaded by palms – the city had the sort of timelessness that he associated with all southern places. (Rundle)

This is a reasonably convincing impersonation of what Borges might have written if he had really visited Melbourne in 1938. Nevertheless, anyone familiar with Australian literary history would have recognised Rundle’s dissimulation at once. His news report places the poet Harold Stewart at Borges’s Melbourne lecture, ‘The Author’s Fictions’. While the text of the speech has been lost, Rundle speculates that it may have been the ‘strange lecture by a Spanish chap’ Stewart referred to in a letter to James McAuley, his future co-conspirator in the Ern Malley Affair of 1943. In this way, Rundle inserts Borges’s apocryphal trip to Melbourne into the pre-history of Australia’s most famous literary hoax.

For those familiar with Borges’s biography, the timing of the trip is not particularly plausible. The writer’s much-loved father died in February 1938 and it is implausible that the shy, sheltered Argentine would have attempted such an arduous solo journey while still grieving. Still, the article fooled enough Age readers that the newspaper was forced to print a clarifying note the following week: ‘An article in Saturday extra “A Surreal Visitor” about writer Jorge Luis Borges’ apparent visit to Melbourne was in fact a piece of fiction, mimicking Borges’ own style of placing people in imaginary situations. The Editor of Saturday Extra regrets this was not acknowledged at the time of publication’ (qtd. in Tofts). Rundle’s Borges hoax signals an abiding preoccupation with artifice and fakery in Australian writing that has survived from Ern Malley’s time right through to more recent scandals involving Mudrooroo, Helen Demidenko and others.9

Though intended as a parody, Stewart and McAuley’s invented modernist poet went on to influence generations of Australian poets. One of those who has taken up the tradition of heteronymic poetry is the Sydney poet, Peter Boyle. A translator from Spanish and French, Boyle has been a key figure in promoting greater awareness of both modernist and contemporary Latin American poetry in Australia. Borges and the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa – another polyglot inventor of alternative authorial selves – are crucial models for Boyle’s poetic practice.

Boyle’s ten-part poetic sequence ‘Reading Borges Late at Night and Imagining Buenos Aires’ is the most complex Australian response to Borges’s writing to date. It is the last poem in an epic three-hundred-page collection Apocrypha (2007) which purports to be a series of fragments that have been omitted from history, including Plato’s lost dialogues, and extracts from Lucretius’s notebooks. These ‘translations’ of lost texts have supposedly resurfaced among the papers of the fictional author William O’Shaunessy whose own writings are interspersed throughout the collection.

In the voice of O’Shaunessy, Boyle’s Borges poem meditates on a trip to Buenos Aires that was cancelled due to an unspecified crisis in the poet’s life (there are intimations of the end of a marriage and serious health problems):

A maid’s hands

straighten the blinds in a hotel room

I never stayed in.

Taxi doors open and close

on a trip I never took.

(Boyle, Reading Borges 5)

Thus, the poet remains at home, dreaming of Buenos Aires from a distance. It is not the actual city he imagines: ‘No one dreams the river as it is’, (1) but the city as Borges evokes it in his writing:

Imagining Buenos Aires from a book of poems

Written from the unimaginable year of my father’s birth

To the time I turned sixteen.

City of Borges and of tangos,

of Palermo, the Recoleta and the Southside . . .

Where are you?

(Reading Borges 2)

More than any other Australian writer considered here, Boyle produces his work out of a deep knowledge and love of Latin American literature. Such knowledge has only become possible in the context of globalisation. The poet’s imaginary journey between Australia and Argentina in ‘Reading Borges’ looks to forge new connections between remote literary traditions through the paratactical devices of modernist poetry. Ghostspeaking (2016), Boyle’s most recent collection, continues in this vein, introducing readers to a whole series of imaginary Latin American poets. Boyle has said that when he first began writing poetry as a teenager suffering from polio, he wanted to ‘create some other self for myself’ (‘Interview with Peter Boyle’). Behind Boyle’s heteronyms, Martin Duwell suggests, lies an insistent plea for ‘a widening of human creative, intellectual and emotional possibility’. This is a good encapsulation of what Borges’s work has come to offer Australian writers: a widening of possibilities beyond those offered by nationalism, the Anglophone tradition, and by traditional forms.

The final example of Borgesian influence in Australia that will be considered in this survey is Michelle Cahill’s labyrinthine short story ‘Borges and I’. The story illustrates the Argentine’s importance for Australian migrant writing. The British-born Cahill is a Goan Anglo-Indian poet, who now lives in Sydney, and has been active on the local poetry scene for more than a decade, most prominently as one of the editors of the journal, Mascara. ‘Borges and I’ first appeared in the Australian Book Review in September 2015 and was republished in Cahill’s 2016 collection, Letter to Pessoa (Giramondo). Borges’s and Pessoa’s presence alerts us to the fact that Cahill, like Boyle, is interested in the possibilities of heteronymic writing. Her work, however, focuses on how modernist form might be used to explore the ‘wreckage and clefts of a postcolonial identity’ (Cahill, ‘Muse India’).

In Letter to Pessoa, a series of narrators – a woman of Indian background living in the West, a gay Argentine writer with HIV, the character Melanie Isaacs from J. M. Coetzee’s novel Disgrace, and many others – write letters to canonical authors like Borges, Coetzee, Woolf, Derrida, Genet, Larkin, Nabokov and Pessoa: a list as geographically, linguistically and temporally uneven as the ‘heterogenous enumerations’ Borges habitually used to destabilise established canons (Molloy, Signs 114–15). Cahill’s ‘letters’ not only talk back to the masters, they often imitate their prose styles and are filled with cheeky allusions to their work. In his review of the collection, Paul Sharrad argues: ‘writing after the style of the big name is both homage and satire, ventriloquism and translation’ (Sharrad, ‘Letter’).

I agree with Sharrad that ‘Letters to Pessoa’ can be seen within the established postcolonial tradition of ‘writing back’ (Ashcroft et al.) but I also think it updates that tradition in two important respects. Firstly, not all of the letters are directed to the ‘centre’. Borges and Coetzee, for all their prestige in the northern capitals, are writing from postcolonial countries. In Cahill’s writing, the former imperial outposts have begun to communicate among themselves, bypassing the empire. Secondly, the postcolonial nation state is far less central to Cahill’s practice than it was to postcolonial writers of an earlier period. Neoliberal globalisation is the dominant context for Cahill’s short stories, not decolonisation (though the two are, of course, related). Her stories unfold in a world where the consolidation of the global market means North and South now infuse one another, ‘distributing inequalities and barriers along multiple and fractured lines’ (Hardt and Negri 333). Thus, her displaced characters cross indiscriminately between metropolis and periphery, encountering similar inequities of race, gender and class wherever they go.

While Cahill’s ‘Borges and I’ is named for the Argentine’s iconic 1957 microfiction, it pays homage, above all, to the intellectual playfulness and propulsive narrative of the famous 1940s ficciones. The story takes us back to the late Cold War period when Borges was at the height of his influence in Australia and frames his work as an anticipation of the connectedness of the Internet age (122). The narrator, Wesley Burns, is a forty-three-year-old, Anglo-American physicist based in Denver. Burns tells of his involvement in a secret 1981 research project, aimed at sending information faster than the speed of light. At the beginning of the story, he receives a mysterious envelope from Buenos Aires containing Borges’s Ficciones, which he takes to reading obsessively as his team conduct their experiments. When Hamid, one of his research collaborators, attends a conference in Tehran, he is arrested and thrown into an Iranian prison. Burns’s solution, inspired by Borges, is to use the technology they have developed to send a warning message back in time. Tipped off by his colleagues, Hamid is able to evade the police and arrive safely back in Colorado with all memory of his six-month incarceration erased (132).

The final part of the story turns on Burns’s attempts to find out who sent him Ficciones in the mail. In 1983 he travels to Buenos Aires, where he attends a lecture by the elderly Borges and has him autograph a copy of The Book of Sand. The inscription matches that in his well-thumbed copy of Ficciones. Could Borges himself have posted Burns the book? The narrator finally solves the mystery, at the climax of a postcolonial dream sequence. Caught in a thunder storm in the historic colonial neighbourhood of San Telmo, he comes face-to-face with the ghost of a character from Borges’s story, ‘The Warrior and the Captured Maiden’, a nineteenth-century English woman who was abducted by pampa Indians as a child. As Burns speaks to the woman in English, ‘her forgotten mother tongue’, he becomes aware of a gap in his own memory. He realises ‘the sender of the Ficciones was none other than myself’ (134–35). Cahill’s intricate Borgesian pastiche concludes with the narrator posting the book to his past self in Denver. The story’s ‘perdurantism’ (119) – its implication the self may be composed of distinct temporal parts – owes much to Borges, who wrote that ‘every man is an illusion, vertiginously wrought by a series of solitary and momentary men’ (Total Library 331). But in Cahill, Borges’s radical-idealist critique of the unified enlightenment subject is connected to the fragmentation of migrant identity.

Cahill’s ‘Borges and I’ illustrates how the Argentine’s vision of fragmented selfhood can be effectively applied in the context of diasporic writing. Her description of Buenos Aires is the most detailed that has appeared in Australian literature to date. It restores the names of streets and neighbourhoods that disappeared from early Australian critics’ decontextualised readings of Borges: ‘I caught the C line towards Retiro. I got off at Plaza San Martín’ (135). But despite their specificity these descriptive passages have an eerie thinness that suggests they might have been composed browsing the Internet rather than out of lived experience. This is Buenos Aires as postcolonial heterotopia, simultaneously a specific place – with its conventillos and belle époque facades – and an archetypical globalised metropolis. In Cahill, Borges becomes an emblem for connectedness – for the increased integration of peripheral modernity into transnational networks under globalisation.


The texts considered in this survey represent five distinct strands of the Borgesian in contemporary Australian writing: Johnston’s cosmopolitanism, Daniel and the new novelists’ rupture with realism, Rundle’s hoax, Boyle’s heteronyms, and Cahill’s postcolonial heterotopia. These are far from the only instances in which the Argentine has surfaced in Australia literature since his work became available in English in the early 1960s. Behind them lies a much larger corpus of texts that do not mention Borges by name but have been marked by their encounter with his work and with that of his many imitators around the world.

During the Cold War, Borges’s Australian reception broadly conformed with Casanova’s model of a world literary system in which the peripheries connect only through the centre. Across this period, Australia and Argentina’s relative alignment in world literary space, the lack of expertise in Latin American literature among most Australian critics, and the absence of a strong comparative tradition in Australian literary studies, ensured that North American critical perspectives profoundly shaped the way Borges was read. Borges’s reception since the 1990s shows that Australian writers and critics have gradually begun to shift away from reading him as a context-free fabulist. More recent creative appropriations of Borges, such as those of Boyle and Cahill, display far greater knowledge of his place in Argentine and Latin American literary history. They also begin to exploit the thematic and formal possibilities his writing offers to writers from the Southern margins of the world system.

To draw upon the mythopoeic charge of the South in thinking Australian and Latin American literature together is not to deny that Australian writing – especially settler Australian writing – remains, in many important ways, culturally Northern. Nor is it to spuriously claim a place for non-Indigenous Australia in the oppositional postcolonial bloc of the Global South. Rather, such an approach suggests a research agenda, underpinned by the horizontal methods of ‘proximate reading’, (Gelder 1) that seeks to build mutual knowledge and to identify common ground between literatures of the Southern Hemisphere that have tended, until now, to define themselves in terms of exclusivity and difference. A deeper connection with Latin American literature offers Australian writing and criticism real advantages over established comparative traditions. Comparative literature as a discipline has focused overwhelmingly on North-North and North-South comparisons (Moretti 54). Anglophone postcolonial studies has never adequately come to grips with Latin America (Moraña 6). The new world literature movement, for all its methodological innovations, still tends not to consider the possibility of ‘tangential’ or ‘horizontal’ interactions between literatures of the periphery (Kristal 73–74). A South-South comparativist approach might be one way that Australian literary studies can take advantage of the new transnational methodologies while questioning and seeking to counterbalance world literature’s embedded metropolitan perspective.

The case of Borges’s Australian reception illustrates that Latin American writing has had a presence on the Australian literary scene for more than half a century now, despite the limited availability of translations and a large contextual gap. In this instance, texts, literary forms and influence clearly have flowed between peripheral regions of the Southern Hemisphere, with sustained and significant repercussions for Australian writing.


  1. Jorge Luis Borges. ‘El Duelo.’ Obras Completas. Vol. 2. Sudamericana, 2011. p. 460. [my translation].

  2. In Spanish Sudamericana’s Obras Completas (2011) and Emece’s Edición Crítica (2013); in English Penguin’s Collected Fictions (1998), Selected Poetry (1999), and Selected Non-Fictions (1999); in French Gallimard’s Œuvres complètes (2010); and in Chinese collections of his short-stories and essays published by Hainan International Press (1989, 1996).

  3. A good example is the recent critical collection, A Profound Need in Contemporary Fiction: Borges’s Reception in the World Republic of Letters (2015), edited by Bridgitte Adriansen and her colleagues at Radbound University in Holland. This invaluable study updates and builds upon Aizenberg’s similar 1990 survey of Borges’s reception in several important ways – most significantly in its deft balance of critical perspectives from Latin America and the global North. Nevertheless, the world republic as conceived here, entirely omits the Southern Hemisphere beyond Latin America.

  4. As a result, several important instances of Borges’s influence on Australian writing – the early stories of Peter Carey and David Brooks and the radical idealist fictions of Gerald Murnane – could only be noted in passing. Robert Ross has already undertaken a study of Borges and Carey; the Argentine’s impact on Brooks and Murnane merits more detailed analysis.

  5. Among the best-known thinkers of the so-called ‘decolonial turn’ are Latin Americans such as Walter Mignolo, Aníbal Quijano, Enrique Dussel, and the South Africans Jean and John Comaroff.

  6. See Aizenberg, Borges and His Successors (1990); Variaciones Borges 36 (2013); Adriansen et al., Una profunda necesidad (2015).

  7. Robert Ross has analysed Borges’s influence on Carey’s early short stories in detail in ‘“It Cannot Not Be There”: Borges and Australia's Peter Carey’, but there is scope for further work on the Borgesian echoes in Carey’s novels. True History of the Kelly Gang, a young thug’s self-justifying account of his crimes, written in slang, might even be read as novelised expansion of Borges’s classic early story ‘Man on Pink Corner’.

  8. Borges mentions Australia briefly in his fictional reworking of the Tichborne affair ‘The Improbable Impostor Tom Castro’ (Collected Fictions 13–14); and as a passing example of magical thinking in the essay ‘Narrative Art and Magic’: ‘Medicine men in central Australia inflict a wound on their forearms to shed blood so that the imitative or consistent sky will shed rain’ (Total Library 80). The most significant citation, however, comes in ‘The Aleph’ (Collected Fictions 277–78) where ‘certain laborious passages’ of Carlos Argentino Danieri’s poem ‘The Earth’ describe outback Queensland. As Juan E. De Castro comments, the description of the Australian sky as ‘blanquiceleste’, – sky-blue and white, like the Argentine flag – subtly sends up the poet’s cosmopolitan pretensions (159). In describing Australia and the other far-flung places in his epic, the nationalist poet Argentino is really only describing his own country. The passage also plays with the notion of Australia as a counterfactual Argentina, the road the country might have taken had history followed a different course. Borges once remarked flippantly to the writer Nicholas Shakespeare that he wished the attempted British invasions of Argentina in 1806 and 1807 had been successful ‘because then we'd be like Australia’.

  9. David Brooks traces this ‘secret history’ of hoaxes in Australia poetry in The Sons of Clovis (2013). One of his epigrams is taken from Borges’s ‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius’.

Published 9 July 2018 in Volume 33, No. 2. Subjects: Jorge Luis Borges, Reception, Latin American literature.

Cite as: Halford, James. ‘Reading the South Through Northern Eyes: Jorge Luis Borges’s Australian Reception, 1962–2016.’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 33, no. 2, 2018.