In Progress: Ficciones (1)

Jorge Luis Borges

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”

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”
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”
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”
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.

On Film: Cría cuervos

Cría cuervos
1976 – Spain
Carlos Saura, writer & director

I’m going to be upfront and say that I didn’t enjoy watching Cría cuervos. Note the deliberate choice of verb there—I do not mean to say I think Cría cuervos is a bad film, on the contrary, I think it quite a good one, especially the more I think about it; it is just not a film that I take delight in.

My dissatisfaction in part I think is a measure of Saura’s success: he seeks to represent the tense family dynamics of a trio of sisters—most prominent the rebellious Ana, their aunt, and grandmother, largely confined behind the walls of their home and to strict societal expectations. The movie takes on a claustrophobic feel—everyone is trapped, there is no escape but death. It is bleak. There seems little hope. And so I couldn’t “enjoy” it, at least not in the traditional sense.

I will admit, I have almost no context for this film. I am almost completely unfamiliar with the history of 1970s Spain or with the cinema (European or otherwise) of the era. According to the accompanying DVD essay, Cría cuervos was filmed during the last days of the Franco regime. Did Saura mean for the sisters trapped by loss and rules to represent the Spanish people? Or is this a simple study of the relationships between family members made unhappy by circumstances beyond their control? Just as with literature, I suspect that good film has multiple layers and meaning that can be read depending on the viewer.

I watched Cría cuervos as part of the watchalong for Spanish Language Literature Month, hosted by Stu and Richard. Richard links to other opinions HERE.

Libros españoles – un proyecto nuevo

Yesterday marked the first day in three and one-half months (has it been that long, really?!) that I haven’t looked at my reading plans with the weight of The Silmarillion hanging over my head. Yes, that’s right, I’m finished! And lest you think that the length of time it took me to read it reflected the quality of the book, my one-word summary review: “awesome.” But more on that later this week.

Today instead I’m focusing on Stu’s and Richard’s Spanish Language Lit Month. I mentioned previously that I planned on participating, but it also seemed the perfect time to add another one of my project lists. I’ve had an interest in Spanish language books ever since our required summer reading for high school Spanish class (10th grade—Don Quixote, which I didn’t actually finish, whoops!; 11th—our choice of The House of Spirits, One Hundred Years of Solitude, or Fictions; 12th—La casa de Bernarda Alba). Some really good group reads over the past few years and I’m hooked. This is one of my longer lists to date, and I’m sure it will grow. As an explanation for the seemingly random nature of which books I hope to read in Spanish: for the moment, it’s those books for which I already have a Spanish copy.


  1. Bécquer, Gustavo Adolfo: Legends and Letters [Leyendas] (1871)
  2. Valera, Juan: Pepita Jimenéz (1874)
  3. Pérez Galdós, Benito: The Disinherited [La desheredada] (1881)
  4. Pérez Galdós, Benito: Fortunata y Jacinta (1887)
  5. Alas y Ureña, Leopoldo “Clarín”: The Regent’s Wife [La regenta] (1884-85)
  6. Pardo Bazán, Emilia: The Manors of Ulloa [Los pazos de Ulloa] (1886)
  7. Baroja, Pío: The Tree of Knowledge [El arbol de la ciencia] (1911)
  8. Unamuno, Miguel de: Mist [Niebla] (1914)
  9. García Lorca, Federico: Obras Escogidas (c. 1918-35)†§
  10. García Lorca, Federico: La casa de Bernarda Alba [The House of Bernarda Alba] (1936)*§
  11. Cela, Camilo José: The Hive [La colmena] (1951)
  12. Goytisolo, Juan: Fiestas (1958)§
  13. Martín-Santos, Luis: Time of Silence [Tiempo de silencio] (1962)
  14. Benet, Juan: Rusty Lances [Herrumbrosas lanzas] (1983)
  15. Marías, Javier: All Souls [Todas las almas] (1987)
  16. Marías, Javier: Your Face Tomorrow [Tu rostro mañana] (2002-07)
  17. Pérez-Reverte, Arturo: El capitán Alatriste [Captain Alatriste] (1996) §
  18. Pérez-Reverte, Arturo: Limpieza de sangre [Purity of Blood] (1997) §
  19. Pérez-Reverte, Arturo: El sol de Breda [The Sun over Breda] (1998) §
  20. Pérez-Reverte, Arturo: El oro del rey [The King’s Gold] (2000) §
  21. Delibes, Miguel: The Heretic [El hereje] (1998)
  22. Vila-Matas, Enrique: Bartleby and Co. [Bartleby y compañía]  (2000)
  23. Cercas, Javier: Soldiers of Salamis [Soldados de Salamina] (2001)
  24. Somoza, José Carlos: Lady Number Thirteen [La dama número trece] (2003)
  25. Ruiz Zafón, Carlos: The Shadow of the Wind [La sombra del viento] (2004)


  1. Echeverría, José Esteban Antonio: “The Captive” [“La cautiva”] (1837)
  2. Echeverría, José Esteban Antonio: “The Slaughterhouse” [“El matadero”] (1839)
  3. Sarmiento, Domingo Faustino: Facundo (1845)
  4. Hernández, José: Martín Fierro (1872-79)
  5. Arlt, Roberto: The Seven Madmen [Los siete locos] (1929)
  6. Borges, Jorge Luis: Ficciones (1962)
  7. Borges, Jorge Luis: The Book of Imaginary Beings [El libro de los seres imaginarios] (1969)
  8. Cortázar, Julio: Hopscotch [Rayuela] (1963)
  9. Puig, Manuel: Kiss of the Spider Woman [El beso de la mujer araña] (1976)
  10. Saer, Juan José: The Witness [El entenado] (1983)
  11. Eloy Martínez, Tomás: The Perón Novel [La novela de Perón] (1985)
  12. Eloy Martínez, Tomás: Santa Evita (1995)
  13. Eloy Martínez, Tomás: The Tango Singer [El cantor de tango] (2004)
  14. Piglia, Ricardo: Money to Burn [Plata quemada] (1997)


  1. Donoso, José: The Obscene Bird of Night [El obsceno pájaro de la noche] (1970)
  2. Allende, Isabel: La Casa de los espiritus [The House of the Spirits] (1982)*§
  3. Allende, Isabel: Of Love and Shadows [De amor y de sombra] (1987)
  4. Allende, Isabel: The Stories of Eva Luna [Cuentos de Eva Luna] (1989)
  5. Bolaño, Roberto: Nazi Literature in the Americas [Literatura Nazi en América] (1996)
  6. Bolaño, Roberto: Savage Detectives [Los detcctives salvajes] (1998)
  7. Bolaño, Roberto: 2666 (2004)


  1. García Márquez, Gabriel: No One Writes to the Colonel [El coronel no tiene quien le escriba] (1961)
  2. García Márquez, Gabriel: Cien años de soledad [One Hundred Years of Solitude] (1967)*§
  3. García Márquez, Gabriel: Autumn of the Patriarch [El otoño del patriarca] (1975)
  4. García Márquez, Gabriel: Chronicle of a Death Foretold [Crónica de una muerte anunciada] (1981)
  5. García Márquez, Gabriel: Love in the Time of Cholera [El amor en los tiempos del cólera] (1985)
  6. García Márquez, Gabriel: Clandestine in Chile [La aventura de Miguel Littín clandestino en Chile] (1986)
  7. Mutis, Álvaro: The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll [Empresas y tribulaciones de Maqroll el Gaviero]  (1993)
  8. Vallejo, Fernando: Our Lady of the Assassins [La virgen de los sicarios] (1994)


  1. Gómez de Avellaneda, Gertrudis: Sab (1841)
  2. Carpentier, Alejo: Kingdom of This World [El reino de este mundo] (1949)
  3. Carpentier, Alejo The Lost Steps [Los pasos perdidos] (1953)
  4. Cabrera Infante, Guillermo: Three Trapped Tigers [Tres tristes tigres] (1964)


  1. Asturias, Miguel Ángel: Mister President [El Señor Presidente]


  1. Azuela, Mariano: The Underdogs [Los de abajo] (1916)
  2. Paz, Octavio: The Labyrinth of Solitude [El laberinto de la soledad] (1950)
  3. Rulfo, Juan: Pedro Páramo (1955)
  4. Fuentes, Juan: La muerte de Artemio Cruz [The Death of Artemio Cruz] (1962) §
  5. Poniatowska, Elena: Massacre in Mexico [La noche de Tlateloloco] (1971)
  6. Esquivel, Laura: Like Water for Chocolate [Como agua para chocolate] (1989)
  7. Rivera-Garza, Cristina: No One Will See Me Cry [Nadie me verá llorar] (2003)


  1. Arguedas, José María: Deep Rivers [Los ríos profundos] (1958)
  2. Vargas Llosa, Mario: Los jefes/Los cachorros [The Chiefs and the Cubs] (1959) §
  3. Vargas Llosa, Mario: The Time of the Hero [La ciudad y los perros] (1962)
  4. Vargas Llosa, Mario: Conversation in the Cathedral [Conversación en la catedral] (1975)
  5. Vargas Llosa, Mario: La fiesta del chivo [The Feast of the Goat] (2000) §

Puerto Rico:

  1. Sánchez, Luis Rafael: Macho Camacho’s Beat [La guaracha del Macho Camacho] (1976)


  1. Onetti, Juan Carlos: A Brief Life [La vida breve] (1950)


  1. Gallegos, Rómulo: Doña Bárbara (1929)
  2. Parra, Teresa de la: Mama Blanca’s Memoirs [Memoria de Mamá Blanca] (1929)

Latin America:

  1. Menton, Seymour, ed.: El cuento hispanoamericano, vol. 1 & 2 (1964 ed.) §

I’ve tried to compile my list based on books I own, books I’ve heard good things about, and books that are on “best of” lists. As always, any comments, corrections, suggestions, or emendations are welcome! Needless to say, this is going to be a very long-term project.

* Indicates a reread
§ I hope to read in Spanish
Obras Escogida: An Anthology in the Original Spanish, Dell Publishing Co., Inc. (1965)