Rating: 5 Stars
I’m never going to be a writer. When I was younger, I had dreams that I had some unique voice that would echo forever throughout the ages. I imagined that I’d be somewhat like Kafka, ignored and forgotten in his time, but whose work so presaged the alienating, isolating, impersonal mechanistic world to come in the twentieth century that he could very well be remembered centuries by now.
It never went beyond dreaming, alas. No impoverished artist starving in his garret for me.
However, as I read, sometimes I come across a work of fiction and I kind of smugly think, well, I can do better than that. How hard can it be?
And then I read a work like Ficciones. And I say to myself, I could never do that. I can’t even conceive of how anyone could do that. As I read, I don’t often come across a writer that is, quite simply, sui generis. That is Borges.
Nearly every story in the book left me thinking, exactly what the fuck did I just read? This was especially true in the first half collection, The Garden of Forking Paths. Every story seemed so simple, but yet at the end, my mind was blown. His little stories, nearly all of which were somewhere around ten pages or less (one might have approached twenty), expressed some deep philosophy or paradox or conundrum that left me shaking my head in wonder and laughing out loud.
A major theme is labyrinths. He is clearly preoccupied with infinity and what infinity means in a finite world. In an infinite world, everything can happen, but since it’s infinite, it ultimately means that effectively nothing happens. The Library of Babel is a library that contains every book every published by that culture, but not only that, it contains every possible sequence of letters possible in that language. This outrages a sect of people, who come in and destroy millions of books. Of course, no matter how many books they destroy, it has no impact on the library. Another sect believes that every single individual has a book in the library that completely describes his/her life. They wander through the library for years and decades looking for their own book, of course never finding it.
Another work, Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote, posits an author, in the current age, who has decided to write exact copies of three chapters of Cervantes’s Don Quixote. Note that I’m not saying that he’s writing a modern adaption of it. I’m also not saying that he’s sitting down and copying from it. Menard is actually trying, as a writer, to create a circumstance that allows for him to create a work of fiction that happens to be identical, word for word, to Cervantes’s novel. After many thousands of drafts and decades of work, he finally accomplishes it. Menard’s biographer (Borges, presumably) discusses this and then reviews Menard’s work. Even though it’s a word for word copy, the biographer judges it to be a superior work to the Cervantes original (an exact duplicate, let me remind you) because of the depth of meaning that it takes on as a result of being written by a twentieth century author.
Mind fuck, commence!
Seriously, there are several stories like this here. The nature of reality and what is fiction is constantly being intermingled so that you have no idea of what is true. Deep philosophical questions are raised. A seemingly trivial story about a possibly falsified encyclopedia ultimately leads to a discussion of what kind of civilization would exist if it had no concept of a god. A spy story ends up imagining how a novel of infinite plot branches would function, and of course, ends up intersecting with the reality of the moment. A simple story about a lottery becomes a dissertation on the nature of God.
I can go on and on…
Reading this I was reminded of Emily Dickinson’s poems. She writes these little twenty word poems in which the mystery of life is explained if you work at it hard enough. Similarly, Borges expresses more ideas in these little stories than even serious literary authors do in their maximalist postmodern novels.
Seriously, read this book!