Sometimes, when I think nobody is looking, I like to indulge in the pleasant daydream that I am intelligent. In order to conceal the truth I must occasionally read more deeply into things than any smart person would have to in order to speak learnèdly about something.
And this is how I came to buy and read the Collected Fictions of Jorge Luis Borges, as translated by Andrew Hurley. In highschool I was, for my sins, set down to study Latin American literature by the curriculum designers of the International Baccalaureate. I found most of Higher-Level English to be frustrating and tedious. But I’m very grateful that, as a side effect, I was exposed to a smattering of short stories by Borges.
Some time later I found myself expounding on the themes and meanings of some of his most famous short stories — particularly The Library of Babel and The Lottery in Babylon — and it struck me that I only knew a handful of Borges’s stories. I decided that on my long holiday to the USA I would take the full collection as companion to From Dawn to Decadence.
I’m not sure this was an entirely wise decision. Take my above remark that I sometimes think of myself as clever. Borges is a genius. Moreover, his the full-contact kind of genius. Suppose I was a gifted amateur boxer. I might hold a decent opinion of my skills. Then put me in a ring with a Mike Tyson in his prime and call my next of kin.
This is the experience of trying to read Borges short stories back to back, one after the other. I can only encourage other readers not to do so. Some of the stories are supremely tightly wound coils of ideas. In the space of a few pages Borges can raise and dismiss whole universes of possibility. It is often only later that one begins to unravel his wire and discover that it runs everywhere and through everything.
It’s worth noting that in fictional terms, there are almost two Borgeses. One Borges delights in writing sketches of Argentine and Latin American life, usually with the little flourishes of fantasy that gave rise to the term “magical realism”. And then there is the second, much more famous Borges, whose stories are bold expeditions of discovery into lands of metaphysical paradoxes.
You can see this difference if you look at the difference between Collected Fictions and the more popular selected collection, Labyrinths. The first contains both kinds of Borges. The latter is almost exclusively selected from amongst the brain-stretching monsters.
As a person with a Computer Science degree, it is the second Borges who speaks to me. The Library of Babel and The Lottery in Babylon are a kind of Lovecraftian horror story for anyone who grasps the possibilities of combination. He begins with very simple premises (a very large library of random books; a society governed by random lots) and slowly, slowly, the dread begins to build. It speaks to his talent that Borges can produce in about 10 pages the creepy-crawly terror that Lovecraft sometimes built in purple prose over hundreds of pages (see, for example, At The Mountains of Madness).
Many of the stories reward re-reading and I often find myself having a spark of insight while reading. Take Lottery, for example. At the conclusion of the story the reader is left wondering if there really is a Lottery. The point, of course, is that the fantastical Lottery is indistinguishable from plain reality. Borges has neatly come full circle to demonstrate that mere chance is like an invisible, monstrous tyrant in our lives. It struck me because he explained it much better than I ever could.
Or take Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote. Borges illustrates postmodernism better than the postmodernists; he tangentially illuminates the difference between syntax and semantics better than a famous book with a dragon on the front. And he does it in a handful of pages in a made-up review of the work of a man who doesn’t exist.
Borges is sometimes well ahead of his time. The Garden of Forking Paths might seem trite to the aficionado of lazy science fiction TV, but this short story predates the Many-World interpretation of Quantum physics by more than a decade. Borges got there first and explained it better.
If I have one complaint about the work of Borges, it that is lumped together with other writers under the heading of “Magical Realist”. It’s one of the more egregious injustices of literary history that Gabriel Garcia Marquez is considered in the same breath. 100 Years of Solitude is a lazy scribble without many redeeming features. Its popularity comes about as the same reason Sean Penn was christened “Best Actor” for his performance in Milk: politics. Marquez thumbs the eye of colonial capitalism. All very noble. But this hardly makes him a genius.
But politics fades. I am reasonably confident that the second Borges, the young metaphysical Borges (which the older man sometimes joked about), will continue to be spoken about in a hundred years. The rest will fall away.
Recommended; however, most readers will be better served by the smaller and more focused collection in Labyrinths.