Sunday, 26 May 2013

'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  In this short piece, the narrator discusses the major unpublished work of Monsieur Menard, namely an attempt to rewrite Don Quixote - not to change it, or to transcribe it, but to rewrite it exactly as it is.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 :)