When I was an undergraduate in the early 1970’s I worked in the university library, reshelving books. Setting out with a loaded cart, I would disappear into the labyrinthine stacks and sometimes lose track of time there, happening upon a book, straying to the one next to it, and so on, until I collected myself and remembered that I had a job to do.
On paydays I would deposit my check into my savings account, but had a little extra to spend on a book or a record. I remember the delicious feeling of browsing for out-of-the-ordinary books that would never be assigned in my English literature courses. In the fascinating 100 Flowers bookstore in Central Square I found a novel entitled The Interpreters by an unknown (to me, at least) African writer named Wole Soyinka; and either in the Harvard Coop or Reading International I purchased (for $1.99) a book entitled Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges, a Latin American writer equally unknown to me at the time. But somehow I never read either of them. I seem to remember cracking each one open, finding it rather obscurely avant-garde, and soon losing interest.
Although these titles adorned my shelves, they didn’t adorn my mind; instead they simply sat there gathering dust, periodically shifting location whenever I moved, freighted with my ever-growing collection. For as thrifty as I am in other areas of my life, I can rarely resist picking up another book and taking it home with me.
Some 15 years after the halcyon browsings of my student days, I enrolled in Commonwealth Literature, a graduate course at the University of Massachusetts (Commonwealth of Massachusetts? I asked myself) and met Ketu Katrak, the person who was soon to become my mentor and dissertation director, and awaken me to the world of postcolonial literatures from Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean. Professor Katrak had recently published a book on the work of Wole Soyinka, that obscure author of the novel I had never read, who had just won the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Fast-forward another three decades and I was required to teach a World Literature course which included Latin American writers. Among the stories in my chosen anthology was one by Jorge Luis Borges, entitled The Garden of Forking Paths. In it, a man discovers too late that his ancestor’s missing novel is in fact a model of the universe itself, “an invisible labyrinth of time.” In that novel, every possible choice a character faces comes into existence simultaneously, and continues to fork and branch throughout time. “Sometimes,” we are told, “the pathways of this labyrinth converge.”
Immediately upon learning the lost secret of his ancestor’s legacy, the narrator, Dr. Yu Tsun, former professor of English, begins to feel about and within himself “an invisible, intangible swarming,” some kind of premonition of a fateful moment of convergence that is almost upon him. I will leave Borges’ story at this point, not only because it is worth reading yourself, but also because it is here that my own story resumes.
As I prepared to teach Borges’ story, I remembered that I had a book of his on my shelves at home. Examining it for the first time in a third of a century, I discovered that it was a selection of short stories and essays, forty pieces that were broadly representative of his entire body of work. Upon reading the introduction and beginning to flip through the pages, I found that one of the stories in this book, which had been sitting on a succession of my bookshelves ever since I had first acquired it as a teenager, was “The Garden of Forking Paths.” At that instant, I was overcome by a strong sense of synchronicity. In and around my 52-year-old self I felt the same “invisible, intangible swarming” that Yu Tsun had described when he came upon his ancestor’s secret in the house of a stranger so many hundreds of years and thousands of miles away from home.
What if…? What had drawn me to those particular works in the first place, young and ignorant but eagerly seeking I knew not what? What if I had read them back then, as soon as they had come into my possession? What did it mean that I had been returned to Labyrinths and to this particular story after so many years? Had the forking paths of my own life’s journey converged, somehow offering me a second chance—at what?
For thousands of years and in many traditions, the labyrinth has served as a model for the spiritual path. The return to Borges and my younger self challenged me to contemplate my life, a mystery which, at middle age, I seem no closer to unraveling.