“There is no intellectual exercise which is not ultimately useless.” -from “Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote”
The reader of Ficciones must have a “There is no intellectual exercise which is not ultimately useless.” -from “Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote”
The reader of Ficciones must have a love for literary and historical esoterica and minutiae to get some type of pleasure out of most of these stories–if they can even be called "stories," that is. And how one feels on this issue makes all the difference in how the quote cited above is regarded: not interested in reading a fairly lengthy description about say, a typological error in the footnotes in a second edition of a book by an obscure 13th century Dutch alchemist and it comes off as a truism; delight in such archaic trivia and it is instead a tongue-in-cheek quip perfectly at home in the funhouse of reflexive literary mirrors Borges cheerfully constructs throughout Ficciones.
I definitely fall in the latter camp–intellectually, few things gets me going more than an enigmatic reference, a stray footnote, or something of the like–and so I found a great deal to enjoy in the seventeen stories collected here. Not that every word is enthralling; indeed, long stretches can be quite dull. But what kept me intrigued from the first page to the last is the question Borges implies with his title: what exactly does constitute fiction? The term “fiction,” of course, is opposed to the facticity of “non-fiction,” and conjures up associations of narrative, of plots, of stories. And there definitely stories in Ficciones that adhere to such expectations, but they are definitely in the minority. Borges, however, employs the term “fiction” literally, and seems most interested in exploring what “fiction” can actually entail, particularly in regards to form. Because Borges uses a variety of forms traditionally associated with non-narrative modes of writing: history, testimony, the literary or scholarly review, etc. And as he proceeds to demonstrate, why can’t these forms be used to create stories just like any other? And really, isn’t everything we do here on this site–this very review, in fact–create little fictions?
The amazing “The Garden of Forking Paths,” undoubtedly and justifiably the most famous story in Ficciones, incorporates both of these dynamics, combining a quick-moving plot with his more literary obsessions, but a story like "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” which details Borges’s "research" (how many words with what seemed stable meanings be called into question here?) into a mysterious entry in an old encyclopedia is a wonderful example of how a “fictional story” can take on unexpected forms, and be quite exciting in their own right. In this inaugural story, as in the aforementioned “Pierre Menard,” as well as “Three Versions of Judas,” “An Examination of the Work of Herbert Quain,” and several other stories, literary analysis is revealed to be stories in and of themselves. As I alluded to earlier, it’s not that every single sentence of Ficciones makes for enthralling reading, but I found the literary terrain and textual frontiers Borges constantly forces himself into and start exploring to be endlessly fascinating, if not actually astonishing in a very tangible, active sense....more