‘Fictions’ by Jorge Luis Borges (Review)

Today’s post features another stop on my Spanish-language literature self-education journey (courtesy of my wonderful library), and it’s one I’ve been looking forward to for a while.  You see, if you’re going to start reading works translated from the Spanish, there’s a name you’ll come across sooner or later – a certain Jorge Luis Borges

*****
Fictions (translated – mostly – by Anthony Kerrigan: with some stories translated by Alastair Reid, Anthony Bonner, Helen Temple and Ruthven Todd) brings together two of the writer’s first collections of short stories, The Garden of Forking Paths and Artifices.  Despite this, Fictions is a short work, clocking in at just over 150 pages – mainly because Borges’ creations don’t tend to outstay their welcome.  For the Argentinian maestro, ten pages is a fairly long tale.

The first eight-part collection is a dazzling display of meta-fiction, and any reader wondering where writers like Enrique Vila-Matas inherited their style should look no further.  The stories are written in a dry, detached, academic tone, and Borges relates his analyses of invented works and writers (complete with footnotes…) in a manner which is both confusing and intriguing.  Beneath the surface though, you suspect that there is some serious leg-pulling going on, with the writer taking aim at out-dated philosophies and academic approaches.

A good example of this style is the story ‘Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote’.  In this short piece, the narrator discusses the major unpublished work of Monsieur Menard, namely an attempt to rewrite Don Quixote – not to change it, or to transcribe it, but to rewrite it exactly as it is.  ‘Borges’, our narrator, advances the opinion that Menard’s work is superior to that of Cervantes (despite the fact that it is identical, word for word) as the modern writer can impart more meaning to the words after centuries of progress in the fields of philosophy and literary analysis.  If you say so…

Another highlight from the first collection is ‘The Library of Babel’, where the writer restructures the universe as a gigantic, geometrically-designed library.  It contains all the books you could ever wish for – you’ll never be able to find the one you need though.  ‘The Babylon Lottery’ is another great story, one where a former citizen of Babylon recounts how a simple game we all recognise turned into an all-encompassing way of life.  In his country, life literally is a lottery (which is certainly an interesting way of looking at things…).

The second collection, Artifices, is markedly different in style.  The focus is less on the academic (imaginary) literary analysis, and more on conventional twisty-turny types of stories.  In ‘The Form of the Sword’, Borges tells us the tale of a traitor, a story with a startling, unexpected ending.  ‘Funes, the Memorious’, on the other hand, is about a man whose life is altered by an accident.  With a memory far surpassing normal human standards, he is able to remember every single thing he has ever seen or heard – and is unable to believe the polite conventions (or lies) of time and language:

“It was not only difficult for him to understand that the generic term ‘dog’ embraced so many unlike specimens of differing sizes and different forms; he was disturbed by the fact that a dog at three-fourteen (seen in profile) should have the same name as the dog at three-fifteen (seen from the front).”
p.104 (John Calder, 1985)

A word which continually crops up throughout Artifices is ‘labyrinth’, and Borges seems obsessed by the idea of mazes, both tangible and mental.  In ‘The Death and the Compass’, a detective story with a difference, an investigator is concerned with fascinating possibilities of crime.  When his superior attempts to explain away a murder with a conventional explanation, the sleuth begs to differ:

“It’s possible, but not interesting,” Lönnrot answered.  “You will reply that reality hasn’t the slightest need to be of interest.  And I’ll answer you that reality may avoid the obligation to be interesting, but that hypotheses may not.” (p.118)

However, we’ve all heard what curiosity did to the cat, and Lönnrot eventually runs the risk of being trapped in a labyrinth partially of his own making…

*****
Sharp-eyed Borges lovers may have noticed a rather notable omission, a deliberate one as I’m leaving the best to last.  The opening story of The Garden of the Forking Paths, ‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius’ (translated by Alastair Reid) is the stand-out of the two collections and, perhaps, a landmark in short-story writing.  Eighteen-pages long, it’s easily the longest of the tales in this selection, and it’s a fascinating example of Borges’ mastery of meta-fiction.

The story begins with the discovery of a book which doesn’t exist, containing an article on a fictional country.  After a feverish search for more information, the writer comes across a book that was never written, one which has detailed information on the customs and philosophy of an imaginary world.  It all adds up to a shadowy conspiracy, a meticulously-planned hoax – which then begins to bleed over into the ‘real’ world when alien artefacts are found…

In a coda to the story, set seven years after the original events (and in the future from the point of view of the actual writing of the story), the narrator reveals the effect the teachings of Tlön have had upon the world:

“Almost immediately, reality gave ground on more than one point.  The truth is that it hankered to give ground.  Ten years ago, any symmetrical system whatsoever which gave the appearance of order – dialectical materialism, anti-Semitism, Nazism – was enough to fascinate men.  Why not fall under the spell of Tlön and submit to the minute and vast evidence of an ordered planet?” (p.33)

The story was written in 1940, and Borges shows superb foresight of the tragedies about to unfold in Europe.  It’s easy to fall under the spell of a regime which promises the world… 

Fictions is a short collection, but fairly dense, and it’s a book I’d recommend to most people.  While not all of the stories in Artifices grabbed me, I enjoyed The Garden of Forking Paths immensely, and I’m keen to try some more.  A warning to the casual reader though: Labyrinths, the other commonly-cited collection of Borges’ early writings, is an American publication which contains many of the same stories (it omits a few from the two collections from Fictions and adds some from a later collection, The Aleph).  It seems remarkably apt that even deciding which Borges book to try is steeped in confusion 😉

*****
You’d think that I would have exhausted my ideas on a 150-page book by now, but there’s something else I need to tell you.  You see (and I am not making this up), my battered old library copy, sent from somewhere in country Victoria, had one last surprise for me.  Sellotaped inside the back cover, I found a small, cut-out piece of paper, smaller than the other pages, on which was a Borges poem, ‘The End Game’.  It describes a game of chess, and moves from the perspective of the pieces to that of the players, to God… and to another god.  The last three lines read:

“God moves the player, and he, the pieces
 What god from behind God begins to weave the plot
 of dust and time and dreams and agonies?”

It’s a great poem – but where on earth did it come from?  Is it a part of the book that fell out, or is it just a random inclusion from a generous soul?  Whatever the answer, it’s all very Borgesian 🙂

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15 thoughts on “‘Fictions’ by Jorge Luis Borges (Review)

  1. Thanks for bringing fond memories of this collection back to me! I read it at University for a literature class years ago and I remember us analysing the hell out of each of the stories, and the collection as a whole – there's just so much in them. I also remember loving The Garden of Forking Paths (even the Spanish title, “El jardin de los senderos que se bifurcan” has an incredibly poetic cadence to it) and enjoying the second part a bit less.
    As for the poem you found in the back of your library's copy, that's amazing. You really couldn't make it up 🙂

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  2. Bettina – I'm not sure I'd enjoy going into quite that much depth – this post is about as detailed as I'd like to get 😉 I have a copy of 'The Aleph' on my shelves, so I'll have to see if that lives up to this collection.

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  3. It's the greatest collection of short-stories ever written, and Jorge Luis Borges is the 20th century's undisputed master of the genre. When I read it, perhaps some ten years ago, I was dazzled. I've re-read it and only grown to admire it more. It's one of the happiest chapters of my life, discovering Borges – what doors he opened to me, how many writers I owe their discovery to him. And it all started with this book.

    “The Form of the Sword” gave origin to an excellent Bertolucci movie, The Spider's Stratagem, and Herbert Quain's detective novel reoccurs in Saramago's The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis. His influence on his century and beyond is remarkable and infinite.

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  4. “It's the greatest collection of short-stories ever written, and Jorge Luis Borges is the 20th century's undisputed master of the genre.”

    … well … “undisputed” among adults maybe, because only adolescents are known to dispute such things… everybody reading such a blog (including you) is certainly well aware that there are several writers of short stories who were immensely important in 20th century literature… only fanatics claim to absoluteness where absoluteness is meaningless 😉

    But, yes, I agree, Borges is one of the masters. I got reminded recently that he even had significant influence on Stanislaw Lem, which is funny because their individual approaches to literature seem to be diametrically opposed. Lem's collection of fictional essays called “Perfect Vacuum” is obviously inspired by Borges for example. Although in others texts Lem dared to criticize Borges quite vehemently.

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  5. Let me share Miguel's enthusiasm. We all have defining moments on our reading lives: for a lot of my friends, from many countries, Borges was one of them.

    I've forgotten almost all of what has happened to me, I've forgotten even where I first met my wife, but I still remember what the weather was like and the exact locations where I bought my first books by Nietzsche, Auden, Borges, Kipling, Rilke, Ritsos, Henry James, Flaubert, Machado de Assis, Faulkner, Cao Xueqin, Melville, Schopenhauer, Chuang Tzu, Kafka and Pu Song Ling: some of the happiest experiences of my life.

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  6. I haven't read all the stories in this collection yet, Tony, but I'm glad Borges was a short story writer and not a novelist–he packs so much into his stories that, entertaining and/or provocative as they usually are, I don't think I could ever finish a novel-length version of something like “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius.” There'd just be too much to digest! Anyway, glad you enjoyed your first in depth exposure to the maestro and I encourage you to check out some of his nonfiction at some point: erudite and witty and often more down to earth than his fiction.

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  7. Richard – I actually have a PDF copy of New Directions' 'Professor Borges', transcripts of some of his lectures on English literature, so it might not be long before I try the non-fiction 🙂

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  8. I read these years ago and had start my borges project I do hope to restart it and work through these again ,he is the master of the short form and also so influential it isn't to you read these you gather how much of a knock on effect he had even beyond the spanish speaking world ,all the best stu

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  9. If you want some more Borges, try The Book of Sand,containing stories written when he was in his 70s & described by him as blind man exercises and yet contain some fantastic tales in all senses of the word. Also in the penguin 20th century classics book there's The Gold of the Tigers, the 2nd half of the book and some more wonderful Borges poetry for you to read.

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