Ficciones by Jorge Luis Borges

Ficciones
Jorge Luis Borges
(1956 ed., Argentina)

In searching out my copies of One Hundred Years of Solitude (for a readalong I’m currently failing at) I found a sticky note on the front of the Spanish language edition. It my handwriting, “Read Ficciones first, then One Hundred Years of Solitude.” I don’t now recall why I wrote this instruction to myself. Was it a recommendation I ran across somewhere? Or was it the blurb on the front cover of my copy of Ficciones from Mexican author Carlos Fuentes, “Without Borges the modern Latin American novel simply would not exist”? I don’t know. Regardless, I had planned to read Ficciones this year anyways, in part for Richard’s (Caravana de recuerdos) 2020 Argentine literature event, so I pulled it off my shelf and began.

I’ve actually read the first four stories previously but was apparently not inspired to work further. For I find that Borges IS work—in a good way. These are not light afternoon garden parties of stories, they are morning lectures by an erudite professor. The more the reader puts in, the more they will be rewarded. The more the reader returns, the more there is to see.

An Argentinian by birth, Borges was of Spanish, Portuguese and English heritage. As a youth, his family moved to Switzerland and, after World War I, he traveled and lived throughout Europe for some years.  Over the years, his style would continue to develop, touching on fantasy, philosophy, and perhaps even, per some critics, containing the beginnings of Latin American realismo magico. (I see hints of it, but I’m hardly an expert.) It is evident from his stories that not was only was Borges well-traveled but well-read, on a wide range of topics. Returning to his work now, ­­eight years after my first attempt, I am grateful for the lapse of time, for it has given me the opportunity to encounter more of Borges’s references for myself—even if I am still woefully ignorant of many of them (i.e., Schopenhauer, who remains just a name to me).

As currently published, Ficciones is a collection of two volumes, The Garden of Forking Paths (1941) and Artifices (1944; 3 stories added to 1956 edition). I’m not sure I can quite explain it, but I found tonal differences between the two parts. It seems to me that The Garden of Forking Paths is more experimental, while Artifices is more straightforward, but no, that doesn’t seem quite right either. Perhaps I was just getting more “used” to Borges by the time I reached the second half. There are themes the recur throughout both halves: fictional books, fictional authors, fictional lands, mirrors, multiplications, labyrinths, libraries. Many of his stories could be classified as a type of fantasy, but not the fantasy that gets all the press – far more philosophical; I think that’s the right word. (I’m hampered here by my near-zero knowledge of philosophy. I know about Plato’s cave and that’s about it. Adding to the to-do list. If you have recommendations of where to start, please share!) There also at times seems something mathematical about it all.

The stories that attract me the most are the ones that have a non-fiction styling about them. The reviews of books that don’t exist (but that sound wondrously interesting). The memorials to authors who never walked this earth. The journalistic account of events that aren’t even possible, or couldn’t have possibly been observed. There is something delightful in the matter-of-fact tone in which they are written. It is something that suggests to me as well the idea of the absurd, of humor sprinkled throughout, even when the stories themselves may relate terrible things.

While there is much that could be said on these—and if I were to do this again, I’d perhaps write up something on each story as I go—for now, I’ll leave it with some thoughts on some of my favorites.

“Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote” (1939)

It is unnecessary to add that his aim was never to produce a mechanical transcription of the original; he did not propose to copy it. His admirable ambition was to produce pages which would coincide–word for word and line for line–with those of Miguel de Cervantes.

I found “Pierre Menard” to be on the surface one of the most absurd in its concept. It also may be my favorite. It is written as if it is a defense, published in a literary magazine, of the late (fictional) author Pierre Menard, whose most notable work, in the mind of the unnamed critic, was to write portions of Cervantes’ Don Quixote, but from his own head, not by copying it down. It seems a mind-boggling impossibility, and yet, it leads to some wonderful ideas regarding literary criticism and contextualization. Taking the concept at face value—had a Pierre Menard really produced Don Quixote in the early twentieth century, there truly would have been a completely different critical and contextual response to the work as compared to its seventeenth century counterpart. How could there not?

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

And at the same time, in its concluding paragraph, it reminds us that in our responses at readers, we read as if these very possibilities were so, for rare is the reader who only ever reads a book in relation to only what was written before without knowledge of all literature that has come after. Many wonderful ideas to consider.

 Menard (perhaps without wishing to) has enriched, by means of a new technique, the hesitant and rudimentary art of reading: the technique is one of deliberate anachronism and erroneous attributions. This technique, with its infinite applications, urges us to run through the Odyssey as if it were written after the Aeneid, and to read Le jardin du Centaure by Madame Henri Bachelier as if it were by Madame Henri Bachelier. This technique would fill the dullest books with adventure. Would not the attributing of The Imitation of Christ to Louis Ferdinand Céline or James Joyce be a sufficient renovation of its tenuous spiritual counsels?

 “The Circular Ruins” (1940)

The purpose which guided him was not impossible, though supernatural. He wanted to dream a man; he wanted to dream him in minute entirety and impose him on reality.

Of all the stories in the collection, “The Circular Ruins,” perhaps comes closest to our typical pop culture definition of “fantasy.” It tells the story of a man who determines to dream a man into physical being. I am reminded of the myth of Pygmalion, only our creator here seeks to create not of the substance of the earth, but of his mind. His process, his efforts, his results are laid out carefully, suggesting what could almost be called a realistic progression. It is a metaphor of creation, perhaps of the writing process, or any other art form, but perhaps it is a meditation on the ideas of religion and the many creation stories as well. Often, throughout his stories, Borges seems to venture into the realm of religion, but with a skeptical eye.

“The Garden of Forking Paths” (1941)

The last story of the first collection, “The Garden of Forking Paths,” seems at first a straightforward narrative. But as with so many of Borges’s stories, the payoff is in the conclusion. Never assume you know where you’re going until you get there (err…at least if you’re reading as inattentively as I am often guilty of). As with so many of the stories, themes of labyrinths, infinity, circularity recur. Did we have a concept of multiverse before Borges?

Then I reflected that all things happen, happen to one, precisely now. Century follows century, and things happen only in the present. There are countless men in the air, on land and at sea, and all that really happens happens to me.

“Death and the Compass” (1942)

In my notes, I call this a “proper mystery,” though perhaps that could be said of more than one of Borges’s stories. It is simple in its solution, though complex in its deduction. Like other stories in the Artifices half, I found it more straightforward to read. The narrative however, of a detective following a wickedly clever crime, meets me at my fondness for traditional detective fiction, but with the unmistakable markers of Borges still here: a multitude of references (he must have been so well read!), labyrinths, mirrors, Kabbalah, mysticism.

“The End” (1953) and
“The South” (1953)

While “The End” is earlier in the Artifices half of the  collection, the final story of Ficciones is “The South.” And yet it seems fitting for the order to be this way. “The End” is an imagining of the last chapter of Argentine epic Martin Fierro, while “The South” recounts the injury and recovery of a man who has just received a new copy of The Thousand and One Nights. At first, there seems no relation between the two, but as he recovers, Juan Dahlmann travels to the south of the country, the landscape begins to sound like that of “The End,” and we begin to see that perhaps the earlier story illuminates the conclusion of “The South.” Otherwise we are left with only a bit of foreshadowing to inform us. Unless of course, the seemingly straight-forward narrative of “The South” is not as it seems. Tantalizingly, there are several possibilities as to the actual nature, and truth of, the story, and the vagueness in which Borges leaves us seems a fitting end to the collection. (As a side note, with at least two stories in Ficciones referencing Martin Fierro, I have concluded that reading that epic poem needs to move up my “to read” list.)

These are not stories to be rushed through, but rather to be savored, meditated on, digested slowly. They are stories to return to as we grow as readers, to find ever something new, enjoy an ever better understanding. Looking back on the stories as I write this, I find that I want to return to them again, now, yet I think perhaps leaving some time to pass first, may be of infinite value, for how I may change as a reader, and in my understanding, can only promise new richness to come.

I read Ficciones as one of my Classics Club selections, for Richard’s 2020 Argentine Literature of Doom Event, as my selection “A Classic in Translation” for Back to the Classics and for Reading the Classics Challenge.

Completed: Silence

Cover: Silence by Shūsaku EndōSilence
Shūsaku Endō
Japan, 1966
William Johnston, translator
With a forward by Martin Scorsese
(Picador Modern Classics, New York, 2016)

Nearly the last book I finished in 2016, Silence was certainly among the most powerful I’ve read in the last few years. It is the story of two Portuguese Jesuit priests, desperate for word of their mentor and disbelieving that he could have apostatized, who sneak into 17th century Japan only to find a world vastly different from anything they have previously experienced. Told in the form of letters, 3rd person narrative, and diary entries, Silence is a powerful and thought-provoking investigation of faith and its testing.

I suppose I should simply cast from my mind these meaningless words of the coward; yet why does his plaintive voice pierce my breast with all the pain of a sharp needle? Why has Our Lord imposed this torture and this persecution on poor Japanese peasants? No, Kichijirō was trying to express something different, something even more sickening. The silence of God. Already twenty years have passed since the persecution broke out; the black soil of Japan has been filled with the lament of so many Christians; the red blood of priests has flowed profusely; the walls of the churches have fallen down; and in the face of this terrible and merciless sacrifice offered up to Him, God has remained silent. This was the problem that lay behind the plaintive question of Kichijirō. (Ch 4)

There are no easy answers here, and while it is clear that the Portuguese are out of their depth, tossed into a culture and mindset so different than that they have previously known and a persecution they were not truly prepared for, it also allows the reader to interrogate their own response: in the position of the priest or the Japanese Christian peasant would you act the same? What does it mean to renounce a belief outwardly but inwardly keep it; is this still an apostasy? Is there a penalty for faith hidden rather than professed? Endō does not tell us; in the end we are left to decide for ourselves.

 

Completed: The President [El Señor Presidente]

Cover: The President by Miguel Angel AsturiasThe President [El Señor Presidente]
Miguel Ángel Asturias
(Guatemala, 1946)
Frances Partridge, translator

It’s been months since I read The President and yet I find it still lingers. Parts may be fuzzy and vague, but details still stay sharp—elements of the plot, of the natures of the characters. Even scenes that seemed but loosely tied to the main line of the story still clank around my head. It is a powerful novel.

Señor! Señor! Heaven and earth are full of your glory! The women felt the divine power of their Beloved Deity. The more important priests paid him homage. The lawyers imagined they were attending one of Alfonso el Sabio’s tournaments. The diplomats, excellencies from Tiflis perhaps, put on grand airs as if they were at the court of the Sun King at Versailles. Native and foreign journalists congratulated themselves on being in the presence of a second Pericles. Señor! Señor! Heaven and earth are full of your glory! The poets felt they were in Athens, so they announced to the world at large. A sculptor of saintly figures imagined he was Phidias, smiled, rubbed his hands and turned his eyes to heaven when he heard the cheering in the streets in honour of their eminent ruler. Señor! Señor! Heaven and earth are full of your glory! A composer of funeral marches, a devotee of Bacchus and also of religion, craned his tomato-coloured face from a window to see what was happening in the street. (Chapter XIV, “Let the Whole World Sing!”)

The titular President shows up but little directly—just a scene here or there—but his presence haunts every moment, every interaction. He is authoritarian, a tyrant, and the poisonous atmosphere his government engenders enables those beneath him to be just as cruel and petty and vindictive. It is such cruelty that sets the plot in motion, as a group of homeless taunt one of their own. His instability will lead to an unexpected murder, which event enables others of more power and position—seeking to consolidate wealth or favor or power—to go after personal enemies, dragging along many innocent citizens in their wake. But there is one ray of hope in the story, in an unexpected romance between a favorite advisor of The President and the daughter of one of The President’s political enemies. Indeed, while The President is an illustration of how fear and lust for power or influence makes monsters of men, it also offers us the redeeming power of love.

The President is a novel set in a county never named, but imagined by many to be author Miguel Ángel Asturias’ native Guatemala. Perhaps Asturias left his setting unnamed to keep distance between himself and the politics at home, but leaving the country anonymous allows the reader to imagine any number of possibilities. This tyranny by man is non-specific, it is possible anywhere, everywhere, in anyone.

Originally intended as a Spanish Lit Month/August Classics Club Spin read, The President counts for the Back the to Classics Challenge as a title which has “been banned or censored”—although written in the 1920s and 30s it was delayed from publication until 1946 by the censorship of the Guatemalan government. It is also on my Classics Club and Libros Españoles project lists.

Completed: A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Cover: A Midsummer Night's Dream A Midsummer Night’s Dream
William Shakespeare
(c. 1594-1595, England)
Bantam Books, 1988
David Bevington, Ed.

Shall we their fond pageant see?
Lord, what fools these mortals be!

Puck, 3.2.114-115

My overwhelming impression of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, having finished it just in time for the start of summer (it’s taken me a bit extra time to write about), was that it is absolutely delightful! I don’t think I’ve ever thought that word, “delightful,” in connection with the works of Shakespeare before–there are plays I’ve enjoyed, adaptations I’ve revisited many times, but none I’ve experienced before this have provided for me quite the wonderful impression of magic and fairy tale that this one brings.

No doubt this is largely due to the plot thread involving Oberon and Titania, King and Queen of the fairies. They are feuding, and in spite, Oberon decides to use a potion to cause Titania to fall in love with the first creature she sees–no matter what it may be. But he also decides to play Cupid for two pairs of young Athenians–Hermia and Lysander, and Helena and Demetrius–that their loves woes  may be solved (at play’s start, both young men are in love with Hermia, though she loves Lysander and Helena loves Demetrius). Of course it doesn’t quite go to plan when his mischievous accomplice, Puck, applies the potion to the wrong young man. On the other hand, Oberon couldn’t be happier with the results with Titania–the first creature she should see on waking may be a man, but a fool of a man, Nick Bottom, whom Puck has only too appropriately just provided with an ass’s head.

Things base and vile, holding no quantity,
Love can transpose to form and dignity.
Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind,
And therefore is winged Cupid painted blind.
Nor hath Love’s mind of any judgement taste;
Wings, and no eyes, figure unheedy haste.
And therefore is Love said to be a child,
Because in choice he is so oft beguiled.

[Helena, 1.1.232-239]

Interwoven with all this are the threads of the marriage of King Theseus of Athens with Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons, and the theatrical production that a small group of local laborers–Bottom among them–wishes to put on as part of the wedding celebrations. The wedding story serves primarily as a framing device for the rest of the action–it is with this background that the young Athenians flee (or chase) into the forest, and it is later at the wedding celebrations that the “tedious brief scene of young Pyramus/And his love Thisbe; very tragical mirth” (5.1.56-57) is performed by our hapless players. I do feel in part that these last scenes, all of Act 5, feel out of place compared to the magic of the middle section. But on the other hand, as I watched the 1999 adaptation some days later (Michael Hoffman, dir.), this was the portion of the play that was most laugh out loud funny; the full effect of the haplessness of the amateur players is best seen rather than read. That does seem to be often the case with Shakespeare – I read the play, understand it, but finish feeling I still want more. At least with A Midsummer Night’s Dream it was not just a production that I wanted to see–but to experience more of the magic and delight that the forest provided. Thank goodness, there are always plenty of bookish solutions to that problem!

I read A Midsummer Night’s Dream as one of my Classics Club titles and for Shakespeare 400.

Completed: New Testament

BibleNew Testament
1st century

This was not the first time I’ve read the New Testament complete through, nor will it be the last, but I did want to keep a record here as part of my The Original Classics project list, and because of the literary heritage of the New Testament. I’m not sure of which section of the Bible—Old or New—is more commonly referenced in later literary sources. It does seem (going on my familiarity only) that direct quotations come more from the Old, but some of the stories of the New—the Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son, the crucifixion—recur again and again, not just in literature, but as general cultural touchstones.

Then there is the history side of things. Whether or not you believe that the stories of the Bible (Old or New Testaments) have any factual basis, it is undoubtedly a product of the Middle East, and watching world events unfold to this day, there is sometimes a stop when reading either section of the Bible—hey, that city is still in the news. As a current example, the apostle Paul spent a good deal of time in the present-day capital of Syria, Damascus.

Just as I did with the Old Testament a few years back, I used a semi-chronological approach to reading the New. This meant a lot of skipping back and forth among the four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John), and then some alternating between Acts and some of the Epistles. The chronological order reading is only approximate, as scholars aren’t always certain and/or don’t always agree as to when the various Epistles were written. As with the Old Testament, reading in this order helps give some context to the various parts of the New Testament. The book of Acts covers the early church period (starting with Jesus’ Ascension into Heaven), and much of the rest of the New Testament was written during this same time. We can trace the progress of the early theology, including the early debates as to how this new faith should or shouldn’t incorporate establish Jewish law (e.g, requirements of male circumcision or dietary laws).

Order I read NT:

  • Matthew/Mark/Luke/John (concurrently)
  • Acts, interspersed with:
    • James
    • Galatians
    • I Thessalonians
    • II Thessalonians
    • I Corinthians
    • Romans
  • Colossians
  • Philemon
  • Ephesians
  • Philippians
  • I Timothy
  • Titus
  • I Peter
  • Hebrews
  • II Timothy
  • II Peter
  • Jude
  • I John
  • II John
  • III John
  • Revelation

(Reading order source [pdf])

Although the Christian Church combines the two Testaments into one book, the Bible—and they have many strong relationships, with countless textual references in the New Testament back to the Old—it is interesting to note the differences between the two. While much of the Old Testament feels like “story”—Genesis, parts of Exodus and Numbers, Joshua, Judges, Ruth, Esther, parts of the Prophets, etc.—only the first five books of the New Testament (and perhaps Revelation, depending on your take) really have that element in the New. And the first four books, the Gospels, are frequently overlapping, as they tell the same overall story, that of Jesus, but tailored for different audiences. The bulk of the New Testament is made of the Epistles, letters written by the Apostles (or perhaps by later church leaders, depending on which scholar you believe) to various early churches. These touch on matters of Christian living and Christian theology, and can be more tricky to follow—especially if reading in the King James Version as I did—than a story. However, I noted this time the importance of repetition, familiarity, and study aids—those books I’ve read more often, or come across in Sunday School, were more readily accessible, even when my memory was of difficulty. This is a good lesson to apply, not just to the Bible but to any difficult book. Repetition, repetition, repetition! No wonder that some readers/writers advise reading the “great books” many times.

Of course, considering the length, societal importance, and complexity of the Bible, it’s not possible to take the whole thing in on one go anyway. There’s simply too much there, and just as any great book, it rewards many readings and every time a reader approaches it, they will take away something new. Add to this the multitude of ways in which it informs so many other works of literature, both sacred and secular, one understands why despite its status as a religious book, it continues solidly in the Western literary canon and why it continues to be taught even in secular context.