Ficciones by Jorge Luis Borges

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.

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.

Completed: Santa Evita

Santa Evita
Tomás Eloy Martínez
Argentina, 1995
Helen Lane, Translator
Alfred A. Knopf, 1996

Every story is, by definition unfaithful. Reality, as I’ve said, can’t be told or repeated. The only thing that can be done with reality is to invent it again.” (Chapter 4, “I am Giving Up the Honor, Not the Fight”, p. 83)

I was hooked by the description of the novel: a tale of the travels of the preserved corpse (and copies) of the body of Evita Perón, dispatched around Argentina and the world in an attempt by her (and her husband’s) enemies to keep ahead of her supportors, ardent in their devotion even after her death. With this intriguing premise in hand, I put it on order through my local library, but didn’t get to it before several posts went up at the end of September about the book (listed here). They all seemed to focus on one point, the discussion of reality versus fiction that takes place in the novel. At this point, I became worried, because I wasn’t sure I was in the mood for a book which focused on metafictional discussion rather than plot.

I needn’t have worried. I loved Santa Evita, I think as much for the very metaficiton I was afraid of, as for the bizarre story it told. I really can’t say how much of it is true. Eloy Martínez presents the story both as novel and as a representation of thorough research and interviews he claims to have conducted with those who knew Evita and those connected to the disappearance of her corpse. It reads not only as novel but as memoir of his interviews, as biography of a corpse and biography of a life. In the background, behind the metafiction and the traveling corpse, was a glimpse into the story of Evita-while-alive, from country girl to B-movie actress to adored First Lady. And reading this, the question that came to my mind was not, “How much of this (novel) is true?” but “Who was Evita?” Her enemies would paint her as whore, the adoring descamisados, as saint. Where between these extremes, did the real Evita lie? It is our inability to really know this, hidden as this “real Evita” is behind both legend and lies—of her own creation, of her enemies, of her admirers—that I see reflected in the tension between reality and fiction on the novel’s pages. Even setting myth-making aside, the difficulties of memory and reliable recollection pose difficulties for a biographer seeking to create an exact portrait. Thus it is not surprising that the pages of the tale should turn to a debate of the very meaning of “reality.”

The sources on which this novel is based are not altogether reliable, but only in the sense that this is true of reality and language as well: lapses of memory and imperfect truths have found their way into them.” (Chapter 6 “The Enemy is Lying in Wait”, p. 126)

It becomes a fascinating discussion.

The story of the novel, that of three journeys—Evita from young girl to First Lady, Evita the corpse from Buenos Aires to Milan, and Eloy Martínez in search of Evita—is also entertaining on its own merits. So many interesting characters and circumstances populate the book that in some ways I found it difficult to put down. I also found it a book to saver slowly, and was reluctant to ever pick it up if I only would have a few moments to read. Tomás Eloy Martínez’s writing captured me and before I had finished the novel I had already resolved to read more of his work, and Santa Evita again.