The OF Blog: Borges Month, Ficciones (1941-1944; 1956 revision)

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Borges Month, Ficciones (1941-1944; 1956 revision)

Ficciones is Jorge Luis Borges' most famous fiction collection.  It is the omnibus of two separate mini-collections, El jardín de senderos que se bifurcan, published in 1941, and Artificios, released in 1944.  Later, in the 1956 revision, three stories ("El fin," "La secta del Fénix," and my personal favorite, "El Sur") were appended to this omnibus collection.

Although I could devote hundreds of words (if not thousands) to each individual story in this collection, what I am going to do is briefly note a few characteristics associated with this collection, followed by more detailed explorations of a few personal favorites.  I will not do any translations for this; in part because English versions are widely available and anything I do on the fly may differ in subtle ways from the available ones from the past 50 years or so.  I will note, however, that Borges' Spanish is very Anglo-American in style, though, as there is not as much ornateness to it as would be found in the majority of Latin American fictions from this time period.  In fact, that deceptive simplicity in the prose (something that I remember the English translations capturing for the most part, although it's been years since I've read any Borges in translation outside of an odd story or two included in an anthology) is what makes these stories all the more memorable.

Several readers might remember Ficciones for stories such as "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius," where through a look at language of a fictitious place/culture leads to a haunting conclusion, or perhaps "The Circular Ruins," where Time itself seems to bend and twist.  Maybe stories such as "The Library of Babel," with its infinite qualities are what appeal to readers most (it certainly seemed to appeal to Gene Wolfe and Umberto Eco, who each wrote novels that reference this quality), or possibly "The Babylon Lottery," where Chance and Fate are revealed in lottery form.  Or could it be "The Garden of Bifucating Paths" that grabs someone's attention most?

There are so many choices here for stories to examine.  But I am going to limit myself to three:  "Pierre Menard," "Funes the Memorable," and "The South."  Each of these three differs significantly in form, content, and theme from one another, but all are personal favorites of mine because of what Borges accomplishes in each story.  Hopefully, these are favorites of those reading this as well.

"Pierre Menard" reads as a satire of literary criticism.  At first, the pages devoted to outlining a curious list of fake research, conmingled with actual writers and philosophers, may seem to be too much of a conceit.  However, it sets the stage perfectly for Borges to mock those writers, historians as well as literary critics, who desire to discover everything new under the sun, hoping to draw attention to themselves by devising a new way of discussing old matters.  His Pierre Menard, who sets out not just to recreate Cervantes' Don Quixote but rather to create anew this classic, not only succeeds as a satire, but it also broadens its target.  Each generation has a tendency to reinterpret the old, taking words and expressions from past generations and imbuing them with context and meanings specific to our own.  When Menard creates anew that famous passage from Ch. 9 of Don Quixote talking about History, the interpretative twist given to how the two identical passages now supposedly have two separate and very different intents and interpretations creates a situation where the reader may realize that not only is s/he involved in reading a satire of literary critics who want to reinvent the interpretative wheel every generation, but that this extends to readers as well who choose to reinterpret passages to fit their own time-specific needs.

"Funes the Memorable" is one of the most chilling fictions that Borges has ever written.  In re-reading it, I could not help but to think of H.P. Lovecraft and Horacio Quiroga in how Borges constructed this story of a man injured in a fall and condemned to remember everything in his life.  There is a slow, creeping horror in that tale, as Funes outlines just what it means to have an infallible memory.  Perfect recall, Borges posits through Funes, perhaps is not an ideal situation, considering how much healing can take place in oblivion.  Funes' tragic end still stick with me, eight years after I first read this story.

"The South" is a multi-layered story.  At first, it reads as a man who wishes to die in a knife knight, gaucho style.  This story references several elements of early 20th century Argentine (and especially gaucho) culture, with the knife fights and machismo.  But there is a second layer, one that isn't apparent at first, but when read closely, can change the perspective of this story into something more illusory and dreamlike.  The character of Juan Dahlmann (incidentally, I chose this name for the title of my mirror blog, Vaguely Borgesian, because of how much I identified with parts of this character's personality) adds poignancy to this tale.  Why is he wanting (or dreaming) of going South, away from the City, to fight and die?  What motivates him to push on, to change who he was?  It is this central mystery about the character and if what I read should be taken at face value or questioned immediately that made "El Sur" my favorite Borges story.

But as I noted above, I could have easily discussed each and every one of these stories with individual paragraph(s).  Ficciones is one of the rare few anthologies where even the more relatively obscure stories are stronger than those that would appear in most authors' "best of" collections.  There is not a single story in here that I did not enjoy greatly.  Borges' stories made me think, made me puzzle out what is going on, made me question matters of Space and Time, and made me ponder how I read and interpret the stories that I read.  I have re-read this collection probably close to a dozen times and each time I find myself marveling over what Borges has created here.  Ficciones simply is among the handful of books that I would hold up as being wonders of human literary invention.

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