This short story was published in The Book of Sand, but my review of that is too long, so this one is separate.
This has echoes of JLB’s The Library ofThis short story was published in The Book of Sand, but my review of that is too long, so this one is separate.
This has echoes of JLB’s The Library of Babel - and also Fight Club! There are interesting variations on familiar ideas, but it doesn’t hang together quite as well. I think I must have missed something more profound. (Suggestions welcome.)
An old man reminisces, thinking along Platonic lines (also cited in The Night of the Gifts, which is also in The Book of Sand) that knowing is really just recognising: being old “I find novelty neither interesting nor surprising… it’s little more than timid variations on what’s already been.”
(view spoiler)[He recalls being drawn into the mysterious and secretive Congress of the World, when he was a naïve young man from a poor background. As the only surviving member, he now feels able to tell his story.
Delegates do not ask questions, and are expected to discover the goals of the Congress “gradually, and without haste”. The apparent chairman, don Alejandro, might not really be. In the afterword, JLB mentions parallels with Kafka.
“All mankind are delegates”, but most never know. Even among those who do, they should represent everyone, but how to categorise when each person can represent several groups? One man might simultaneously be a rancher, a Uruguayan, a red-bearded man and a man sitting in an arm-chair. We’re into set theory. And that extends to the inevitable library the Congress will need, which must not be limited to reference, but should include “classics of every land and language”. Will this be an infinite library, like the one of Babel? It certainly grows – indiscriminately, perhaps in echo of Pliny’s theory “that there was no book so bad that it doesn’t contain some good”.
Don Alejandro builds an amphitheatre at his ranch, for Congress to use for meetings. The library is there, too. A guest room at his ranch has a dirt floor, but a silver basin. He reads the Bible to his uncomprehending workers, just as in The Gospel According to Mark (in Brodie's Report). What does this have to do with anything?
And what language should the Congress use? “That infinite language, English”, Esperanto, Latin, or something else? The narrator goes to research in England and someone else to Paris. In the British Library Reading Room, he meets Beatrice. They become lovers, but he doesn’t leave a forwarding address because he wants “to avoid the anguish of waiting for her letters”. It doesn’t really fit with the rest of the plot.
The narrator returns, and don Alejandro sells the ranch, disbands Congress and burns all the books!
“The Congress of the World began the instant the world itself began… There is no place it is not… We no longer need the Congress, but this last night we shall all go out to contemplate the Congress.” (hide spoiler)]
There is passing reference to a new library director, “a literary gentleman who has devoted himself to the study of antique languages, as though the languages of today were not sufficiently primitive, and to the demagogical glorification of an imaginary Buenos Aires of knife fighters.”
"Middle age: an urge to destroy because you cannot create any more."
"It was as if he hadn't really wanted freedom, only to assert his right to be free"Middle age: an urge to destroy because you cannot create any more."
"It was as if he hadn't really wanted freedom, only to assert his right to be free if he chose." Said of an escaped horse, but just as applicable to some of the human characters. And maybe to me, too.
I suppose this is historical fiction, albeit of a very recent kind, given that it's set before and around the time I was born. I have a casual fondness for English novels set in that period, usually among the slightly struggling, introspective middle class intelligentsia (Iris Murdoch, Margaret Drabble, Lynne Reid Banks, Penelope Fitzgerald, Elizabeth Taylor, Barbara Pym). It's only just occurred to me that perhaps I'm trying to glimpse something of my parents' past (they're both still alive). I certainly see parallels in some of these novels. The really good ones still speak truth today.
This shows its age in a few ways. Some are rather charming, such as a metaphor on the first page, "other people are under-developed negatives, snapshots" and saying, with embarrassment, that an unmarried couple "were lovers". Others are more discomforting: gender roles in general, attitudes to casual domestic violence, a friend who fears her Jewish heritage may be discovered, and phrases like "Sometimes I dreamed of dark rapists in romantic situations". The ending would be improbable nowadays, too.
The History of a Marriage
This is the story of Richard and Elizabeth's travels in Morocco: a week or two in the mid 1960s. It's interspersed with backstory of their childhoods and the course of their marriage of nearly 20 years, including two sons. She's around 38, but describes herself as middle aged. They seem comfortable with low-level discomfort in their relationship. Settled. Settled for second-best, perhaps.
"Our feelings for each other rattle around like cards in a spinning tombola... we draw out a card, not always appropriate, for each occasion."
"When we were first married, we argued with vain, angry faces, insisting that we should be understood... Now we don't want to be understood. The truth is too painful."
Inevitably, their past, present and future turn out to be more troubling and complex than is initially apparent: deaths, betrayals, and disappointments all lurk, waiting for the triggers: travel, heat, friends new and old. Some of the consequences are a little predictable, others much less so. The overall effect is plausible (mostly), dramatic, traumatic.
Elizabeth is the narrator - to the reader and to herself: she sometimes thinks of herself in the third person, imagining how others describe her, as "a way of giving myself some kind of shape. Or helping me to see myself." She was raised by two strong women (aunts), in a fiercely political home (Labour), got into Oxford, but dropped out to marry, and has lacked confidence ever since.
For all her self-analysis, she isn't always honest to herself, which makes her situation all the more poignant: "Nothing moved in me. Apart from a superficial, tactile pleasantness, I felt nothing at all." But not always: "I had only pretended I didn't know... a shabby mischance had... knocked down the precarious walls of my prison."
At times, she's trying to be someone she's not, but she doesn't even know quite who that is. I can relate to that.
We all need escape at times. a hobby, a holiday, friendships, an affair. There are no answers here, unfortunately.
Some of these are agonising:
* "You know other people only as witnesses to your own situation: when they reflect your own fears and desires."
* Looking in the mirror, "I remain, as I did then [when younger] cloudy, fading, sadly out of focus. I do not know myself, only my own situation."
* "I put out my hand. He took it and, after a second, handed it back to me like a discarded handkerchief."
* "Richard has great charm when he chooses to exert it... He bestowed his charm upon them [her aunts] like a beautiful and unexpected present: since they were old, the giving of it flattered him, not them."
* A younger partner was "too young to be a discarded husband... too old to be a son".
* We "sat silent, smoking to comfort our inferiority".
* "I shrank from his perfection... grateful for the darkness."
* "He discussed his symptoms with the self-absorbed vehemence of a young man to whom pain is a single, shocking insult, not feared as a forerunner of something worse."
* "I fell into deceit quite easily... The change was not so much in him, as in the way I saw him."
* "a gloomily devoted mother."
* "This is what a marriage should be... two people comforting each other in the dark. There's no need for love in the daylight."
* "Duty is a much easier conception" than love.
* "He began to cry. It seemed like a strategy." contrasted with "I wanted to weep but I felt nothing."
“It’s not the reading that matters, but the rereading.” So true of all JLB’s works
I have the Collected Fictions (with copious translator's notes), but“It’s not the reading that matters, but the rereading.” So true of all JLB’s works
I have the Collected Fictions (with copious translator's notes), but am splitting my review of that into its components, listed in publication order: Collected Fictions - all reviews. The Book of Sand is the eighth, published in 1975. This review should (later) include the four stories published Shakespeare’s Memory, the ninth, published in 1983.
After the generally quite straightforward stories of Brodie's Report, this is a (welcome) return to more mystical, metaphysical tales.
The Other 6*
“The encounter was real, but the other man spoke to me in a dream.”
How often have you wondered what you would tell your younger self, if you had the chance? Would your younger self take any notice? What else would you talk about? More importantly, would you give them a glimpse of “my past, which is now the future that awaits you”, and if you did, would you be constraining that future by doing so?
So many of JLB’s stories have semi-fictionalised aspects of himself, or a person meeting another version of themselves; this has both. But although it is described in pleasant terms, JLB says it was “almost horrific while it lasted” and mentions “elemental fear” and the “sleepless nights that followed”.
(view spoiler)[They talk about literature, of course (and family). Young JLB has recently read Dostoyevsky’s The Double, which is apt. It’s awkward, though: “We were too different, yet too alike. We could not deceive each other and that made conversation hard. Each of us was almost a caricature of the other.”
JLB realises “There was no point in giving advice,,, because the young man’s fate was to be the man that I am now.” He concludes that the meeting was real for him, but merely a dream for his younger self. (hide spoiler)]
This story is also an opportunity for JLB, by then in his mid-seventies, to appraise his life, work and influence. He’s quite harsh, saying he “wrote too many” books, including “poetry that will give you a pleasure that others will not fully share, and stories of a fantastical turn”.
A rarity in JLB’s writings: this features a woman – and as the subject of intense and sudden love and desire.
Ulrikke is a Norwegian with an air of “calm mystery”, staying in York, where she meets the narrator, “a celibate middle-aged man” who is a professor visiting from Columbia.
(view spoiler)[The tender one-night stand that ensues is idealised and ethereal but with signs of looming death. The bedroom is dark, with “a vague glass” and then “no more furniture, no more mirrors… Like sand, time sifted away. Ancient in the dimness flowed love, and for the first and last time, I possessed the image of Ulrikke”. As so often with JLB, the reader is left unsure how much of this is real, and if not, what it means: is Ulrikke the perfect woman or the yin to JLB’s yang, or something else altogether? (hide spoiler)]
The Congress 5*
This has a separate review because I ran out of words here: The Congress.
There are More Things 6*
"There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy." – Hamlet.
One of the homilies drummed into us at school was “Send postcards to people when they’re alive, not flowers when they’re dead”. In this, a man visits the former house of the dead uncle who taught him philosophy and “felt what we always feel when someone dies – the sad awareness, now futile, of how little it would have cost us to be more loving”. But this isn’t straightforward remembrance.
The house was auctioned and bought by a secretive foreigner for twice as much as anyone else offered. The purchaser dumped all the books and furniture, and tried (and failed) to get the original architect to remodel it. Others were brought in to do the work, which was completed in two weeks, overnight, and the owner was never seen again. It’s having dark fairytale qualities now.
The nephew is curious. In fact his curiosity has previously led him to “marriage to a woman utterly unlike myself… trying laudanum… into an exploration of transfinite numbers” and now this “terrifying adventure”.
“In order to truly see a thing, one must first understand it. An armchair implies the human body… scissors the act of cutting… The passenger does not see the same ship’s rigging as the crew. If we truly saw the universe, perhaps we would understand it.”
(view spoiler)[He visits the architect, who was a personal friend of his uncle, but he learns little, other than that the new owner is Jewish and wanted a “monstrosity” built in place of the original house. That night, he dreams of a labyrinth, and next day he visits the carpenter who did some of the refurbishments. He’s evasive: he says that the customer is always right, but that Preetorious was “not quite right”.
Over the next few days, the nephew walks around the boarded up house until, sheltering from a storm, he discovers the gate is unlocked and the door ajar. The floor is bare earth and the furniture is scattered – and strange.
“None of the insensate forms… corresponded to the human figure or any conceivable use. They inspired horror and revulsion.” It’s pertinent that this story is dedicated to H P Lovecraft.
Then he hears “something heavy and slow and plural. Curiosity got the better of fear, and I did not close my eyes.” Then it stops! Who, what, why did he see? (hide spoiler)]
The Sect of Thirty
“There is no man that does not carry out, wittingly or not, the plan traced by the All-Wise.”
I wish I believed in pre-destination: I could do whatever I liked, without fear of any more damnation that I would have had anyway – though I suppose the fact I think that condemns me in itself.
This is another story based on the discovery of a partial manuscript, in this case, a Christian sect of the name in the title. Their views, though varied (especially about death) and actions would be considered heretical by most Christians, and one aspect repulsive (and illegal) to all. But there is a Biblical logic, however twisted. I take it as a warning against fundamentalism, and especially looking so much at the details that you lose the broader context of right and wrong.
(view spoiler)[Their generosity to the poor means they do not even have clothes for themselves. Because looking at a woman lustfully is as sinful as having sex with her, and the former is impossible to suppress, they are promiscuous (what about lustful women, consent etc?). The sect’s name comes from Judas’ payment for betraying Jesus (thirty pieces of silver), and because all the participants in the crucifixion are unknown except for Judas and Jesus, “the sect venerates the two equally and absolves the others”. Crucifixion is key: in breach of the fifth commandment, members are crucified when they reach the age at which it happened to Jesus (thirty three). (hide spoiler)]
The Night of the Gifts
This revisits the Platonic idea that knowing is really just recognising because we’ve seen all things in some former world (see also The Congress, above).
When the narrator was nearly thirteen, he went to town on a Saturday night with an older labourer. Bars, dancing, drink, women… You can guess the gist, but it has a slightly unreal quality, especially towards the end, when you wonder how much of it was real, and how much embroidery. The narrator asks that question himself, drawing parallels with “the Captive” Indian girl and the story she told of the Indian raid that led her to her current situation.
Like “Undr” below and The Library of Babel (in The Garden of Forking Paths), this explores the paradox of infinity coupled with minimalism. More than that, it’s about the sacred danger of true beauty.
A king wants to be immortalised in song. He gives a poet a year to compose such a piece. The song is a triumph and the poet is given a silver mirror. He is also given another year to write an even better song.
(view spoiler)[In the second song, “the verses were strange… They were not a description of the battle, they were the battle.” But the king liked the obscurity of the verses and gave the poet a golden mask (is this like The Emperor’s New Clothes?). The third year, the poet returns with a single line. “The poet and the king mouthed the poem as though it were a secret supplication, or a blasphemy.” The kind is amazed that all wonders are encompassed so succinctly, but he and the poet now share “the sin of having known Beauty, which is a gift forbidden mankind”. The final gift is a dagger, which the poet dutifully uses as expected. The king “is a beggar who wanders the roads of Ireland, which once was his kingdom, and…has never spoken the poem again.” (hide spoiler)]
I’ve written so many words about JLB, and yet this story is all about encompassing a whole life, a whole word, in a single sound. How is that possible? How close can we get? Why would we try?
Like The Mirror and the Mask above and The Library of Babel (in The Garden of Forking Paths), this explores the paradox of infinity coupled with minimalism – and the peril of such perfection.
A man travels to a remote northern country where they have “true faith in Christ”. They carve runes of Odin (not very Christian), rather than writing on paper or parchment. Perhaps that is why “the poetry of the Urns is a poetry of a single word”. Carvings around the town are of different symbols, but all are, apparently, the Word (with a capital W – very Biblical).
(view spoiler)[The Urns are also prone to crucifying strangers (again, not very Christian). To avoid that fate, the traveller composes a laudatory poem. It seems to be well received: the king gives him a silver ring (but he glimpses a dagger under the king’s cushion). The next man presents a poem of a single word, and everyone is deeply moved by it. The traveller doesn’t catch the word, but another poet warns him he’ll die for hearing it, and helps him escape. He can’t tell the traveller the word because it is a sworn secret, “no one can teach another anything” and “You must seek it on your own”.
He travels for many years, eventually returning to find the poet and old man. On his deathbed, he tells the traveller a single Word, and in it, he sees everything: the poet’s life and his own. Then he picks up the harp and composes his own single word, demonstrating he has understood. (hide spoiler)]
A Weary Man’s Utopia 6*
A glimpse of a possible, simpler, future, but I’m not sure it’s one I’d want to live in, even if there were no poverty or war. I’m reminded of Le Guin’s short story The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas. The ending has an unexpected punch.
A traveller meets a very tall man with “peculiar eyes” who realises, by the clothing that the traveller has come from another time. The only common language they can find is Latin: “The diversity of languages encouraged the diversity of nations… the earth has returned to Latin.” Esperanto has no place in this vision (it was rejected in The Congress, above, as well).
For a utopia, envisaged by a writer, there are some surprising features, especially regarding books. On the other hand, is does presage some of the downsides of the internet – despite being published in 1975.
“No one cares about facts anymore. They are mere points of departure for speculation and exercises in creativity. In school, we are taught Doubt, and the Art of Forgetting.” There are no libraries or museums because “we want to forget the past” and “Each person must produce on his own the arts and sciences that he has need for… Every man must be his own Bernard Shaw, his own Jesus Christ, and his own Archimedes”. That sounds inefficient and solitary. “We live in time, which is successive, but we try to live sub aeternitatis” [under eternity].
“It’s not the reading that matters, but the rereading”: the old man has not read more than half a dozen books in his four hundred year life. Similarly, printing has been banned “for it tended to multiply unnecessary tests to a dizzying degree”. A brief trawl of the internet shows the truth of that, and the potential for information overload: “All this was no sooner read than forgotten… blotted out by new trivialities.” “People believed only what they could read on the printed page” – and boy do they believe: it was on a website or in an email that said it was reported on CNN, so it must be true. “esse est percipi - to be is to be portrayed”: selfies and general online validation, yep JLB saw that too.
In this utopia, there is of course, no poverty – and therefore no “vulgar wealth”, and indeed, no money. Governments “gradually fell into disuse (some former politicians found success as comedians and witch doctors!). Space travel ceased when “we found we could never escape the here and now… every journey is a journey through space”.
It sounds lonely, though: each person has only one child, and the old man lives alone; “When an individual has reached a hundred years of age, he is able to do without love and friendship” – but why would he? Being the master of your own life also means being the master of your own death, but this is no Soylent Green scenario; each chooses their own time.
After the leisured description of this time/place, there is a neat but shocking ending to the story. (view spoiler)[The traveller sees strange art that is “almost blank… painted with colours that your ancient eyes cannot see”. He is given one as “a souvenir of a future friend”. Then others arrive, help the old man strip the house and they all walk off to the crematory: “The death chamber… was invented by a philanthropist whose name, I believe, was Adolf Hitler.” Such a subtle way to make the point that Martin Amis was perhaps trying to make in the crass Time’s Arrow and Vonnegut did rather better in Slaughterhouse Five. “In my study… still hangs the canvas that someone will paint, thousands of years from now, with substances that rea now scattered across the plant.” (hide spoiler)]
In the afterword, JLB says this is an exploration of “Americans’ obsession with ethics”; he reckons “it couldn’t have happened anywhere else”. I’m not sure about that, but nevertheless, it’s a straightforward short story of university politics – no mystical allusions in this one. Dr Winthrop has to pick one of two candidates to chair a conference. The characters and relative merits of the two candidates were rather dull – until I realised the twist of the tale.
(view spoiler)[One of the candidates realises Dr Winthrop will strive to be impartial – and to be seen as such. So he publishes a paper criticising Dr Winthrop’s work, on the assumption that will get him the job. “Written in the correct English of the non-native speaker, never stooped to incivility, yet it did have a certain belligerence… Not once was Winthrop’s name mentioned, but Winthrop felt persistently attacked.” It worked, and the winner then goes to Winthrop to tell him! They conclude they share the sin of vanity: one boasting of his strategy, and the other proud of his integrity. (hide spoiler)]
This is based on a historical event, outlined in the notes. However, it works quite well as a story, even without that knowledge.
Arredondo says farewell to his friends and sweetheart, saying he’s going away. However, he’s really hiding in his back room, reading the Bible (having sold all his other books), but without trying to understand it. There is an unexplained deadline of August 25 (which is the title of a story in Shakespeare’s Memory, below), though we’re told he won’t finish reading the Bible, and there are chaotic games of chess, with missing pieces, that won’t end. “He missed his friends terribly, though he knew without bitterness that they didn’t miss him.”
(view spoiler)[It was all preparation for assassinating the president – though he had to ask who he was, to be sure he shot the right man! He cut himself off from friends and newspapers so they could not be blamed. (hide spoiler)]
Greed, futility, loneliness, magic. An old woodcutter lets a traveller into his hut. The traveller has the disk of Odin, which is unique because it has only one side. It also makes him king. The woodcutter can’t see it when the king opens his palm, but he can feel it, and he thinks he catches a glint.
A travelling Bible salesman sells a holy book from India, The Book of Sand, so called because “neither sand nor this book has a beginning or an end”. It is like The Library of Babel (in The Garden of Forking Paths) in miniature. It is written in an unknown script, with occasionally illustrations, and page numbers that are non-sequential and change every time.
“If space is infinite, we are anywhere, at any point in space. If time is infinite, we are at any point in time.”
(view spoiler)[They buyer/narrator/JLB cipher tells no one what he has bought. He fears theft, but also the possible discovery that the book is not actually infinite. He becomes an obsessive recluse: the book is monstrous, and so is he - like Gollum and his “precious”, and of course JLB’s own story of The Zahir, in The Aleph.
“It defiled and corrupted reality”. What to do? “I considered fire, but I feared that the burning of an infinite book might be similarly infinite.” He eventually hides it in a shady corner of the national library. (hide spoiler)]
• “America, hobbled by the superstition of democracy, can’t make up its mind whether to be a democracy.”
• “The miraculous inspires fear.”
• On blindness, he is “able to see the colour yellow, and light and shadow. But don’t worry. Gradual blindness is not tragic. It’s like the slowly growing darkness of a summer evening.”
• “Indecisiveness or oversight, or perhaps other reasons, let to my never marrying.” • • “Love that flows in shadow, like a secret river.”
• “Time – that infinite web of yesterday, today, the future, forever, never – is the only true enigma.”
• “In time, one inevitable comes to resemble one’s enemies.”
• “His face would have been anonymous had it not been rescued by his eyes, which were both sleepy and full of energy.”
• Newspapers are “museums of ephemera”.
”Impressions, momentary and vivid, would wash over him.” and then they wash over the reader.
I have the Collected Fictions (with copious translator's n”Impressions, momentary and vivid, would wash over him.” and then they wash over the reader.
I have the Collected Fictions (with copious translator's notes), but am splitting my review of that into its components, listed in publication order: Collected Fictions - all reviews.
Dreamtigers, aka The Maker, is the fifth, published in 1960, and I’m including reviews of two pieces published under the title Museum, and the four prose pieces from In Praise of Darkness, published in 1969.
Brevity and Blindness
These pieces have many of the same elements as previous ones, but are mostly short – very short indeed. Each is a bubble of an idea, rather than a story. They’re intriguing, enticing and thought-provoking as always, but I slightly prefer the longer forms contained in The Garden of Forking Paths, Artifices and the Aleph. Part way through, I thought this collection may get only 4* from me, but the final pieces tipped me over well into 5* territory.
Those in Dreamtigers were published five years after Borges became completely blind, which may be a factor (he never learned Braille), and the loss and confusion of blindness is mentioned explicitly and tangentially in several. Mentions of mortality feel more imminent and personal than in his earlier writings.
The Afterword anticipates that after a lifetime drawing the world, “A short time before he dies, he discovers that the patient labyrinth of lines traces the lineaments of his own face.” (Borges lived another 25 years after this, during which time he continued to write and publish.)
DREAMTIGERS / THE MAKER 6*
This is a collection of impressions, like a prose poem describing a prose poem. It’s written in the third person, but like many of Borges' writings, the protagonist is a version of the author – especially as this refers to the (recent) horror of blindness. Although it’s described in unemotional terms, I wanted to shed a tear on his behalf:
“Gradually, the splendid universe began drawing away from him; a stubborn fog blurred the lines of his hand; the night lost its peopling stars, the earth became uncertain under his feet. Everything grew distant, and indistinct.”
Having loved tigers as a child (they're a recurring presence is Borges' writings), he is unable to summon them in his dreams. How much of what we dream of ever comes true? How much of that is fate, and how much our own fault?
A Dialog about a Dialog
A short, recursive discussion, wondering whether suicide is the way to prove (or disprove) immortality.
A paragraph comparing their pointlessness with the fact they will outlive the author. But we all die, so are our lives pointless too?
A childhood fear of mirrors is passed on to another, with sad consequences.
“I knew that horror of the special duplication and multiplication of reality” and especially did not want to dream about them. “The constant, infallible functioning of mirrors, the way they followed my every movement, their cosmic pantomime, would seem eerie to me… I feared sometimes that they would begin to veer off from reality” – and sometimes they did.
God exists because Borges does not know how many birds he saw! Perhaps.
Nature versus nurture and the trouble of being torn between two cultures. Is it ever possible to fit in anywhere? (view spoiler)[A boy is taken by Indians, and found years later. He’s pleased to recover a knife he hid in his house as a boy, but doesn’t want to live constrained by walls, so leaves, we know not where. “I would like to know what he felt in that moment of vertigo when past and present intermingled.” (hide spoiler)]
This has echoes of Story of the Warrior and the Captive Maiden (in The Aleph) and The Ethnographer (lower down this review).
A weird scam involving charging people to view a fake body that may be (but is not) Eva Peron!
Delia Elena San Marco
Remembering a dead lover. “Men invented farewells because they somehow knew themselves to be immortal even while seeing themselves as contingent and ephemeral.” I’m not sure I follow the logic of that.
A Dialog Between Dead Men
Thoughts on Argentinian history, comparing fame and their effect on posterity.
“Fate is partial to repetitions, variations, symmetries.” Nineteen centuries after Brutus murdered Caesar, a gaucho is murdered by a godson he fails to recognise. “He does not know that he has died so that a scene can be played out again.” But why is played out again – is it necessary or inevitable?
The innovative conceit about the second part of Don Quixote is that it was published after fraudulent sequels. Cervantes assumes that the original story was true, and that he is writing to set the record straight.
Borges’ piece extends the idea of Don Quixote being real. He imagines finding a missing fragment in which Don Quixote kills someone. But it’s a fragment, and Borges ponders how Quixote would have reacted to such an act.
The Yellow Rose
The impossibility of words to express things – which is even more poignant when you remember Borges was blind by the time he wrote this.
“He realized that it [the rose] lay within its own eternity, not within his words, and that we might speak about the rose, allude to it, but never truly express it, and that the tall, haughty volumes that made a golden dimness in the corner of his room were not (as his vanity had dreamed them) a mirror of the world, but just another thing added to the world’s contents.”
He considers those who may have reached full understanding by death – though he himself, lived another 25 years or so.
When the last witness of an event dies, in what sense does it exist? (The falling tree in the empty forest, again.)
Is that a reason to do less – or more? Borges may not live on through his genes, but his thoughts and some of his memories live on in his writing. He so often pondered immortality, and he’s far closer to it than I will ever be.
Grim glimpses of civil war in Argentina.
“Cross, rope, and arrow: ancient implements of mankind, today reduced, or elevated, to symbols.”
It’s often said that in the 21st century, we live in a very visual age (have those who say it considered Ancient Egypt?). Borges got there first.
“No one knows what sort of image the future may translate it into.”
Parable of Cervantes and the Quixote
“In the beginning of literature, there is myth, as there is also at the end of it.”
Cervantes outlived Don Quixote by only a short time: “For both the dreamer and the dreamed, that entire adventure had been the clash of two worlds: the unreal world of romances and the common everyday world of the seventeenth century.”
God is fragmented and scattered. Will we recognise God if we see him, or might we misinterpret someone or something else as God?
Parable of the Palace
A poet emperor gets lost in a labyrinth that has possibly magical qualities: “The real merged and mingled with the dreamed – or the real, rather, was one of the shapes the dream took.”
A poem becomes a synecdoche for the entire palace – but what if the world cannot contain two identical things?
Everything and Nothing 6*
Have you ever felt something was missing? An aching emptiness inside? This is an agonising vignette, with a twist.
“There was no one inside him… there was no more than a slight chill, a dream someone had failed to dream.” So “He trained himself to the habit of feigning that he was somebody, so that his ‘nobodiness’ might not be discovered.”
The man meets God and discovers that God has existential issues too: “I, who have been so many men in vain, wish to be one, to be myself. God’s voice answered him out of a whirlwind: I, too, am not I; I dreamed the world as you, (view spoiler)[Shakespeare, (hide spoiler)] dreamed your own work, and among the forms of my dream are you, who like me are many, yet no one.”
Coleridge said “We do not feel horror because we are haunted by a sphinx, we dream of a sphinx in order to explain the horror that we feel.”
Does that explain how one can dream the return of banished and corrupted gods?
Inferno, I, 32
If you suffer profoundly in life (perhaps by losing your sight?) would knowing there was some higher purpose to your suffering make it more bearable? Even if it did, if you then forgot the revelation, would any comfort from it remain?
These questions are applied to a captive leopard who inspires a single line of a great poem.
Borges and I
Duality and identity. This opens, “It’s Borges, the other one, that things happen to” and ends, “I’m not sure which of us it is that’s writing this page.”
MUSEUM: On Exactitude in Science
The first of two pieces from “Museum”. A perfect map is unappreciated, thus futile. In this case, it’s a literal (very literal) map, but what about more metaphorical ones? Perhaps we shouldn’t always dig so deep.
MUSEUM: In Memorium, JFK
The second of two pieces from “Museum”. Doom and inevitability: man killing man has happened throughout history and will continue.
IN PRAISE OF DARKNESS, 1969 6*
My edition of the Collected Fictions includes only the four prose elements of In Praise of Darkness, which was evidently mainly poetry.
The Ethnographer 6* (from In Praise of Darkness)
“The secret is not as important as the paths that led me to it.”
A student goes to live with Indians to learn about them and to gather material for his dissertation. The experience changes him. “He came to think in a fashion that the logic of his mind rejected.”
There’s a mystical angle, too: he learns their secret doctrine and returns to university, but resolves never to divulge it: he “could tell it in a hundred different and even contradictory ways… the secret is beautiful, and science, our science, seems mere frivolity to me now.” How can he ever belong anywhere? But if that’s a problem, is the insularity the logical conclusion?! (I hope not.)
This has echoes of Story of the Warrior and the Captive Maiden (in The Aleph) and The Captive (further up this review).
Pedro Salvadores (from In Praise of Darkness)
“We see the fate of Pedro Salvadores, like all things, as a symbol of something that we are just on the verge of understanding.”
He hides in his cellar – for nine years - while his wife lives openly above.
Legend (from In Praise of Darkness)
“Forgetting is forgiving” and “So long as remorse lasts, guilt lasts.”
Almost unbearably poignant, bearing in mind that Borges was aged ~60 and had gone totally blind about 5 years earlier. He is attempting “a prayer that is personal, not inherited” – a conundrum he doesn’t really solve.
“Asking that my eyes not be filled with night would be madness; I know of thousands of people who can see, yet who are not particularly happy, just, or wise.”
“Time’s march is a web of causes and effects, and asking for any gift of mercy… is to ask for that link to be broken… that it is already broken.” (Shades of Ambrose Bierce’s famous definition from The Devil’s Dictionary: Pray, v. To ask that the laws of the universe be annulled in behalf of a single petitioner, confessedly unworthy.)
“Nor can I plead that my trespasses be forgiven; forgiveness is the act of another, and only I can save myself.”
“Free will is perhaps illusory.”
“I want to be remembered less as poet than as friend.”
“I hope that oblivion will not long delay.” (It did.)
His End and His Beginning (from In Praise of Darkness)
More painful beauty about blindness and imagining (hoping for?) death, and ending with acceptance.
“Familiar faces gradually blurred and faded, objects and people slowly abandoned him. His mind seized upon those changing shapes in a frenzy of tenacity.”
And it gets worse: “He was unable to remember the shapes, sounds, and colors of his dreams… nor were the dreams dreams. They were his reality, a reality beyond silence and sight, and therefore beyond memory.”
For a long time, “He never suspected the truth; it burst upon him suddenly”, but he came to realise “It was his duty to leave all these things behind; now he belonged to this new world, removed from past, present, and future.” He endures various agonies and then realises (view spoiler)[”Since the moment of his death, he had been in heaven (hide spoiler)].
• “He had listened to the complex stories, which he took in as reality – without asking whether they were true or false.”
”I can’t say whether the story was true; the important thing… was that it had been told and believed.”
I have the Collected Fictions (with copious tran”I can’t say whether the story was true; the important thing… was that it had been told and believed.”
I have the Collected Fictions (with copious translator's notes), but am splitting my review of that into its components, listed in publication order: Collected Fictions - all reviews. This is the seventh, published in 1970.
The Encounter is a crucial story, describing a seminal episode in JLB’s childhood, suggesting the roots of so many of his recurring themes.
This prepares the chronological reader for a significant change of style: these are “plain tales” that avoid unexpected endings, in the mould of Kipling. JLB asserts that he (JLB) is not “a fabulist or spinner of parables” and that his tales “are intended not to persuade readers, but to entertain and touch them.”
Most have an introductory section, explaining the (allegedly true) roots of the story, while conceding he may yield “to the literary temptation to heighten or insert the occasional small detail”.
“For many years I believed that it would be my fortune to achieve literature through variations and novelties; now that I am seventy years old I think I have found my own voice.”
I confess I was slightly disappointed; this led me to expect something closer to A Universal History of Iniquity than the more extraordinary pieces in between that and this. But I was heartened by the fact they are set “at some distance in both time and space” and that although they are “realistic… two of the stories… can be opened with the same fantastic key… I am decidedly monotonous.” Having finished this collection, they are deeper and more mysterious than those in A Universal History, but more straightforward than those in between.
For all that these are “plain”, two stories suggest the importance of imagination. In The Other Duel, it’s the familiarity of killing animals and the lack of imagination that makes killing people so easy, and in Brodie’s Report, the Yahoos’ “lack of imagination makes them cruel”.
He makes no mention here or in the stories themselves of his blindness (unlike In Praise of Darkness, reviewed as part of Dreamtigers). I suppose he was long used to it by then.
This concerns knife fighters in harsh neighbourhoods. Familiar territory, but not really my thing. I assumed (incorrectly) that this would set the tone for all those that followed.
Fortunately, this was deeper and more complex than it seemed at first sight. Unfortunately, it was pretty grim.
Brothers (who might be deemed “white trash” in the US) are very close: “falling out with one of them was to earn yourself two enemies”. The eponymous interloper is a woman, who cleaves them (in both senses) to/from each other. (view spoiler)[One marries her (more for service than a relationship), but the other loves her too (though I would dispute the word “love”). They agree to share her: “If you want her, use her”! There is no mention of her opinion, but she does what’s demanded “with beast-like submissiveness.” When jealousy becomes too much, they sell her to a brothel, but both sneak out to visit her there, so they buy her back. More jealousy. So they kill her. “Now they were linked by yet another bond: the woman grievously sacrificed, and the obligation to forget her.” (hide spoiler)]
They are dreadful men, who treat women appallingly. There’s no suggestion JLB approves, but it still left a nasty taste.
The notes mention a queer interpretation of this (and some of his others), which makes one see it in a whole new light. However, other sources say it’s based on a true story of friends; by switching the protagonists to be brothers, JLB seems to be ruling out a sexual triangle.
Class, friendship, betrayal, and reformation – about a Jewish boy, but with Biblical echoes.
A respectable bookshop owner was an unlikely gang member in his teens. He was shy, red-headed, Jewish, and wanted to fit in (he changed his first name to something more Catholic). When his mother and aunt were insulted, gangster Ferrari stepped in. Young Fischbein was impressed (the women were more equivocal: “a gentleman that demands respect for ladies” or “a ruffian who won’t allow competition”?), and is taken under the wing of Ferrari.
Which of them is unworthy of the other?
At first, Fischbein denies his friendship with Ferrari for fear it would be bragging. Then things take a more definite turn, for unspecified reasons. (view spoiler)[He tips off the police about a planned robbery, and Ferrari is killed. He doesn’t even seem to feel much guilt, despite the fact that at the time he saw Ferrrari as a god, and with hindsight as “a poor kid, misguided and betrayed”. (hide spoiler)]
The Story from Rosendo Juarez
This is another version of Man on Pink Corner, from A Universal History of Iniquity. Both include the line “Rosendo, I think you’re needing this” as a woman hands him his own knife, from up his sleeve.
A rough kid learns to fight, kills a man, is arrested, but “turned into a gorilla for the party” and now sees himself as a reasonable man, fully reformed.
The Encounter 6*
Young JLB (unknowingly) sowing the seeds for much of his adult work: labyrinth, knives, storytelling, and a mysterious twist and a tacit lesson of being careful what you wish for.
Aged about ten, he went to stay with a cousin, but “being a boy among men”, he was lonely, so slipped out to explore the large and unfamiliar house. “A big house that one has never been in before… means more to a boy than an unexplored country to a traveller”. He gets lost, but is found by the owner, who shows him an extensive knife collection.
Some of the men, playing cards, fight. JLB “was not drunk from wine but I was drunk from adventure; I yearned for someone to be killed, so that I could tell about it later.” The honest and plausible thoughts of a ten year old, but nevertheless shocking.
(view spoiler)[With detachment, he watches the fight “as though it were a game of chess”. He sees stabbings and death. Everyone leaves and vows secrecy. “What I had longed to see had happened, and I was devastated.” Many years later, JLB mentions this incident to a police officer who recognises the knives from his description. They were mystical knives that had belonged to sworn enemies. “It was the weapons, not the men, that fought. They had lain sleeping, side by side, in a cabinet, until hands awoke them. In the blades of those knives there slept, and lurked, a human grudge.” (hide spoiler)]
“I always suspected I derived more pleasure from keeping the secret than I would from telling it.” JLB doesn’t state if that remains true.
A reclusive widow “confuses her man, her tiger, with that cruel object he has bequeathed to her, the weapon of his bloody deeds.”
(view spoiler)[Her landlord is killed in a (vain) attempt to stave off eviction. She insists it was the ghost of her husband that did it. Is she deluded or scheming? (hide spoiler)]
The Elderly Lady
An aged widow remembers little of the minor hero who was her father, so the celebrations pass her by. The historical notes are almost as long as the story. Too many characters and generations and too much Argentine context for me to get much from.
A knife-free duel! And female protagonists! Paintbrushes at the ready…
An ambassador’s widow decided to become an abstract artist. So begins a tacit battle with a friend, who is also an artist. “In the course of that private duel they acted with perfect loyalty to one another.”
A simmering feud between two men. Duality and futility again (not that the story is futile!).
“Perhaps their only passion… was their hatred, and therefore they saved it and stored it up. Without suspecting, each of the two became the other’s slave.”
(view spoiler)[They pass each other every day, but the fight comes at the end – and even then, it’s not at their behest. They have to race – after their throats have been cut. The winner didn’t know he’d won. What was there to win anyway? (hide spoiler)]
The title is a city in Ecuador that was important in Argentina’s battle for independence. The story is about rival interpretations of Bolivar’s role in that, and hence about truth in general.
Can you trust historical documents? Of course not. “Even if they were written by Bolivar himself… that does not mean they contain the whole truth.”
The Gospel According to Mark, 5*
In his foreword to the Brodie’s Report collection, JLB describes this as “the best story of the volume”.
The protagonist is a medical student and a man of contradictions. His name is Espinosa, meaning “thorny”, which has echoes of the crown of thorns.
He spends the summer at his cousin’s ranch, but the cousin goes away to deal with floods. Espinosa is left as de facto master of the house, with a family of illiterate staff. He finds an old Bible, with the Gutres family’s genealogy at the back. They were originally Scottish, but English (and literacy) has died out in the 100 years since their forebears arrived. Evolution does not always go forwards (see Brodie’s Report, below, and The Immortal in The Aleph).
“Throughout history, humankind has told two stories: the story of a lost ship sailing the Mediterranean seas in quest of a beloved isle, and the story of a god who allows himself to be crucified on Golgotha.” Which will this be? Both, perhaps.
The student decides to read aloud from this Bible, after supper, and he picks Mark’s gospel. The family are transfixed, even though they don’t understand it. He does this each evening. There’s a similar scene in The Congress (in The Book of Sand).
(view spoiler)[One night, the girl (age unspecified, but she was a virgin) comes to his room (a familiar Kafka trope, though with him it’s a young woman). She is naked, and climbs into his bed. The next day, the family crucify him. But only after they have interrogated him about forgiveness, and ascertained “those that drove the nails will also be saved”. If he had said not, would they have spared him? And if so, then what? Our sins will surely find us out. (hide spoiler)]
Brodie’s Report 5*
Gulliver’s Travels is a clear inspiration (it even features a primitive tribe called the Yahoos). A Borgesian aspect is that it purports to be the (incomplete) notes of a Scottish missionary in Brazil, found in the pages of a copy of 1001 Nights. Is the story of its finding true? What about the contents? The comic – and sometimes grisly - implausibility suggest not the latter. But it could be a fake document, genuinely found, as Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius claims to be.
There’s no particular narrative, just a string of provocative descriptions, ending with an indirect and unanswered question.
The Yahoo diet is strange, “fruits, tubers, and reptiles”. Reptiles, but not mammals? They catch fish with their hands (fair enough) but also “drink cat’s and bat’s milk”!
Every newborn boy is examined for a specific (but secret) pattern of stigmata. If he has them, he is immediately king – and therefore “he is gelded, blinded with a fiery stick, and his hands and feet are cut off, so that the world will not distract him from wisdom”, though given how primitive they are, and the fact they “smear his body with dung”, I doubt such kings will survive long enough to develop much wisdom.
Their counting system is 1, 2, 3, 4, many and “the Yahoos have no memory”, so if someone mentions a leopard attack, no one knows if it happened to them, their parents, or in a dream.
“Philosophically speaking, memory is no less marvellous than prophesying the future” as witch doctors can do. Does that require the assumption of one past and only one future? If we believe in multiple possible outcomes (as JLB suggests in other stories), this claim doesn’t make much sense.
The lack of conversion to Christianity is original: “The phrase ‘Our Father’ disturbed them, since they lack any concept of paternity. They do not understand that an act performed nine months ago may somehow be related to the birth of a child… and… all women engage in carnal commerce, though not all are mothers.”
Their language is strange and simultaneously simple and complex. “The intellectual power of abstraction demanded by such a language suggests to me that the Yahoos… are not a primitive people but a degenerate one” Indecipherable runes nearby seem to confirm that. Like the Gutres family in The Gospel According to Mark, above, and the immortals in the story of that name in The Aleph?
Would you die for art? In this culture, spontaneous poetry is revered – but in a perverse way. “If the poem does not excite the tribe, nothing happens, but if the words of the poet surprise or astound the listeners… he is no longer a man, but a god, and anyone may kill him.”
Brodie finally lists the Yahoos’ redeeming qualities, upholds an obligation to save them (from the occasional attacks by Ape-men, or from colonialism and Christianisation?) and says “I hope Her Majesty’s government will not turn a deaf ear to the remedy this report has the temerity to suggest.” What does it suggest? We will never know.
• “Literature is naught but guided dreaming.”
• “We all come to resemble the image others have of us.”
• “The newspapers… made him the hero that perhaps he never was, but that I had dreamed of.”
• “Friendship is as mysterious as love… the only thing that holds no mystery is happiness because it is its own justification.”
• “Time cannot be measured in days the way money is measured in pesos and centavos, because all pesos are equal, while very day, perhaps every hour, is different.”
• “Newspapers told loyal untruths.”
• “Sleeping… is the most secret thing we do.”
"People aren't overcome by situations or outside forces; defeat invades from within."
I didn't like this book. It comprises a novella (Kitchen) and sho"People aren't overcome by situations or outside forces; defeat invades from within."
I didn't like this book. It comprises a novella (Kitchen) and short story (Moonlight Shadow), but I'm not sure how much is the book's fault, and how much can be attributed to being set in an unfamiliar culture (Japanese teens/twenties), possibly bad translation, and that although the atmosphere is contemporary, it was actually written and set nearly 30 years ago.
I was expecting lyrical language, and quirky insights into Japanese attitudes to death and LGBTQ issues. I was sadly disappointed, but kept going because it was short and because I gave up part way through my previous book (something I rarely do).
Language: Teens and Translation
The weaknesses here made me sad. Both stories are narrated by a (different) young woman. The language is often simple, but rather than the spare beauty I vaguely associate with Japanese and Chinese writing, it's mostly just banal and awkward. That may be how angst-ridden, love-up, bereaved Japanese YAs really speak (or spoke, 30 years ago) or it may be the translation, but the result is the same.
After a particularly egregious section of stilted psychobabble, one character says, "What kind of talk is that? Sounds like it was translated from English." I guess the author is aware of how clunky it is. Odd.
"It's amazing how good this is," I said. "Isn't it," said Hiiraji. "Yes, it's delicious. So delicious it makes me grateful I'm alive," I said.
Another: "Why do I love everything that has to do with kitchens so much?... a kitchen represents some distant longing engraved on my soul." Does anyone think like that? (And it doesn't answer the question anyway.)
Metaphors must be hard to translate, but this one is so mixed up, I grudgingly admire it: "The two of us, alone, were flowing down that river of light, suspended in the cosmic darkness, and were approaching a critical juncture."
Maybe YAs would relate to the characters better than I did (I have no idea), but I'd be reluctant to recommend it to them because of the next problem...
Transgender is not Transvestite
The weaknesses here made me cross. Anyone concerned with LGBTQ issues (especially trans ones) may feel the urge to throw this book at the wall. One has to remember it's a different culture, a generation ago, but the trouble is, it doesn't feel like a historical novel.
One young man takes to wearing his dead girlfriend's sailor-suit school uniform. He finds that comforting (and no one would think it odd for a girl to wear a boyfriend's jumper); a female friend is "mortified" to be seen with him, but other girls find it attractive because they assume it means he understands women. Not exactly enlightened views, but plausible, perhaps. However, they're not challenged, which tacitly condones them.
Worse, is the trans character. She's much loved and sympathetically portrayed, but the terminology is muddled and descriptions would raise eyebrows and hackles nowadays. Early on, she is described as having "had everything 'done', from her face to her whatever", but she is often referred to as "really" being a man or a transvestite. Then it turns out that it was only when her wife died that she realised "I didn't like being a man... It became clear that the best thing to do was to adopt a sort of muddled cheerfulness. So I became a woman." Really?! Just like that? To be cheerfully muddled?!
Finding Solace after Bereavement
The sudden death of loved ones is a unifying aspect of both stories. They all find awkward support from each other, and one finds solace in kitchens and food, another in jogging (and the river that had divided them, been their meeting place, and was ultimately where they were separated for ever).
"I felt that I was the only person alive and moving in a world brought to a stop. Houses always feel like that after someone has died."
If I had lost a parent, partner or child, maybe I'd have been more engaged with this book, but I suspect my experience would be so different as to be barely comparable. I'm grateful that I'm not in the position to compare.
Still, this helpfully explains that losing a partner is even worse than losing a dog or a bird! So I've learned something.
There were glimpses of something deeper. When overtly self-analytical, I don't think they worked, but some were genuinely poignant and thought-provoking.
Mikage was an orphan, raised by her grandmother: "I was always aware that my family consisted of only one other person. The space that cannot be filled, no matter how cheerfully a child and an old person live together - the deathly silence that, panting in the corner of the room, pushes its way in like a shudder." (The punctuation is a little odd, though.)
Reality, Magical Realism, Dreams
Both stories have a dash of this. In the first, it's a dream that might be a premonition; in the second, there's an ethereal character who (maybe) shows another character a little gap in time.
* "Far off in the pale sky, thin clouds gently flowed, suspended."
* "It was the kind of frozen morning in which mood shadows seem to be pasted on the sky."
* "She was someone whose face told you nothing."
* "The little girl, whose face epitomized 'grandchild'."
* "Her power was the brilliance of her charm" which "condemned her to an ice-cold loneliness."
* "The sound of raindrops began to fall in the transparent stillness of the evening."
* Traditional housewives "had been taught, probably by caring parents, not to exceed the boundaries of their happiness".
* "On the deserted bridge, with the city misted over by the blue haze of dawn, my eyes absently followed the white embankment that continued on to who knows where. I rested, enveloped by the sound of the current."
* "I want to continue living with the awareness that I will die. Without that, I am not alive." Hmmm.
“Anything can drive a person insane if that person cannot manage to put it out of their mind” – even… “a map of Hungary”! Obsession is the unifying th“Anything can drive a person insane if that person cannot manage to put it out of their mind” – even… “a map of Hungary”! Obsession is the unifying theme of virtually all these stories, which is apt, because I’m beginning to be a trifle obsessed myself. It is perhaps most central to The Zahir.
I have the Collected Fictions (with copious translator's notes), but am splitting my review of that into its components, listed in publication order: Collected Fictions - all reviews. This is the fourth, published in 1949.
The now familiar Borgesian tropes are also here in abundance too: time, reality and dreams, immortality, infinity, mirrors and opposites, labyrinths, recursion and circularity, memory.
At this stage of working though Borge’s Collected Fictions, I feel deeply connected. There is still a beguiling, mysterious layer, but it’s not impenetrable by any means, even though I’m very aware that I’m nowhere near as erudite as Borges, so although I know many of the great literary names he drops, I’m not necessarily intimately familiar with their works.
The Immortal 6*
What price immortality? And what an opening premise: a story by a rare-book dealer, found by a princess, in a copy of The Ilyad! The story itself is about a mysterious, obsessive quest to find the secret City of the Immortals.
The journey includes Roman soldiers; escape; loneliness; fear of otherness; extraordinary architecture; finding a way through a labyrinth of caves, ladders, doors and multiple rooms; sinister troglodytes, references to The Odyssey, and much musing on life, death, mortality, and the nature of time. It sounds like a checklist of clichés, but in the hands of this master storyteller, it is fresh, beautiful, profound – and unsettling.
The city is found – abandoned and part ruined. It is beautiful and impressive, but somehow sinister – not an easy combination to describe: “This place is the work of the gods… The gods that built this place have died… The gods that built this place were mad… The impression of great antiquity was joined by others: the impression of endlessness, the sensation of oppressiveness and horror, the sensation of complex irrationality… A maze is a house built purposely to confuse men… the architecture had no purpose.” Its very existence “pollutes the past and the future and somehow compromises the stars.”
(view spoiler)[The barely-communicative, primitive troglodytes turn out to be the immortals, who have left their city to live in the labyrinth instead. The one the traveller befriends, and names Argos after the dog in the Odyssey, turns out to be Homer himself.” This sort of evolutionary regression is explored in two stories in Brodie’s Report: The Gospel According to Mark and the eponymous report of Brodie. (hide spoiler)]
The philosophical aspects mainly concern the essence of opposites, and hence, ways and forms of immortality: the “Wheel, which has neither end not beginning, each life is the effect of the previous life and engenderer of the next… Over an infinitely long span of time, all things happen to all men… heads and tails tend to even out… Viewed in that way, all our acts are just, though also unimportant.” Worse, “the notion of the world as an exact system of compensation… made them immune to pity.”
For mortals, it’s different: “Death… makes men precious and pathetic… any act they perform may be their last… Everything in the world of mortals has the value of the irrecoverable and contingent.”
The Dead Man
The story is summarised in the opening sentence: a low-life urban hoodlum becomes a horseman and the leader of a band smugglers. His obsession is gaining power.
This is more than 1/3 through the Collected Fictions, and I think this has the first female character who merits more than a sentence (though it’s not a very enviable role).
Of course, it’s really about death. If you’re almost dead anyway, does it matter what happens just before?
A rather dry piece that perks up towards the end. It concerns two sects, each of which thinks the other heretical, compounded by a pair of believers in a doctrine, and one protagonist is obsessed with gaining the intellectual upper-hand. Are they allies (the same) or opponents (opposites)?
If “every man is two men, and… the real one is the other one, the one in heaven… our acts cast an inverted reflection” so by doing bad things on earth, good things can happen in heaven! I’m not sure that would stand up in court. (view spoiler)[The final revelation is one that recurs in Borges: the two men are one and the same man. (hide spoiler)]
Story of the Warrior and the Captive Maiden
Is “going native” a choice or a necessity? Are contrasting stories essentially two sides of the same story? This is only three pages long, and the story starts halfway through.
This has echoes of The Captive and The Ethnographer (reviewed in Dreamtigers).
A Biography of Tadeo Isidoro Cruz
“Any life… actually consists of a single moment - the moment when a man knows forever more who he is.”
There is lots of historical background in the translator’s notes and the conclusion echoes that of The Theologians (view spoiler)[”He realized that the other man was himself” (hide spoiler)].
Emma Zunz 6*
A woman (at last), with clear inspiration from Kafka although Borges says in the afterword that the plot was given to him by a woman (without indicating whether it’s meant to be fact or fiction). It’s a compelling, twisted, and tragic story of bereavement and obsessive revenge, leading to thoughts of justice and truth.
Like the tree falling in the deserted forest, if the condemned man doesn’t know or understand what he’s guilty of, does it matter – is the sentence valid? See Kafka’s The Penal Colony for another approach to the same question. There’s a similar idea in Borges’ “The Secret Miracle”, which is in Artifices
Then what? An unbelievable story may convince everyone if the substance is true. Her “shame was real, her hatred was real… all that was false were the circumstances, the time, and one or two proper names.”
Plot summary:(view spoiler)[Emma blames her employer for disgracing her father, leading him to commit suicide. She is young, virginal, with “an almost pathological fear of men”, which makes her plan especially painful for her. She picks up a man (“He was an instrument for Emma as she was for him – but she was used for pleasure, while he was used for revenge”), then goes to her boss, shoots him, and claims it was self-defence because he’d just raped her. She tells him why she’s doing it, but probably too late for him to hear and understand. Her story is believed, and the fact of revenge absolves her guilt. (hide spoiler)]
The House of Asterion 6*
The son of a queen lives a strange and solitary life in an empty house “like no other”, with many doors and corridors.
The oddness and sadness only increase when Asterion confides, “A certain generous impatience has prevented me from learning to read”.
He runs “joyously” to greet rare visitors, in part because he can “free them from evil”. Then you realise how, why - and who. (view spoiler)[Asterion is the Minotaur. (hide spoiler)] There are (at least) two sides to every story.
The Other Death
Does each choice or change create a new path through time?
Grim but dull memories of a bloody civil war followed by interesting diversions into truth versus memory and the omnipotence of god, encapsulated in the question of whether a hero and a coward with the same name are two people, or two facets of one.
A brave and controversial piece: on the eve of his execution, the subdirector of a Nazi concentration camp sets down his thoughts, so he can be understood (he has “no desire to be pardoned, for I feel no guilt”).
He sees Nazism as “intrinsically moral” in part, because “compassion on the part of the superior man is Zarathustra’s ultimate sin”. That justifies murdering Jews, even a poet he admired: “I destroyed him… to destroy my own compassion”. Chilling.
He engenders no sympathy, but I did, reluctantly, feel the desire to be understood had been partially achieved.
A look at failure and defeat, despite great striving. An Arab physician in Al-Andalus is writing interpretations of Aristotle, but is stumped by the terms “comedy” and “tragedy”.
The Zahir 6*
Head-spinning time. “Idealist doctrine has it that the verbs ‘to live’ and ‘to dream’ are at every point synonymous; for me, thousands upon thousands of appearances will pass into one; a complex dream will pass into a simple one. Others will dream that I am mad, while I dream of the Zahir.
This opens by listing the many meanings of the word, zahir, in different languages and cultures. The one that matters here is an object that can inspire obsession to the extent that the victim loses touch with reality. Perhaps that is why, at the outset, Borges writes “I am still, albeit only partially, Borges”.
All sorts of things have been zahirs in mythology, but this one is an innocent-looking coin that Borges is given in a bar, when drowning his sorrows about a lost, dead love (a woman with an obsession of her own: glamour and perfection). It has the letters N and T scratched on it.
“There is nothing less material than money, since any coin… [is] a panoply of all possible futures”, a symbol of free will, perhaps. Money is abstract… Money is future time.”
After sleepless nights, confusion, consultation with a psychiatrist and scouring books, Borges learns more about zahirs and resolves to rid himself of the coin in another anonymous bar and to write a fantasy about it.
In Deutsches Requiem, a couple of stories earlier, the idea of being driven to madness by being fixated on a single thing (even a map of Hungary) is mentioned, and that idea is extended here. He tells of a magic tiger that was a zahir, and a fakir who painted “an infinite tiger… composed of many tigers in the most dizzying of ways”. In fact, it contained almost everything (like an Aleph – the final story in this collection). “Tennyson said that if we could but understand a single flower we might know who we are and what the world is” because everything has elements of everything else. Another obsession-inducing object is The Book of Sand, in the collection of the same name.
“Perhaps behind the coin is God.”
“The Writing of the God
“Wakened not out of sleep, but into a prior dream, and that dream lies within another, and so on, to infinity.”
A priest of the god (lower case, no possessive) is in prison, with a tiger/jaguar the other side of a piece of glass. Following on from The Zahir, his growing obsession with this tiger is no surprise.
The priest believes the god created a secret magical phrase that is hidden in creation and can ward off evil. He may have seen it many times, without realizing it, or without understanding it. He trawls his memories of the world and starts to see god and a message in everything – but especially the creature’s markings. The obsession drives him to the brink of insanity.
He has a final revelation, but it was unique to him and it dies with him.
“In the language of a god every word would speak that infinite concatenation of events… A god… must speak but a single word, and in that word there must be absolute plenitude.”
Ibn-Hakam al-Bokhari, Murdered in his Labyrinth 5*
Cornwall, 1914 (quite a shock, compared with the vague and more exotic locations of most of the other stories), and two men explore a ruined labyrinthine house, while one tells the other its story, involving a north African prince, a slave, a lion, and a prophesy of a murderous dead man.
Walking around “They felt they were being suffocated by the house… through the knotted darkness… the invisible wall, cumbered with ruggedness and angles, passed endlessly under his hand”.
When it was built, the local vicar had condemned it from the pulpit, declaring it “intolerable that a house should be composed of a single room, yet league upon league of hallways… No Christian ever built such a house.” He also told a story – which is the one after this: The Two Kings and the Two Labyrinths.
Like a detective, the listener is intrigued but unconvinced: “the facts were true… but told the way you told them, they were clearly humbug”. He unpicks the less plausible aspects of the story, turns it round, and suggests an alternative.
The Two Kings and the Two Labyrinths
This is the short tale quoted by the vicar in the previous story: “It is the prerogative of God, not man, to strike confusion and inspire wonder.”
“It is easier to endure a terrifying event that to imagine it, wait for it endlessly.”
According to the afterword, this was “suggested by a true police story”. A man arrives in a new town, wanting to be inconspicuous, using a false name – that of his enemy – even though “he was not seduced by the literary error of imagining that adopting the name of his enemy would be an astute thing to do”.
He keeps to himself, goes out rarely and cautiously, tries to live in the present, and scours the news to discover if the other man has died. (view spoiler)[Instead, his enemy comes to him. (hide spoiler)]
The Man on the Threshold
“One house is like another – what matters is knowing whether it is built in heaven or hell.”
A man sent to quell riots in an Indian city vanished a few years later; the narrator is trying to find him. In the afterword, Borges says he set it in India “so that its improbabilities might be bearable” though it seems no less probable than most of the others.
In “the opaque city that had magically swallowed up a man… I felt… the infinite presence of a spell cast to hide Glencairn’s whereabouts”. Everyone claimed either to have never heard of, let alone seen him, or to have seen him moments ago.
Finally, a very old man seems to know something, though what he knows is obscure and its relevance unclear, especially because he seems to be talking about events many years ago.
The Aleph 6*
This has similarities with The Zahir, earlier in this collection: a man obsessed with a dead woman, and a mysterious object that inspires obsession and seems to contain everything.
Borges visits the house of his love each year, on the anniversary of her death, staying a little longer each time, until he ends up a dinner guest. Her cousin is an obsessive poet, who “planned to versify the entire planet” and delights in reading his epic doggerel to Borges. He lavishly praises his own work, but won’t publish for fear “he might create an army of implacable and powerful enemies”. Borges “realized that the poet’s work had lain not in the poetry but in the invention of reasons for accounting the poetry admirable” – which it wasn’t, “a poem that seemed to draw out to infinity the possibilities of cacophony and chaos”!
The poet’s house comes under threat of demolition, and he is distraught because in his cellar is the Aleph, which he shows to Borges. “An Aleph is one of the points in space that contains all points”, in this case, a disc about three centimetres in diameter. This provides a dizzying effect, wonderfully described (and also explains the poet’s attempt to write about everywhere in the world). “In that unbound moment, I saw millions of delightful and horrible acts… all occupying the same point, without superposition and without transparency… Each thing… was infinite things because I could clearly see it from every point in the cosmos.”
Those stream-of-consciousness passages are wonderful, but the ending is unexpectedly flat: (view spoiler)[Borges (the one in the story) questions the authenticity and uniqueness of the Aleph and implies he couldn’t see it, thereby suggesting the poet might be mad. The house is demolished, but rather than be broken by Borges' implication, the poet, liberated from his obsession, publishes his poetry – and wins prizes for it. (hide spoiler)].
• “The black shadow – bristling with idolatrous shapes upon the yellow sand – of the City’s wall.”
• “I imagined a world without memory, without time” and “a language that had no nouns, a language of impersonal verbs or indeclinable adjectives.”
• “All creatures are immortal for they know nothing of death.”
• “Argos and I lived our lives in separate universes… our perceptions were different, but that Argos combined them differently than I.”
• “Like all those who possess libraries, Aurelian felt a nagging sense of guilt at not being acquainted with every volume in his.”
• “The heresies we ought to fear are those that can be confused with orthodoxy.”
• “Her eyes were that half-hearted blue that the English call grey.”
• “The most solemn of events are outside time… the immediate past is severed… from the future because the elements that compose those events seem not to be consecutive.”
• “Tearing up money is an act of impiety, like throwing away bread.”
• “To change the past is not to change a mere single event; it is to annul all its consequences, which tend to infinity.”
• “There is no more cunning consolation than the thought that we have chosen our own misfortunes.”
• It’s hard to follow fashion in war, so “A foreign man she had always had her doubts about was allowed to take advantage of her good will” by sending her hats. “These ridiculous shapes had never been worn in Paris” and “were not hats, but arbitrary and unauthorized caprices”.
• “The predictable ranks of one- and two-story houses had taken on that abstract air they often have at night, when they are simplified by darkness and silence.”
• “A man comes to resemble the shape of his destiny.”
• “Weary of a world that lacked the dignity of danger, the friends prized the solitude of that corner of Cornwall.”
• “The past is the stuff that time is made of.”
• “The notion that there might be parallels between art and life never occurred to him… Unlike people who had read novels, he never saw himself as a character in a book.”
• A very old man “His many years had reduced and polished him the way water smooths and polishes a stone or generations of men polish a proverb.”
• “This ancient little man for whom the present was scarcely more than an indefinite rumor.”
• “Our minds are permeable to forgetfulness” which sounds rather back-to-front.
“He admired verse in drama because it does not allow the spectator to forget unreality, which is a condition of art.”
I have the Collected Fictions (wi“He admired verse in drama because it does not allow the spectator to forget unreality, which is a condition of art.”
I have the Collected Fictions (with copious translator's notes), but am splitting my review of that into its components, listed in publication order: Collected Fictions - all reviews. This is the third, published in 1944.
I’m really getting a feel for Borges now. He doesn’t get easier - he retains his compelling elusiveness – but there’s comfort in familiar themes and a pleasing feeling of glimpses of enlightenment. This is entirely appropriate, given Borges’ recurring themes of… recursion, and struggling through confusing labyrinths of identical rooms, compounded by mirrors and shifting perceptions of reality.
The descriptions of individual stories below include minor spoilers; major ones are hidden with spoiler tags. If in doubt, scroll down to the Quotes section at the end.
Funes, His Memory 6*
If you could recall each day in perfect detail, and you spend a day recalling a previous day, what would your memory of the more recent day be? Nested layers of reality.
Funes is a teenager with the strange ability to know the exact time – until he has a fall that leaves him paralysed, but with a new talent. Paralysis is “a small price to pay now his perception and memory were perfect”. Really, truly and utterly perfect. Which is, of course, far from perfect.
He learned Latin in a few days from a book, but his powers go far beyond mere remembering. Where you or I would see a glass of wine, Funes “perceived every grape that had been pressed into the wine and all the stalks and tendrils of its vineyard… Every visual image is linked to muscular sensations, thermal sensations, and so on”. He even remembers his remembering.
Bedbound, his mind works furiously. He can’t generalise and has a visceral hatred of ambiguity and polysemy: he wants a unique word for everything – and every part of every number (is there a synaesthetic aspect?). He even wants a different word for the same dog at different times of the same day.
“ut nihil non iisdem verbis redderetur auditum”, which apparently translates as “so that nothing that has been heard can be retold in the same words”.
In a tragic way, this new brilliance is really just another disability. “To think is to ignore (or forget) differences, to generalise, to abstract”, which he cannot do. Nor will he ever be able to reduce, categorise and number every one of his infinite memories. To sort through the memories of a whole day thoroughly takes… a whole day.
In Cloud Atlas, Somni has read a book of Funes’ Remembrances.
The Shape of the Sword
“Whatsoever one man does, it is as though all men did it” - justification of the Fall and the Crucifixion.
A man with a mysterious scar tells Borges how he acquired it, by way of “perplexing corridors and pointless antechambers”, ending with a paradoxical twist ((view spoiler)[”It was I? who betrayed the man who saved me” – the narrator inflicted his own scar? (hide spoiler)] ).
The Theme of the Traitor and the Hero 6*
“The idea that history might have copied history is mind-boggling enough; that history should copy literature is inconceivable.”
This is a brilliant story in which the narrator imagines a scenario where life is designed to imitate art (specifically Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and Macbeth), using a huge cast, mostly unaware of their roles, for political ends. I was reminded of Charlie Kaufman’s remarkable film Synecdoche, New York.
Plot: (view spoiler)[a rebel leader is condemned to die for treachery, but knowledge of his betrayal might damage the cause. So he is killed in a theatrical set-up, and looks like a martyr – even to most of the unknowing participants. (hide spoiler)]
Death and the Compass 6*
A quadrilateral, circular story. A multiple-murder mystery, with a gloriously OTT opening sentence: “Of the many problems on which Lonnrot’s reckless perspicacity was exercised, none was so strange – so rigorously strange, one might say – as the periodic series of bloody deeds that culminated at the Villa Triste-le-Roy amid the perpetual fragrance of the eucalyptus.”
First, a rabbi is found stabbed in a hotel room, with a sheet of paper in a typewriter saying “The first letter of the Name has been written”. This sets the detective investigating Jewish mystical lore about the many (and secret) names of God, and especially the one that is four letters long.
There are more murders, more messages, an anonymous phone call, some harlequins, and a neat (though not entirely surprising) denouement: (view spoiler)[the fourth and final victim is the detective who solves it (hide spoiler)].
The Secret Miracle
We all know the conundrum "If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?". Does something similar apply to art or other work that is unseen, unknown, by anyone other than its creator? (There’s a similar idea in Borges’ “Emma Zunz”, which is in The Aleph.)
A Jewish writer is arrested and sentenced to death by firing squad in a few days’ time. He torments himself by imagining hundreds of variants of his death, exacerbated by his despair at his unfinished work. But is it? (view spoiler)[As the firing squad’s bullet is fired, time stops. The man realises god has answered his prayers and he has a year to finish his work. With no pen, paper, or ability to move. He perfects it. Time restarts. He dies, satisfied. No one will ever know of his achievement. (hide spoiler)]
Three Versions of Judas
This is a fairly straightforward, some would say blasphemous, Bible study (verses and all) about the role of Judas in enabling Jesus to accomplish God’s mission to redeem mankind. Authors more recent than Borges have courted controversy with such sentiments, though they’ve taken far more words to do so.
The writer that Borges describes is in some ways a mirror of Judas, in that his investigations simultaneously “justified and destroyed his life”. And Judas is described as a reflection of Jesus, because he made a sacrifice of equal worth to that of Jesus, having “renounced honor, goodness, peace, the kingdom of heaven” and “chosen sins unvisited by any virtue”.
I’m detached from religious belief, but the idea of the damnable Judas being altruistic is intriguing, and the reflections of him in Jesus and the author, add complexity. (view spoiler)[The idea that Judas IS, in some sense, Jesus, is even more startling. (hide spoiler)]
(If you’re wondering about “sins unvisited by any virtue”, they’re “abuse of confidence… and betrayal”. In contrast, “In adultery, tenderness and abnegation often play a role; in homicide, courage; in blasphemy and profanation, a certain satanic zeal”. Worth bearing in mind if you want to pick and choose your sins!)
A story of knife-fighters, derived from the ending of a well-known Argentinian story, according to the translator’s notes. Maybe you have to be Argentinian to appreciate it, because apart from a couple of beautiful sentences (in the Quotes section), it didn’t speak to me.
The Cult of the Phoenix
United by difference and secrets, all are victims and aggressors, so we’re all the same?
The Secret ritual involves cork, wax, or gum arabic, but is widely interpreted as a metaphor for (view spoiler)[sex. It “is transmitted from generation to generation, but tradition forbids a mother from teaching it to her children, as it forbids priests from doing so… The act itself is trivial… The Secret is sacred, but that does not prevent its being a bit ridiculous; the performance of it is furtive… There are no decent words by which to call it, but it is understood that all words somehow name it.” At first revelation, people often think it “banal, shameful, vulgar, and (stranger still) unbelievable. They could not bring themselves to admit that their parents had ever stopped to such acts… Someone has even dared to claim that by now it is instinctual.”
JLB is believed to have been a lifelong celibate and possibly gay or bisexual; is this personal? “A kind of sacred horror keeps some of the faithful from performing that simplest of rituals; they are despised by other members of the sect, but they despise themselves even more. (hide spoiler)]
If you could choose your death, what would you choose? The passive victim of a surgeon’s knife of the active victim of a knife fight?
This is about the magical power of stories, specifically, The Arabian Knights (not for the first time in Borges), and the mysterious power of knowing someone’s name.
• Chased “through black corridors of nightmare and steep stairwells of vertigo”.
• “Some secret shape of time, a pattern of repeating lines.”
• A hotel tower “notorious for uniting in itself the abhorrent whiteness of a sanatorium, the numbered divisibility of a prison, and the general appearance of a house of ill repute”.
• A suburb where “the city crumbled away; the sky expanded, and now houses held less and less import”.
• “He measured other men’s virtues by what they had accomplished, yet asked that other men measured him by what he planned someday to do.”
• “From learning to pity the misfortunes of the heroes of our novels, we wind up feeling too much pity for our own.” The opposite of perceived wisdom?
• “The plains, in the last rays of the sun, were almost abstract, as though seen in a dream.”
• “Though blind to guilt, fate can be merciless with the slightest distractions.”
• “Reality is partial to symmetries and slight anachronisms.”
• “He and the cat were separated as by a pane of glass, because man lives in time, in successiveness, while the magical animal lives in the present, in the eternity of the instant.”
“For a book to exist, it is sufficient that it is possible. Only the impossible is excluded.”
Paradoxes abound in this allegory that has aspects of The“For a book to exist, it is sufficient that it is possible. Only the impossible is excluded.”
Paradoxes abound in this allegory that has aspects of The Blind Watchmaker, especially DNA, and also the Infinite Monkey Theorem.
I have the Collected Fictions (with copious translator's notes), but am splitting my review of that into its components, in publication order: Collected Fictions - all reviews. This is one of the the longer stories in The Garden of Forking Paths, published in 1941.
The universe is an infinite Library. Maybe the universe is the internet? But Borges’ library is more beautiful: an endless series of connecting, identical, hexagons, and it has - and will - exist for eternity.
Each vestibule has “a mirror which faithfully duplicates appearances”, leading men to infer that the Library is not infinite, otherwise “what need would there be for that illusory replication?”
But it is infinite: the books contain “all that is able to be expressed, in every language”, composed of the same alphabetic elements, and each is unique. But are uniqueness and infinity contradictory?
Most of the books are indecipherable, and “trying to find sense in books” is “a vain and superstitious habit”, likened to palmistry and numerology. Surely that doesn’t apply to this, or does it? (Recursion, again.)
“You who read me – are you certain you understand my language?”
“Man, the imperfect librarian, may be the work of chance or malevolent demiurges; the universe… can only be the work of a god.” That’s “a god”, not “God”.
Who or what made me? Am I real, or just making marks on one of an infinite number of pages that may never be read?
These ideas of infinity are explored and elaborated on in “Undr” and The Mirror and the Mask, which throw minimalism into the mix. More specifically, the story of The Book of Sand is like the Library of Babel in miniature: a single, infinite book. They are all in The Book of Sand. ...more
I have the Collected Fictions (with copious translator's notes), but am splitting my review of that into its components, in publication order: CollectI have the Collected Fictions (with copious translator's notes), but am splitting my review of that into its components, in publication order: Collected Fictions - all reviews. This is the the longest story in The Garden of Forking Paths, and deservedly so, published in 1941.
This is very post-modern, meta, or whatever such term you like, with references to Spinoza and Russell. It’s a first-person narration, mentioning real people, telling of a presumably fictitious group of people who plant clues about an imaginary world in authoritative sources (Orbis Tertius being a more comprehensive work in progress). Nowadays, con-langers or believers in Sherlock Holmes might do the same sort of thing on Wikipedia and elsewhere on the internet. Alternatively, conspiracy theorists would latch on to every snippet and claim the almost total lack of further evidence was proof of a sinister cover-up by malign and powerful forces.
“Mirrors and copulation are abominable, for they multiply the number of mankind.” This is paraphrased in "Hakim, The Masked Dyer of Merv", which is in the previous volume, A Universal History of Iniquity, and is the starting point here. It’s allegedly a saying from Uqbar, but investigation finds no mention of such a place – except in one (and only one) copy of an encyclopaedia, which has several pages about its geography, climate, culture and language. The fact (I use the word advisedly) they have “stone mirrors” and a “literature of fantasy” is pertinent.
“Tlon may well be a labyrinth, but it is a labyrinth forged by men, a labyrinth destined to be deciphered by men.”
Furthermore, the idea and language of Tlon has infiltrated the real world (or rather, the real world within this piece of fiction penned by Borges), so what is real now? “A fictitious past has supplanted in men’s memories that other past, of which we now know nothing certain.” Is life imitating art, and Earth becoming Tlon?
The final challenge to reality is the “postscript” dated 1947, several years AFTER it was first published.
The much later story, Brodie’s Report, in the collection of the same name, has a similar idea: a mysterious document, describing strange people, found in a book: Brodie’s Report
Time and Language
This fascinating aspect has since been echoed by many, including perhaps Alan Lightman in Einstein’s Dreams. Add two-way ref to Einstein’s Dreams.
Tlon is a planet in Uqbar’s mythology: “the world is successive, temporal, but not spatial” and about actions, not objects, so their language is based on verbs, not nouns (examples are given). In this fictional world, in some sense, things are not directly expressible – maybe fictional, even?
Some “deny the existence of time… the present is undefined and indefinite, the future has no reality except as present hope, and the past has no reality except as present recollection” (or even false memories of the past).
Even the maths is different; “the act of counting can modify the amount, turning indefinites into definites”, and they have two types of geometry, “tactile geometry” (like ours) and the more important “visual geometry”, which “is based on the surface, not the point; it has no parallel lines… as one’s body moves through space, it modifies the shapes that surround it”.
These philosophical beliefs mean “their fiction has but a single plot, with every imaginable permutation”. ...more
“The basest of art’s temptations: the temptation to be a genius” (from The Approach to Al-Mu’tasm). In this collection, Borges proves that he succumbe“The basest of art’s temptations: the temptation to be a genius” (from The Approach to Al-Mu’tasm). In this collection, Borges proves that he succumbed. And I’m very glad he did.
I have the Collected Fictions (with copious translator's notes), but am splitting my review of that into its components, listed in publication order: Collected Fictions - all reviews. This is the second, published in 1941, and this is where Borges starts to blow my mind.
Some of these stories are initially rather opaque, but they’re also short and SO worthwhile: with many, I read once to get a feel for what it was about, then immediately reread it to connect with it in context.
• The first time is gloriously disorienting, almost as it’s in a subtly different dialect from my own; it creates a hypnotic desire to understand.
• The second time, a switch has been flipped, I have the key to the kingdom, and the ideas slot into place, whilst retaining a pleasing degree of elusiveness.
“There is no intellectual exercise that is not ultimately pointless” (from Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote, below). I don’t think Borges himself believed that, and these remarkable stories are a justification of such exercises.
The descriptions of individual stories below include minor spoilers; major ones are hidden with spoiler tags. If in doubt, scroll down to the Quotes section at the end.
A review of a non-existent book (unless someone has since written it), that even notes the differences between the first and second editions. This piece allegedly had one of Borges’ friends try to order a copy from a bookshop.
The book is described as the “first detective novel written by a native of Bombay” and is an epic, sweeping across India, with a huge cast, but an “uncomfortable amalgam” of overwrought Islamic allegorical poems and European detective fiction.
The story though, is a recursive meditation on the duality of good and evil. “The object of the pilgrimage was itself a pilgrimage.”
A law student rejects his Islamic faith and end up among the poor, where he “perceives some mitigation of the evil: a moment of tenderness, of exaltation, of silence, in one of the abominable men”. He divines that the goodness must be a reflection from an external source, and sets off to find ever purer connections, via a series of connected rooms: “the insatiable search for a soul by means of the delicate glimmerings or reflections this soul has left in others”.
Each of us is like a stone cast in a lake: those nearest us are most affected, but even far away, there are ripples of who and what and how we are.
Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote
Every reader reads a different book. Even the same reader reads a different book on each encounter.
A self-referential exploration of the paradoxes of original composition, and the “new technique… of deliberate anachronism and fallacious attribution”. The last of those is a recurring habit of Borges himself, including in this story, which purports to be about a real writer.
This is a short essay about the great, but unfinished work, of a writer, who “did not want to compose another Quixote” but “the Quixote” by combining the don and Sancho into a single character and by, in some sense, becoming Cervantes. His tactic is to “learn Spanish, return to Catholicism, fight against the Moor and the Turk” and forget everything that happened after Cervantes published.
Menard’s other writings are listed, but it’s made clear that Quixote is his only important work, “perhaps the most significant writing of our time”, even though, over the course of his life, he only manages to write just over two chapters! A futile quest, perhaps, like Don Quixote’s own?
It becomes stranger as the reviewer describes Menard’s work as being “word for word” the same as Cervantes’, but also “more subtle” and “almost infinitely richer”, and yet different as well, because it “overlooks – or banishes – local colour” and many other incidents. So is it the same, or different? Is the Emperor naked or clothed?
Don Quixote is the obvious book on which to base this story: it was a favourite of JLB’s, mentioned in many of his stories (including "Parable of Cervantes and the Quixote", which is in Dreamtigers). More importantly, Cervantes did something similar to this story. Part two of DQ was written after what would now be called fan-fic. In part two, DQ himself treats part one as true, criticises the unofficial sequel, and responds to the resulting pressure of fame.
A circular story about dreaming reality. Pinocchio meets Inception and The Matrix, in Plato’s cave or Wonderland?
A man arrives at a temple to “dead, incinerated gods”; it is abandoned and he came with a strange purpose. “The goal that led him on was not impossible, though it was clearly supernatural: He wanted to dream a man… to dream him completely, in painstaking detail, and impose him upon reality.” I misread the final phrase, and thought reality would be imposed about the man conjured by dreams. Both ideas are relevant.
It’s a strange and difficult task: “molding the incoherent and dizzying stuff that dreams are made of is the most difficult work a man can undertake… much more difficult than weaving a rope of sand or minting coins of the faceless wind”.
I’ve never quite had a lucid dream, but this describes something tantalisingly like it: “in the dreaming man’s dream, the dreamed man awoke”. Pinocchio wanted to be a real boy, and the dreaming man wants the same for his “son”. He gradually accustoms him to reality, and erases his early memory because he “feared that his son… [would] somehow discover that he was a mere simulacrum… the projection of another man’s dream” – and what could be worse than that? Seriously, what could be worse? (view spoiler)[The sad irony is that the man himself is another man’s dream. (hide spoiler)]
The Lottery in Babylon 6*
This opens with disorienting paradoxes about the narrator who has led a life of opposites, but also “known that thing the Greeks knew not – uncertainty”. The language and ideas were even more reminiscent of Kafka than some of the other pieces (is Qaphqa, a sacred latrine(!) where informers can leave messages, a pun?).
“The Lottery is an intensification of chance into the order of the universe… chance should intervene in every aspect.”
We are all subject to the whims of fate, nature versus nurture, chaos and order, faith, justice, and chance. But in Babylon, actual lotteries are involved – to an absurd and alarming degree. Conventional ones lost their appeal, “they had not moral force”, so unlucky draws were added to the positive wins. But gradually the people needed a more powerful hit than that. The Company that runs it becomes increasingly powerful (and secretive - the Lottery is drawn in a labyrinth) as every aspect of life, and indeed the draw, is decided by draw.
Although “the number of drawings is infinite”, an infinite amount of time is not required, but rather, “infinitely subdivisible time”.
Does the Company exist – now or in the past – and does it matter?
The Survey of the Works of Herbert Quain
Here, Borges is name-dropping philosophers and writing an amusingly catty review of life and works of a fictitious author, starting by noting the “necrological pieties” in the very short obituary in the Times Literary Supplement. He goes on to say that his first book, The God of the Labyrinth, was good except for “somewhat careless plotting and the hollow, frigid stiltedness of certain descriptions of the sea”! Fortunately Borges was able to salvage one of Quain’s works and turn it into the far superior The Circle of Ruins (see above) – so recursion, about a circle. Neat.
“All things happen to oneself, and happen precisely, precisely now.”
Perhaps that’s all that needs to be said about this. But for the record, it’s the confession of a Chinese man, spying for the Germans, and trying to send a crucial message by… thinking out of the box, to use a bit of jargon that is often ghastly, but seems apt here. The ending was a shock! (view spoiler)[The only way to send a secret message about the destruction of a town called Albert was the otherwise motiveless killing of a man called Stephen Albert (hide spoiler)].
In the middle of that, is a more philosophical piece about The Garden of Forking Paths, splits in time, rather than space, so that all possible outcomes occur. (view spoiler)[Rather like a choose-your-own-adventure, a confusing old manuscript and the unfound labyrinth it describes turn out to be one and the same: the forking paths are temporal, not spatial. (hide spoiler)]
• “No one saw him step from the boat in the unanimous night.”
• “The mirror hovered, shadowing us.”
• “In life… he was afflicted with unreality, as so many Englishmen are.”
• “Those close English friendships… that begin by excluding confidences and soon eliminate conversation.”
• “The aesthetic act must contain some element of surprise, shock, astonishment.”
• “To speak is to commit tautologies.”
• “He who is to perform a horrendous act should imagine to himself that it is already done, should impose upon himself a future as irrevocable as the past.”
• “A keen and vaguely syllabic song, blurred by leaves and distance, came and went on the gentle gusts of breeze.”
• He “did not believe in a uniform and absolute time; he believed in an infinite series of times.” ["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
"Reading... is an activity subsequent to writing - more resigned, more civil, more intellectual" (the closing words to the preface of the first editio"Reading... is an activity subsequent to writing - more resigned, more civil, more intellectual" (the closing words to the preface of the first edition).
I have the Complete Fictions (with copious translator's notes), but am splitting my review of that into its components, listed in publication order: Collected Fictions - all reviews. This is the first, published in 1935.
I had read several profound and passionate reviews by friends, and felt the building lure of Borges, aided by a growing awareness of how influential he was to many other writers. I came to Borges with high expectations.
I'm glad I had first dipped into several pieces from later volumes (thanks for the suggestions, Steve) before reading these. Although I give this only 3*, I'm assured of greater (much greater) things to come.
This is a collection of semi-fictionalised, but mostly straightforward accounts of exotic and infamous criminals around the world, plus one story that is not based on fact. Borges describes them as Baroque exercises, bordering on self-parody, and partially inspired by G K Chesterton. He defines Baroque as "the final stage in all art, when art flaunts and squanders its resources". They're well-written, and quite original in many ways, but crime fiction and biography are not favourite genres of mine, hence only 3* for my enjoyment.
The Cruel Redeemer of Lazarus Morell
Morell is a poor white man, with a scam to help slaves escape plantations to freedom.
I know that labyrinths recur throughout Borges' work, and the first mention is on the second page, in relation to the Mississippi delta.
The Improbable Imposter Tom Castro 5*
This story reminded me of Patricia Highsmith's Talented Mr Ripley. Tom is an opportunist, who with the encouragement of a friend, presents himself as the long-lost son of a titled lady. Part of the plan is that he looks SO unlike the other man, he couldn't possibly be an impostor. "In a few days she had recaptured the recollections her son had invoked."
The Widow Ching - Pirate
Early Chinese girl power and a pirate code (based on a real one) that prohibits rape. Plausible pseudo-history - then dragons (which turn out to be kites).
Monk Eastman, Purveyor of Iniquities
A New York gangster, with eventual connections to the Kelly Gang, via "labyrinthine sewers".
The Disinterested Killer Bill Harrigan
Billy the Kid frequents labyrinths and by 14, kills for mindless thrills (and sometimes other rewards). "He never fully measured up to the legend of himself."
The Uncivil Teacher of Court Etiquette Kotsuké no Suké
For Samuri, honour can mean being "granted the privilege of suicide".
Hakim, The Masked Dyer of Merv
"The earth we inhabit is an error, an incompetent parody. Mirrors and paternity are abominable because they multiply and affirm it." (This is paraphrased in the truly wonderful Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius, which is the first story of the next volume.)
Man on Pink Corner
This is a first-person story of knife fighters, not based on on a real person, and the translator's notes point out that the "pink" of the title refers to a rough area of Buenos Aires, and the lack of definite pronoun conjures a painting (perhaps Edward Hopper). In the final sentence, the unnamed narrator makes it clear he's telling the story to Borges - an early nod to the way Borges later blends levels of reality.
There is another version of this in Brodie’s Report. Both include the line “Rosendo, I think you’re needing this” as a woman hands him his own knife, from up his sleeve.
This section contains even shorter pieces, some of which probably presage later works:
A Theologian In Death A theologian in a mysterious and unfamilar house of many rooms is in denial of his own death. Maybe.
The Chamber of Statues A fairytale-like allegory of death, via series of locked rooms, from 1000 nights.
The Story of the Two Dreamers The power of dreams.
The Wizard that was Made to Wait 5* Fairytale repetition: a wizard teaches magic to a priest on the promise of reward for his son, perpetually postponed.
The Mirror of Ink Visions in a different sort of mirror. Rorschach might approve.
Mahomed's Double Lots of them! In the light of Rushdie and Charlie Hebdo, I'm not sure this would go unchallenged if published for the first time now.
Index of Sources Another layer of fiction, or at least blurring the boundaries.
• “Onto an alluvium of beastlike hopelessness and African fear there had sifted the words of the Scripture.”
• "The female soil, worn and haggard from bearing that impatient culture's get, was left barren."
• Facial "features of an infinite vagueness".
• Writing "free of any scruples as to the way words ought to be spelled".
• Kosher "calves whose throats had been slit with righteousness".
• "History (which, like a certain motion picture director, tells its story in discontinuous images)"
• Leaving a bar "in the drunken dizziness of the tango, like they were drowning in that tango".
Oh dear. Awful. Just awful. Even more so, given how much I adored my first Penelope Fitzgerald last summer (Offshore) and that AS Byatt called this "aOh dear. Awful. Just awful. Even more so, given how much I adored my first Penelope Fitzgerald last summer (Offshore) and that AS Byatt called this "a masterpiece". I'm baffled.
The prose is plodding - even though it's portraying a poet: short, banal sentence, after short banal sentence. I found the characters, setting and plot hard to imagine, care about or believe in - even though it's based on real life. I forced myself to finish it, thinking there must be something worthwhile to come. I failed to find it. I was just bored. And irritated.
This is a fictionalised account, but it seems to be fairly close to the facts, and some of the diary entries quoted here, are genuine historical documents.
It's set in a noble, pious, Protestant family in Germany, in the late 1700s. It concerns Fritz, who later became a famous romantic and philosophical poet known as Novalis. This book covers the slightly earlier period, around the time he succumbed to a coup de foudre over twelve-year old Sophie. Given the period, it's all very chaste; nothing like Lolita, which is a far more disturbing book, but is beautifully written, and hence powerful and compelling. So no, nothing like this.
Fritz attends university in several towns, studying a variety of subjects and dabbling in philosophy. He meets various people.
Afterwards, he trains to be a salt mine inspector like his father. He meets more people, including Sophie's family. He is welcomed, and spends a lot of time there. It's another large family, but utterly different from his own. Goethe makes an appearance and gives his opinion on the relationship.
The French Revolution is going on in the background. Some are slightly fearful; others vaguely support it.
The brief afterword made me laugh: it was like a satirical summary of a typical operatic plot. Even less appropriately, it reminded me of a scene in comedy sci-fi show, Red Dwarf: (view spoiler)[Holly to Lister, "They're all dead. Everybody's dead, Dave." (hide spoiler)]
The Blue Flower
What a pretty image. It's the title of a novel Fritz starts to write about "unspeakable longings" for such a flower.
This may be another reason the book didn't "wow" me. Blue is my favourite colour, but I wasn't sufficiently awed by the exoticism of a blue flower. It may not be the most common hue, but blue flowers have always featured prominently in my life. Spring is marked by walks to the beech woods to see carpets of bluebells; my mother pots blue hyacinths each year to give to family and friends; my granny grew delphiniums and hydrangeas in profusion, and in more recent years, nearby fields are filled with linseed flowers (so much nicer than the garish yellow of rapeseed).
He first reads this to Karoline, saying he wrote it for her. Then he reads it to Sophie, as if it's for her. The "test" for both is to understand its deep meaning.
Sophie is puzzled:"'Do you not know yourself?' she asked doubtfully." to which he says "Sometimes I think I do".
The two people who are claimed to understand it are Sophie's doctor, and Fritz's younger, precocious brother, The Bernhard, though I can't say I agreed with The Bernhard's interpretation.
The Christmas Reckoning
This was an intriguing and slightly alarming idea. "The mother spoke to her daughters, the father to his sons, and told them first what had displeased, then what had pleased most in their conduct during the past year. In addition, the young Hardenbergs were asked to make a clean breast of anything that they should have told their parents, but had not."
Believabality and Inconsistency
Love is not rational, and sudden infatuation even less so, but if a poet cannot convey the reasons for his passion for a child who is not especially pretty, intelligent or interested, how can the reader believe it?
Fritz's family is large and noble, but poor (nobility are banned from many jobs). Later on, money seems less tight, it's not clear how or why.
He was a sickly and apparently backward child, but then turned into a genius, though there's little evidence of that, in his poetry or vague philosophical musings. He does call Sophie "my Philosophy", though, and also "my spirit's guide".
We're told that as a the child of a large family he keeps a diary rather than talk to himself, then ten pages later... he's talking to himself a lot.
The number and ages of children didn't stack up (Fritz's mother is said to have given birth eight times and later to have eleven children, but no mention of twins, and The Bernhard starts off aged six but is almost adult a few short years later).
Despite the generally leaden prose, there are some nice turns of phrase:
• A shy matriarch “seeming of less substance even than the shadows... no more than a shred.”
• “a short, unfinished young man.”
• “How heavy a child is when it gives up responsibility.”
• A man still feels his older brother “appeared to have been sent into the world primarily to irritate him”.
• “Earth and air were often indistinguishable in the autumn mist, and morning seemed to pass into afternoon without discernible mid-day.”
• “Erasmus would... enroll in the school of forestry, a wholesome open-air life for which so far he had shown no inclination whatsoever.”
• “Jollity is as relentless as piety.”
• “If a story begins with finding, it must end with searching.”
• At the fair, “A fine young woman still, what a pity she has no affianced to treat her to a pig's nostril!"
• Mining “is not a violation of Nature's secrets, but a release.”
• In a music room, “the airy space faithfully carried every note, balanced it, and let it fall reluctantly.”
• “the remorseless perseverance of the truly pleasure-loving.”
• “Even in his garden-house, melancholy caught him by the sleeve.”
A quirk, which was unfamiliar to me, was the naming. Sophie is often called Sophgen, Fritz's parents as the Freifrau and the Freiherr, and many others are referred to as "the [something]". When many of the characters are thin, an extra veil doesn't help.