Friday, December 11, 1998

Jorge Luis Borges’ Collected Fictions (review #1)

A Review of Jorge Luis Borges Collected Fictions

Originally published in Toast Magazine, Winter 1998

Collected Fictions
Jorge Luis Borges
Viking, $40

Ever wonder why American fiction got so weird so quickly in the 1960s? Why the likes of Thomas Pynchon, John Barth, William Gass, and Cynthia Ozick started weaving labyrinths that made nascent literary mighties like John Updike and Saul Bellow seem obsolete before their time? Aside from the advent of LSD, it’s almost as simple as this: Jorge Luis Borges got translated into English.

Borges’ world of infinite libraries, cabalistic societies, infinitesimal memories, and apocryphal histories had long been one of the main driving forces behind what came to be known as magical realism, but outside of Latin America, almost nobody knew who he was, and so when his greatest-hits collection, Labyrinths, reached the States in 1962, everything changed.

Over the years, several other volumes of poetry, prose, and essays followed Labyrinths, but now, twelve years after Borges’ death, Andrew Hurley has translated his entire catalogue of stories, prose poems, and parables into English.

Although there are no proper essays in the Collected Fictions, Borges often blurs the line between fact and fiction, frequently calling his essays stories and his stories essays. And he often writes himself and his friends into his pieces so that the reader never knows if what the story relates happened or not. The influence on postmodernism is clear (see William Vollmann’s work), and with the text falling back on itself to examine and question its own authenticity and authority, the reader often ends up getting lost in an ambiguous maze with no center.

But despite the literary games set up to undercut them, Borges’ stories are some of the most vividly imagined since Kafka’s. Take for instance “The Library of Babel.” The narrator describes his universe as an endless (or cyclical) library comprising an innumerable number of rooms, all identical and each with the same number of books. The books are identical in format, and each one represents a unique combination of the twenty-five lexical symbols. It sounds like a wanky philosophical exercise, but in Borges’ hands it’s a thrilling—and terrifying—examination of what happens to individuals when they’re faces with the infinite.

Take also “Funes, His Memory,” in which a simple country boy falls off his horse, hits his head, becomes paralyzed, and is ever after blessed (or cursed) with limitless memory. Borges spends pages recounting Funes’ mnemonic feats but then ends up lamenting how the boy’s infinite memory warps—and ends up replacing—his present.

Hurley’s task as translator is only slightly less daunting than cataloging the Library of Babel, but aside from a few inconsistencies and weird word choices (“gaol” for “jail”), he does an admirable job. The translation is lucid and readable, allowing the reader a clear glimpse into the worlds Borges imagined.

But be warned: Borges’ readers are no less at the mercy of the infinite than are his characters. The man’s awesome imagination and vast erudition are as terrifying as they are entertaining, and too much at one time can induce vertigo. But for the brave reader, there are few pleasures as satisfying as surrendering to such a monumental writer.

—David Wiley