After the success of Fictions, my first exposure to the world of Jorge Luis Borges, I was always going to try more from the Argentine master of the short story. Luckily, my ever-wonderful library came up with the goods, in the form of a Penguin Classics edition with two collections included. Time to dive back into the world of the meta-fictional and meta-physical…
The Aleph, including the prose fictions from The Maker (translated by Andrew Hurley) has another two sets of early works from Borges. The first is a series of short stories, reminiscent of the collection The Garden of Forking Paths, while the second is much shorter, full of pieces which are almost examples of flash fiction at times. The Aleph, though, is the collection most similar in form to what I read a while back, and this similarity applies to the themes too.
The lead-off story, ‘The Immortal’, is a perfect example of this. It’s an intriguing tale, starting with that old Borgesian staple, an arcane document, one whose authenticity can be doubted, and it ends up as an improbable tale. A soldier searches for immortality in a story which turns the idea of eternal life on its head:
“Among the corollaries to the doctrine that there is no thing that is not counterbalanced by another, there is one that has little theoretical importance but that caused us, at the beginning or end of the tenth century, to scatter over the face of the earth. It may be summarized in these words: There is a river whose waters give immortality; somewhere there must be another river whose waters take it away.“
p.15, ‘The Immortal’ (Penguin Classics, 2000)
In a lovely twist, the characters here are searching for water which will take away the curse of immortality. Of course, we are once again faced with the dilemma of how much (and who) to believe in Borges’ elaborate stories within stories. Perhaps the document is just a hoax…
Many of the stories in The Aleph take place in the writer’s native Argentina, and there are many tales of macho men in the wild west (or south!). ‘The Dead Man’ is a neat little piece where a cocky gaucho thinks he can take down the big boss, little knowing that he is just a pawn in a bigger game. However ‘A Biography of Tadeo Isidoro Cruz’ is a much subtler story, one which ends up being entangled in real-life Argentine history. While the significance of the ending of this story (and many others) would sail right over the head of the average Anglophone reader, Hurley’s excellent notes help to explain exactly what is going on.
Borges is great at writing short stories with twists, and there are some very tricky endings here. In ‘The Dead Man’, the narrator discovers that a friend he remembers seems to have lived parallel, simultaneous lives, with different people remembering him in very different ways. In ‘Emma Zunz’, we have a well-constructed story of a woman taking revenge for her father’s demise. Her actions leading up to the end of the story seem incomprehensible, but on the final page we understand why she has done what she did.
Of course, it wouldn’t be Borges without a labyrinth or two, and there are plenty to be found in this collection. ‘Ibn Hakam al-Bokhari, Murdered in his Labyrinth’ is a story which doesn’t keep the reader waiting for the content of the piece; however, titles (and labyrinths) can be most deceiving. Another story with a maze is ‘The House of Asterion’, a brief, three-page tale of a ‘deity’ – one which seems a little bland until the final, fascinating twist 😉
The Maker is very different to The Aleph. It’s a lot shorter and consists of several brief pieces; a nice addition, but not really a book in its own right. The stories in this section, may not be quite as short as haikus, but they have a similar, thought-provoking effect.
Having also read Professor Borges recently (a translation of a series of lectures Borges gave on English literature), there were many familiar names and themes mentioned in The Maker. The writer appears to have an obsession with the promise King Harold gave to Harald Hardrada in 1066 of ‘six feet of English soil’, and he’s equally preoccupied with Don Quixote, Shakespeare and Anglo-Saxon poetry. One piece from The Maker combines a couple of his interests nicely – ‘Ragnarök’ is a story of the end of the gods (and mentions Samuel Taylor Coleridge, another of Borges’ literary obsessions…).
I enjoyed this collection a lot, and I only wish I’d had more time to peruse it at my leisure (unfortunately, I managed my time badly and had to hurry through my library copy). It’s a book to dip into and return to when you have an unhurried moment to devote to it – another time, perhaps 😉