Martín Fierro and Argentine tradition
Along with other young Argentine writers of his generation, Borges initially rallied around the fictional character of Martín Fierro. Martín Fierro, a poem by José Hernández, was a dominant work of 19th century Argentine literature. Its eponymous hero became a symbol of Argentine sensibility, untied from European values – a gaucho, free, poor, pampas-dwelling.
The character Fierro is illegally drafted to serve at a border fort to defend it against the indigenous population but ultimately deserts to become a gaucho matrero, the Argentine equivalent of a North American western outlaw. Borges contributed keenly to the avant garde Martín Fierro magazine in the early 1920s.
As Borges matured, he came to a more nuanced attitude toward the Hernández poem. In his book of essays on the poem, Borges separates his admiration for the aesthetic virtues of the work from his mixed opinion of the moral virtues of its protagonist. In his essay "The Argentine Writer and Tradition" (1951), Borges celebrates how Hernández expresses the Argentine character. In a key scene in the poem, Martín Fierro and El Moreno compete by improvising songs on universal themes such as time, night, and the sea, reflecting the real-world gaucho tradition of payadas, improvised musical dialogues on philosophical themes. Borges points out that Hernández evidently knew the difference between actual gaucho tradition of composing poetry versus the "gauchesque" fashion among Buenos Aires literati.
In his works he refutes the arch-nationalist interpreters of the poem and disdains others, such as critic Eleuterio Tiscornia, for their Europeanising approach. Borges denies that Argentine literature should distinguish itself by limiting itself to "local colour", which he equates with cultural nationalism. Racine and Shakespeare's work, he says, looked beyond their countries' borders. Neither, he argues, need the literature be bound to the heritage of old world Spanish or European tradition. Nor should it define itself by the conscious rejection of its colonial past. He asserts that Argentine writers need to be free to define Argentine literature anew, writing about Argentina and the world from the point of view of those who have inherited the whole of world literature. Williamson says "Borges's main argument is that the very fact of writing from the margins provides Argentine writers with a special opportunity to innovate without being bound to the canons of the centre, ... at once a part of and apart from the centre, which gives them much potential freedom".
Borges focused on universal themes, but also composed a substantial body of literature on themes from Argentine folklore and history. His first book, the poetry collection Fervor de Buenos Aires (Passion for Buenos Aires), appeared in 1923. Borges's writings on things Argentine, include Argentine culture ("History of the Tango"; "Inscriptions on Horse Wagons"), folklore ("Juan Muraña", "Night of the Gifts"), literature ("The Argentine Writer and Tradition", "Almafuerte"; "Evaristo Carriego"), and national concerns ("Celebration of the Monster", "Hurry, Hurry", "The Mountebank", "Pedro Salvadores"). Ultranationalists, however, continued to question his Argentine identity.
Borges's interest in Argentine themes reflects, in part, the inspiration of his family tree. Borges had an English paternal grandmother who, around 1870, married the criollo Francisco Borges, a man with a military command and a historic role in the Argentine Civil Wars in what is now Argentina and Uruguay.
Spurred by pride in his family's heritage, Borges often used those civil wars as settings in fiction and quasi-fiction (for example, "The Life of Tadeo Isidoro Cruz," "The Dead Man," "Avelino Arredondo") as well as poetry ("General Quiroga Rides to His Death in a Carriage"). Borges's maternal great-grandfather, Manuel Isidoro Suárez, was another military hero, whom Borges immortalized in the poem "A Page to Commemorate Colonel Suárez, Victor at Junín".
His non-fiction explores many of the themes found in his fiction. Essays such as "The History of the Tango" or his writings on the epic poem "Martín Fierro" explore Argentine themes, such as the identity of the Argentine people and of various Argentine subcultures. The varying genealogies of characters, settings, and themes in his stories, such as "La muerte y la brújula", used Argentine models without pandering to his readers or framing Argentine culture as "exotic".
In fact, contrary to what is usually supposed, the geographies found in his fictions often do not correspond to those of real-world Argentina. In his essay "El escritor argentino y la tradición", Borges notes that the very absence of camels in the Qur'an was proof enough that it was an Arabian work (despite the fact that camels are, in fact, mentioned in the Qur'an). He suggested that only someone trying to write an "Arab" work would purposefully include a camel. He uses this example to illustrate how his dialogue with universal existential concerns was just as Argentine as writing about gauchos and tangos.
At the time of the Argentine Declaration of Independence in 1816, the population was predominantly criollo (of Spanish ancestry). From the mid-1850s on waves of immigration from Europe, especially Italy and Spain, arrived in the country, and in the following decades the Argentine national identity diversified. Borges was writing in a strongly European literary context, immersed in Spanish, English, French, German, Italian, Anglo-Saxon and Old Norse literature. He also read translations of Near Eastern and Far Eastern works. Borges's writing is also informed by scholarship of Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, and Judaism, including prominent religious figures, heretics, and mystics.
Religion and heresy are explored in such stories as "Averroes's Search", "The Writing of the God", "The Theologians", and "Three Versions of Judas". The curious inversion of mainstream Christian concepts of redemption in the last story is characteristic of Borges's approach to theology in his literature.
In describing himself, he said, "I am not sure that I exist, actually. I am all the writers that I have read, all the people that I have met, all the women that I have loved; all the cities that I have visited, all my ancestors." As a young man, he visited the frontier pampas which extend beyond Argentina into Uruguay and Brazil. Borges said that his father wished him "to become a citizen of the world, a great cosmopolitan," in the way of Henry and William James.
Borges lived and studied in Switzerland and Spain as a young student. As Borges matured, he traveled through Argentina as a lecturer and, internationally, as a visiting professor; he continued to tour the world as he grew older, finally settling in Geneva where he had spent some of his youth. Drawing on the influence of many times and places, Borges's work belittled nationalism and racism. Portraits of diverse coexisting cultures characteristic of Argentina are especially pronounced in the book Six Problems for don Isidoro Parodi (co-authored with Bioy Casares) and Death and the Compass. Borges wrote that he considered Mexican essayist Alfonso Reyes to be "the best prose-writer in the Spanish language of any time."
Borges was also an admirer of some Oriental culture, e.g. the ancient Chinese board game of Go, about which he penned some verses, while The Garden of Forking Paths had a strong oriental theme.