The seventeen pieces in Ficciones demonstrate the gargantuan powers of imagination, intelligence, and style of one of the greatest writers of this or any other century. Borges sends us on a journey into a compelling, bizarre, and profoundly resonant realm; we enter the fearful sphere of Pascal's abyss, the surreal and literal labyrinth of books, and the iconography of eternal return. More playful and approachable than the fictions themselves are Borges's Prologues, brief elucidations that offer the uninitiated a passageway into the whirlwind of Borges's genius and mirror the precision and potency of his intellect and inventiveness, his piercing irony, his skepticism, and his obsession with fantasy. To enter the worlds in Ficciones is to enter the mind of Jorge Luis Borges, wherein lies Heaven, Hell, and everything in between.
For instance, one story tells of a man that is facing the death sentence during World War II. After experiencing various emotions about his impending death, he realizes that the one thing he wishes more than any other is to be able to complete the drama he was composing. He prays to God for enough time to finish the task, and God grants his wish, if not in the way anticipated. At the moment that the bullets are fired, all motion around him ceases. He is able to live in his mind for years and years, until he has completed his masterpiece. At that moment, time resumes, and bullets cut him down. Or there is the story of a man that escapes to a forgotten temple ruin in the middle of the jungle, lays down, and dreams. His ambition is to dream another man into existence. He is successful, but becomes consumed with fear that his child will realize he is not like other men, that he is, in fact, just another man's dream. This anxiety is forgotten, however, when he finds that fire can not touch him, and learns that he himself is another man's dreamed creation.
Other stories transcend the individual level. Borges writes of the library of Babel, for instance, that is a never ending structure of connecting hexagons, ascending and descending into infinity. More astounding, though, are the books, which contain every possible piece of written text in all of time and history. Librarians work various sections of this institution, and have developed theories about life based on the library. Cults have been formed, pilgrimages undertaken, extremists and heretics have arisen, and even such crimes as murder have been committed, all in the pursuit of understanding the library. Contrast this to the tongue-in-cheek story about the cult of the Phoenix, a society of believers that can be found in all countries, all ethnicities, all periods of time, built solely around a simple secret tradition that some are too superstitious to even practice. Borges slyly neglects to describe what this secret is.
No one can deny Borges's genius as a writer. His short fiction is intelligent, inventive, and entirely his own. The closest comparison I can make to other writers is to those that write magical realism, because of the way Borges writes grandiose philosophical impossibilities and fantasies with such normality, as if he finds them not surprising at all, and neither should we. This is the type of literature that truly benefits from a close analytical study, which I did not do, but read straight through them instead. I still appreciated their artistry, and was engaged with the plots as well as the themes that I did glean, but I'm sure that I missed a great deal. The motif of literature, being bound by the written word and yet boundless, of the way it shapes us rather than us shaping it, of the various relationships between reader and text, between writer and text, and between writer and reader, is present throughout most of the stories. The power of language and writing is a theme Borges explores consistently. Also repeatedly evoked were the ideas of who we are in connection to our mental capacities, our philosophy and religion, and how what we create can take life beyond us. Borges likes to play with the vagaries of the mind. I am certain that there are many more metaphors and messages that others have discovered in these writings.
For this particular book, I would have liked a volume that had footnotes. Borges has so many references in his stories that I know I missed some of the meaning of the various works by not catching them all. I read one of the stories from this book - "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote" - in an anthology of short fiction, which was heavily annotated, and was able to understand a lot more of his obscure allusions, some of which did indeed pertain to the meaning of the story. I imagine I will have to make an exception and reread this collection at some point (I have so many books that I rarely reread, unless it's a particular favorite), with more time and resources devoted to it, to do the writing justice. As it is, I consider this high quality writing, very complex, and a worthy author to read for those wishing to expand their literary frontiers.
I read Borges for a class called Philosophy in Literature. While I'm not a total Philistine in literary matters, I would be lying if I said I caught half of Borges' references without having to look things up. Once I -did- look them up, my reading became much more enjoyable. Borges is utter nonsense unless you can figure out how to catch somehow the things he is throwing at you, and although I am sure that I've let the lion's share of the meaning in his work slip through my fingers on my first reading, what I did catch was delightful.
Borges is playful to the extreme. The stories in which he shines are those where he takes some strange idea and runs with it straight through. My favorite in the anthology has to be "Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote." The premise stripped bare of Borges' elaboration is idiotic, but the story is a great one none the less. I can hardly understand it.
While I read Ficciones I was constantly torn between crying out, "This is so stupid!" and "Oh god, this is genius!" at the exact same time. I'm inclined to think that his greatest stories are both.
There are also a few stories in Ficciones that are not nearly as interesting as the others. Perhaps if epic shorts like "Funes, the Memorious" had never been written, a story like "The Form of the Sword" would still be great fiction, but when compared to their neighbors, there are a few stories that do not incite nearly as much masochistic mental glee as the others.
Regardless, Borges is a master of imagination, and for that I tip my hat to him.
Here are the stories in this volume. The attached ratings are purely a reflection of my subjective enjoyment. My rating system is even more questionable when considering that at least some of the stories inform one another and often explore different facets of similar ideas (e.g. shared identities, labyrinths, etc.) The introduction to my 1993 Everyman's Library edition (by John Sturrock) is brilliant, shedding light on the author and providing insight into nearly every piece. It's well worth reading in advance of jumping in. I also recommend the Wikipedia entries.
* Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius - rare books are discovered which prove to have a very unusual relationship, and foreshadow the world's future. Love how mysteries unfold in this one, it's a great introduction to this master stylist. Note, 1947 was a future setting at the time of this story's writing. (5/5)
* The Approach to Al-Mu'tasim - Borges never wrote a novel ("laborious and impoverishing extravagance", he called them) and he gets around it here in a short story disguised as the review of a (fictional) novel. (4/5)
* Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote - literature is interpreted according to the time, place and by whom it was written. So much for objectivity. (4/5)
* The Circular Ruins - a man dreams another into existence. Later stories will have you circling back. (4/5)
* The Babylon Lottery - a story about A, where I thought he should have taken it to B. Turns out he'd thought of B, and this was actually about C. Got me there. (5/5)
* An Examination of the Works of Herbert Quain - interesting look at unusual story structures for novels, the flaws and pluses. The ending reveals its relevance. (3/5)
* The Library of Babel - this is all about the concept; an infinite (maybe) library with volumes containing every permutation of the alphabet. Incidentally there are experimental (fan?) web sites that simulate samples of this library's contents. (4/5)
* The Garden of Forking Paths - a German spy must somehow get a message to his superiors, with an agent close on his tail. (5/5)
I found the second portion "Artifices" to be not as strong. The stories in this half largely steer away from the thought experiments pattern:
* Funes, the Memorious - a man suffers from remembering every detail of his life. (4/5)
* The Form of the Sword - a Uruguayan immigrant explains the enormous scar on his face. (4/5)
* Theme of the Traitor and Hero - the details of a man's death find mysterious echoes in history and literature. (4/5)
* Death and the Compass - a Poirot-like sleuth follows the clues from three murders to anticipate a fourth. (5/5)
* The Secret Miracle - a man facing a firing squad makes one final request of God. (4/5)
* Three Versions of Judas - explores a theological idea involving Judas Iscariot of the Bible, and the fate of that idea's perpetrator. (3/5)
* The End - this was not a story I can fully appreciate, not having read the poem "Martin Fierro" that it is based upon and offers insight into. (3/5)
* The Sect of the Phoenix - an exercise demonstrating that virtually anything can be made mysterious if presented so. We see this all the time today on the Internet. (4/5)
* The South - as the author notes in his preface, this can be read as a straightforward story or in another way. You know if Borges puts a character in a sanatorium, things are going to get interesting. (4/5)
With few exceptions, these stories have made a lasting impression and their imagery will stick with me for a long time to come. That's not something I say after every short story collection I read. Read him for his influence on other artists, which has been far-reaching and pervasive. Perhaps he will influence you as well.
The provenance of this volume (can you call a paperback book a volume? I'd like to) was my aunt Catherine, on one of her remarkably frequent visits (she travels between Ireland and the west coast of the US more frequently than I make it to Seattle). She wanted me specifically to read The Library of Babel, which describes a universe comprised of an infinite library, hexagonal chamber after hexagonal chamber of books.
These are the literary equivalents of M.C. Escher drawings. There is an emphasis on impossible figures, impossible logic, impossible sequence. Cause and effect are reversed, dream and reality switched. There are time loops and secret societies.
Much of the content was composed in the 1940s, and aches with the barbarities of the Second World War. Borges' Europe is one of pogroms, his Argentina a surreal magic kingdom (not always benign) full of tall, dark strangers and wizards.
When you understand the twists of Borges' stories, it makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up in a thrill reminiscent of 'I see dead people.' If I understood it consistently, I would love the entire colection. But sometimes I just feel stupid.
Some of the stories are so deeply erudite as to be in effect hermetically sealed against casual readers. 'Three Versions of Judas', though only a few pages long, is a tortuous marathon of theology, rambling footnotes in French (untranslated), and Scandinavian/Protestant 20th century political-religious satire. The majority of the stories require careful attention and an eye for the subtleties of Borges' humor. As his reader, you are assumed to be well-read, to the point of making you feel distinctly under-read.
Borges thrives in describing off-kilter dream states. He explores sacred geometries—labyrinths, rhombuses—through which his characters move toward heroic or anti-heroic transformation. Weird stuff. Captivating, strange, difficult.
At times, I wondered if I was really up to the task of reading these stories. Even his introductions to them (the stories are in two sections) are occasionally intimidating. He understates: "One of [the stories], "The Babylon Lottery," is not entirely innocent of symbolism." Of another, he says, "let it suffice for me to suggest that it can be read as a direct narrative of novelistic events, and also in another way." These are like the intros to puzzles, which is certainly appropriate.
I tell you all of that to tell you that I'm not sure I'm properly equipped to really have an opinion on this book. I'm positive some of it (much of it?) went over my head, and there are layers of meaning I would only approach on re-reading. The stories defy simple one-line synopses, so I'll only talk about a couple of them. One of my favorites was "Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote," which is about a man determined to recreate Cervantes' masterpiece. Not reproduce, but recreate - he is trying to find a way to spontaneously write the same book (in the same archaic Spanish, of course). This leads to an amusing comparison between the works. The narrator of the story quotes Cervantes, and judges his words essentially unimaginative, but when the exact same words are quoted from Menard's version, "the idea is astounding." Parallels can be drawn to so many arts. Does it make a work more significant depending on who produced it and when? Does doing something the hard way make it more meaningful?
Another story I enjoyed was "The Library of Babel," about an infinite library containing all the books which can possibly be created. In this one, I found an echo of Lewis Carroll's words for Humpty Dumpty:
"'When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, 'it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.'
'The question is,' said Alice, 'whether you can make words mean so many different things.'"
Borges says, "An n number of possible languages makes use of the same vocabulary; in some of them, the symbol library admits of the correct definition ubiquitous and everlasting system of hexagonal galleries, but library is bread or pyramid or anything else, and the seven words which define it possess another value. You who read me, are you sure you understand my language?" (Especially rich for those of us who are reading in translation.)
Recommended for: people who like to use the word "meta," people who are interested in books that never existed, poetry lovers, non-believers in "reality," and people who enjoy cryptic crosswords.
I imagine the Buenos Aires of 1956, and suspect that what exists in my imagination shares little more than a name and perhaps a few incidental details (some pavement, a few trees) with the actual city in Argentina. Of course, my pavement and trees are unavoidably more Platonic than their counterparts in the southern hemisphere.
The Everyman's edition of Ficciones includes a chronology providing the interested reader with some biographical data of uneven relevance. There are some worthwhile facts. Borges was born on August 24, 1899. His first attempts at writing, imitating Cervantes, were made when he was six. But the fact that the first eight stories of Ficciones, published under the title, The Garden of Forking Paths, occurred in the same year as the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor is a conjunction of events whose significance is less obvious.
If we include the two Prologues, Ficciones contains nineteen fictions, the second being Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius. In Tlön's first sentence there are references to both a mirror and an encyclopedia. The former is promptly indicted as an abomination. The latter — a questionable attempt at universality — is a clue to the existence of an entire world.
The role of the character Herbert Ashe is inadvertent. With droll humor, we learn that Ashe is capable of long silences and that he is the quintessential tourist. "Every so many years, he went to England to visit — judging by the photographs he showed us — a sundial and some oak trees."
One of the schools in Tlön "has it that the history of the universe, which contains the history of our lives and the most tenuous details of them, is the handwriting produced by a minor god in order to communicate with a demon." The history of the universe, it seems, is very much like those photographs taken by Ashe.
Tlön is the world of Berkeley's metaphysics, minus one detail: God's all-seeing eye. "Things duplicate themselves in Tlön. They tend at the same time to efface themselves, to lose their detail when people forget them. The classic example is that of a stone threshold which lasted as long as it was visited by a beggar, and which faded from sight on his death. Occasionally, a few birds, a horse perhaps, have saved the ruins of an amphitheatre."
Borges' prose leans toward the cerebral. He was an autodidact who cultivated an idiosyncratic erudition that was probably as out of place in his own time as it is in ours. I wonder if in the future, when "English, French, and mere Spanish... disappear from this planet" and our world has become Tlön, will Borges be there?
But this review is not about bashing other authors. This review is about this wonderful collection of Borges short stories, essays, and what not. If you don't like Borges, you might not like this collection. If you are already a Borges fan, then you probably have read this piece.
What am I getting at, read it. Borges cannot be described in words, so I don't know why I even tried.
I think what distanced me was the style; it made for an emotionally arid experience. Some of the 17 shorts felt more like essays on imaginary subjects or puzzle pieces than stories; often they're pedantic, laden with literary allusions and including footnotes and even equations--yet rarely dialogue. At times the "I," present in most of these works, is identified as "Borges" himself and I found myself irked at times at such literary bagatelles--I couldn't sink into these stories. I (mildly) liked "The Circular Ruins," "The Garden of Forking Paths" and ""The Secret Miracle" (which is said to be the inspiration for the film, Inception) but by and large didn't find the stories engaging. Maybe something was lost in the translation? Also, after a while I found the plots rather predictable. When the twist came in "The Garden of Forking Paths" I wasn't the least bit surprised. The story might have had more impact if I'd read it in isolation, but by then a definite pattern had emerged. This anthology doesn't make me want to seek out more of Borges.
Almost every story has a revelation of sorts at the end, but one never knows what it is going to be, or if it happened at all, or if it was dreamt up or imagined. Noone writes like Borges did. Umberto Eco has tried, but whereas with his work one tends to feel lost and confused, out of one's depth in history, Borges always manages to write sharply, without wasting a word.
In Ficciones Borges has included nine short fictions in part one and ten even shorter works called "artifices" in part two. I like every story in the first part but my favorite has to be "The Library of Babel" which, for readers, has to encompass the notions of heaven and hell all in one twisted story.
The first story in this collection, "Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius, is an example of the importance of mirrors as it begins with the following sentence: "I owe the discovery of Uqbar to the conjunction of a mirror and an encyclopedia."(p 5). Additional stories share favorite places of Borges whether they be a garden in the case of "The Garden of Forking Paths", or the library as in "The Library of Babel". The latter of those two stories would have to be my favorite, and perhaps the favorite of many readers as readers who love libraries. Borges' library is a cheerless and even fearful place. With its incalculably vast size suggesting infinity it can seemingly be a nightmare more than a dream. Yet there is always the possibility of finding hope hidden in the vastness of infinite space. While Borges himself spent several years in a dull library job cataloging books the imaginary library of Babel seems to defy any cataloging. Just like a world reflected in a mirror, "absurdities are the norm" in this library while disorder reigns. Conundrums also abound as with the notion that everything that has already been written, yet there are always new and definitively different books that one may encounter.
The worlds depicted in Borges' stories are filled with blank spaces, the ideas and ideals are abstract rather than personal, yet they yield a personal response. Those unwilling or unable to fill in some of the blank spaces with their own imaginations may find something lacking. No amount of further writing would help though all of the stories are short, even as short stories go with the second part filled with "Artifices" that are typically no more than two or three pages long. Just as the stories beckon with suggestions of ruins, lotteries, libraries, and gardens; so do the artifices with titles that invite you to partake of death, miracles, swords, differing visions of Judas, and the rise of the Phoenix. Infinite libraries suggest stories from an imagination that also may have been infinite.
The world of Borges' fiction expands to encompass more than reality. These short narratives reveal conflicting emotions, motives, and desires shared by all humans and explore what he imagines as a tortured struggle for salvation or perhaps merely redemption. His genius gives rise to flights of the imagination unique in my experience. My love for these narratives stems from their presences as magical works of a literary master.
I'm going to have to read these again. They're so complex and multilayered and unbelievably rich. I don't think that anyone can claim to have extracted all of their meaning in one sitting.
And still, nothing about them even remotely sounds pretentious. Everything's so finely tuned and so well crafted - you never doubt that whatever you haven't quite grasped is entirely your fault.
Yes, I'm definitely reading it again. But for now, WOW.