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Ficciones by Jorge Luis Borges
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Aug 25, 07

Read in August, 2007

Reading Ficciones takes time. It is Jorge Luis Borges' most well-known collection of short stories, and it is full of dense, imaginative pieces that are full of lots of stuff, and to get out of them what he has put into them, readers need to commit to reading slowly and carefully.

There are two interrelated elements, I think, that make reading Borges so challenging: the fantastic vision (read: like a fantasy), and the prose.

The Fantasy: Many pieces in Ficciones take place in imaginary lands or impossible buildings. Some are rooted in realities in which humans have total and perfect memory or in which libraries have infinite rooms that contain infinite volumes. The words and names are often unfamiliar. Metaphysical laws change. First and foremost, simply wrapping one's brain around these parameters of reality sometimes requires a mental leap or two.

The Prose: To make these new realities plausible, Borges draws up detailed histories of his characters and settings, and he drops references to these fictitious backstories left and right. He refers to books written or infamous deeds done by characters as if they were part of our common history and knowledge. He expounds on relationships unknown to the reader. He refers to inventions or accomplishments that simply don't exist in our world.

The combined effect of these two factors is to give the impression that the stories know much more than we do. It's like the stories are clouds, and we reach for them, and sometimes we grab wisps that we can feel and examine, but other times we merely pass through them empty-handed, aware that our hands just sifted through a great deal of matter, matter that had something to do with the universe... or dreams...? or parenthood...?

When we succeed, fresh and thoughtful revelations are availed us. We are forced to rethink the nature of time, of the infinite, of nationalism, or more. When we fail, however, we find that we must go back and read and reread, for we're aware that we've gotten something out of the tale, but we're also sure that if we see the story again through a new lens or as a metaphor for something else, some asofyet frustratingly ungraspable greater meaning will open itself up to us.

This makes for good reading, if you're up for it. You'll be confused and disappointed if you're not willing to work through it all, but with a clear head, a quiet room, and a willingness stop and think and reread, you'll be surprised by the range and reward of the stories.

In one story, "The Secret Miracle", I think Borges identifies the existential conundrum presented by his work. The character in the story, a writer himself, ponders his own novel: "Hladik had never asked himself whether this tragicomedy of errors was preposterous or admirable, deliberate or casual. Such a plot, he intuited, was the most appropriate invention to conceal his defects and to manifest his strong points, and it embodied the possibility of redeeming (symbolically) the fundamental meaning of his life."

There's a twist in there. We understand implicitly that Borges' work is deliberate--he tells us as much in "Death and the Compass"; in clever and creative ways, he re-examines our very nature. But at the same time, here Borges sneakily suggests that his tales may simply be casual inventions designed to conceal his own defects.

We know better, of course. But this, I believe, is Borges' wit, and it reads to me a bit like a dare.

Do I recommend it? Yes, to curious and patient puzzlers.
Would I teach it? Yes, for creative writing students, to show use of detail or plot structures.
Lasting impression: I enjoyed Borges' details and metaphysical musing. I will always think, however, that I need to re-read each story a dozen more times to really get it.
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David Sierra serrano I always feel when I read a Borges tale that there is so much left to underestand. That the unsaid is much bigger than the writen. ¿What else did he see in the Aleph? ¿What stories are writen in the Babilon library and what would they mean if they were writen by Menard? There are things that must be pondered.

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