In Progress: Ficciones (1)

Ficciones
Jorge Luis Borges
1962

As I glance down my blog front page, I realize I’ve been absent for a while, which unfortunately is reflective of the reading in my life as well. Surely with two short story collections on tap for the month, I’d have an easier time making progress? But despite my late spring desire to sink into The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Ficciones, they seem to have spent more time languishing than anything else. True, Holmes has been picked up frequently—the ease of dipping in and out of the stories makes this possible—but often only in two or three paragraph bursts. As for Ficciones, I made the unfortunate mistake of trying to start it on a day unconducive to reading of any sort, and Borges really requires attention.

I don’t often read short stories—in part because I never think of it, and in part because of my notions about their difficulty. Rather than difficult, the Sherlock Holmes stories represent the short story for Everyman–ready entertainment easy to dip in and out of as time allows—while Borges fulfills my preconceptions about short stories, only trebled in magnitude—that short stories are more difficult than novels, requiring more concentration and alertness of the reader, packed as they are with meaning and density.

In fact, finally returning to Borges yesterday, it occurred to me that 1) I think I’m making a poor job of reading these—I almost feel that they are over my head and 2) I think it will be easier to write multiple posts over groups of four or five stories rather than one big post when I’m finished with the set.

Ficciones is an anthology of seventeen short stories by Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986). The first eight were published together in 1941 as El Jardín de senderos que se bifurcan (The Garden of Forking Paths), to these were eventually added another nine and published under the title Ficciones (1944, 1956, English translation in 1962). The volume is said to be a good starting place for reading Borges, and is in fact my introduction to his work.

“Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”

1940
Alastair Reid, translator

Contact with Tlön and the ways of Tlön have disintegrated this world. … Now, in all memories, a fictitious past occupies the place of any other. We know nothing about it with any certainty, not even that it is false.

The longest of the four stories I’ve read so far, “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertuis” is divided into two parts. The first relates of a group of men hearing of the mysterious Uqbar and their search to learn more of this unknown land; in the second the narrator discovers an encyclopedia volume from Tlön, an hitherto unknown planet. But are these lands real or the products of the imagination of a group of eccentric scholars?

The most striking element of this story to me is the idea of history rewritten, modified—not just reinterpreted, but past itself changed. This perhaps not the major theme in the story—there are many philosophical discussions, none of which I am familiar with—but it seems to be a theme I have seen over and over again in Latin American literature. Mid-20th century Latin American literature has become known for “magical realism,” or the treating of fantastic as real; perhaps the real question is how can we know the difference, especially when those in control are the ones telling the story.

“The Approach to Al-Mu’tasim”

“El acercamiento a Almotásim”
1936
Anthony Kerrigan, translator

A short piece, this is a book review of The Approach to Al-Mu’tasim. Only The Approach to Al-Mu’tasim doesn’t actually exist. Borges’ “review” however, of a novel set in India and featuring a character in search for the mysterious Al-Mu’tasim, a man from whom clarity must emanate, does succeed in creating within the reader the wish that The Approach to Al-Mu’tasim actually existed.

“Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote”

“Pierre Menard, autor del Quijote”
1939
Anthony Bonner, translator

This is my favorite so far, and the story I found most humorous. The conceit is preposterous: the narrator sets out to defend his late friend Pierre Menard who wrote the 9th, 38th, and part of the 22nd chapters of Part I of Don Quixote, not by copying or memorizing, but completely by hard work and concentration. It is an idea almost impossible to wrap one’s head around, that someone by sheer force of will could write the exact same words as another centuries previous but independently, not as a copy. Even more ridiculous, that this “new” work could be “better” or “worse” than the original, even though all the words are exactly the same.

The text of Cervantes and that of Menard are verbally identical, but the second is almost infinitely richer.

It is absurd that something “identical” could be “richer”—is this Borges’ criticism of criticism? Or is it a commentary on the nature of the written word, that all work extends from previous works, that all writers are indebted to another?

Several nights ago, while leafing through Chapter XXVI–which he had never attempted–I recognized our friend’s style and, as it were, his voice in this exceptional phrase: the nymphs of the rivers, mournful and humid Echo.

I am reminded of J.R.R. Tolkien’s discussion on the impossibility of knowing the origins of fairy-tales (in his essay “On Fairy-stories”). Here there is almost a suggestion that it is impossible to know the origins of any story. A delight to read.

“The Circular Ruins”

“Las Ruinas Circulares”
1940
Anthony Bonner, translator

I have seen Borges described as a “fantasy” writer, and this is the first of the stories which I would come close to calling fantasy. (Although, I suppose truth be known, I’m a little vague on the boundaries of the concept. If I take Tolkien’s definition of “fairy-story,” I’m not sure any of the four stories I’ve read thus far would qualify in Tolkien’s view, as any fantastic elements seem to be ultimately explained away.) “The Circular Ruins” tells of a man who arrives at  a ruined temple and proceeds to spend many nights and days dreaming, trying to create a man “to impose him on reality” and of what happens when he succeeds.

This seems again to be questioning reality or at least the power of dreams.

I am curious as I read the next set of stories, if I will continue to see the same ideas of memory and history and reality or if every story will touch on something different. For that matter, will I begin to understand them any better?

I am reading Ficciones for Spanish Lit Month hosted by Stu and Richard, as one of my Classics Club Selections, and for my Libros españoles project list.

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12 Comments

  1. I read Ficciones at University and I understand completely where you’re coming from. At the time, I really enjoyed picking the stories apart with the support of the awesome lecturer who read them with us. She was great at guiding us through them, and without her I think we would’ve been very lost!

    Reply
    • Glad I’m not the only one! It sounds like it was a really good class. I think part of my problem is simply not knowing all the references Borges is making. I’m sure these are going to go on the “to reread” pile once I’m done. I don’t see how one read-through can be enough.

      Reply
  2. You’re really making me want to pick up my copy of this book again. My last encounter with Borges was in high school, and I was far from ready to pick up on the complexities of his work then. Actually, if I remember correctly, the paper I had to write about it was basically a quoting contest of everything the teacher had said in class. Oh well.
    I love how you perceive these stories: memory, time and identity are indeed a recurring topic in Borges’ writing. I love the way he mixes history with literature and comes up with something else entirely. ‘Pierre Menard’ is Borges at his finest.

    Reply
    • I can’t imagine trying to read Borges in high school! It’s challenging enough now… They certainly are unlike almost anything I’ve ever read.

      Thanks for the tip about the recurring themes. I’ll keep my eye out for them.

      Reply
  3. A great book and kudos on commenting on each story — a challenging task given the work. I’m adding this to my in progress classics list to read (or reread) and you can count on Sherlock Holmes being there as well.

    Reply
    • The Sherlock Holmes is certainly easier to read, although I don’t think I’ll be commenting on each of those stories–the difficulty of Ficciones merits the extra thought. Enjoy your (re)reads!

      Reply
  4. What a great book! It was my introduction to Borges too, I instantly fell in love with him. I’ve read all his short-stories since then, and some of his poetry, which isn’t bad. He considered himself mostly a poet. But what I really love to re-read are his essays and articles on literature – the man had a staggering erudition but he wasn’t a pedant; he just loved reading, and he didn’t have trouble saying he didn’t understand Finnegans Wake and stuff like that. So I don’t think you should worry. Most of the time, he’s being playful and not intellectual. Don’t try to think everything is full of references in his stories.

    Reply
    • Thanks! I didn’t know that Borges wrote poetry as well, and it’s interesting about his reading and intellect–certainly believable based on what I’ve read so far. I’ll try not too look too deeply for references, then, thank you.

      Reply
  5. Miguel is right – some of the references you are not getting are inventions or private jokes or smoke. Erudition as play.

    I would suggest that in “Pierre Menard” Borges is not criticizing criticism but extending its possibilities, treating criticism as an imaginative act.

    Reply
    • Thanks, Tom. I hadn’t even thought of inventions–no wonder I hadn’t heard of them! Also hadn’t thought of that interpretation of “Pierre Mendard,” but it certainly makes sense. It seems that Borges playfulness exceed mine!

      Reply
  6. So when can we have the pleasure of reading your thoughts on the other stories? :)

    Reply
    • Oh no, pressure to finish! :) Actually, it’s a good thing to remind me of, or I might just let the book sit gathering dust. I’ll try to get through them in the next month or so.

      Reply

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