A Review of Jorge Luis Borges’ Collected Fictions
Originally published in the Rain Taxi Review of Books, Summer 1999
By Jorge Luis Borges
Translated by Andrew Hurley
In truth, this volume only collects the fictions written solely by Borges himself, omitting the works he produced in collaboration. Most sorely missed are the stories penned by “H. Bustos Domecq,” the collaborative pseudonym of Borges and his friend Adolfo Bioy Casares. But at 565 pages, Collected Fictions amply attests to Borges’ singular genius. Beginning with his first fiction collection, A Universal History of Iniquity, and ending with the prose pieces from Shakespeare’s Memory—and omitting all works of poetry, essay, and autobiography—the collection focuses on what made Borges famous: his stories. A notorious trickster, however, Borges often disguises essays as fiction, fictions as essays, and tosses in poetry and autobiography everywhere so that genre boundaries are almost completely blurred.
Perhaps the most representative of these possibilities is “The Library of Babel,” a mind-boggling account of a universal library containing every book with every possible combination of letters. Laying out the librarian’s tangible world with a precision reminiscent of (and inspired by) Kafka’s “Metamorphosis,” the story mirrors our own world by exploring the limits of human comprehension. It’s impossible that the library is infinite, as there’s only a finite number of lexical variations, but it’s also impossible that the library could have outer boundaries, that somewhere there’s a place that the library doesn’t exist. And of course within the library are librarians, each one a Borges forced to deal with the awful parameters of his universe.
As for this specific collection, translator Andrew Hurley has done a tremendous job with such a Babel-sized catalog. Translating Borges’ earlier, more poetic works as clearly and as sharply as his later, more pared-down ones, Hurley gives us an almost seamless view of the Borges world. Not without his idiosyncrasies, though, Hurley makes a few weird word choices (e.g. “gaol” for “jail”) and adds inconsistent (and sometimes Kinbotian) annotation. He also dismisses the word “memorious” as “Lewis Carroll-esque” (I can think of no greater compliment) and re-translates the title as “Funes, His Memory.” But these are quibbling criticisms. By giving us access to so much Borges in one place, Hurley has done an awesome service to the English language. As long as we can get over moping about how little Borges has left for us to do, this collection is likely to inspire English-language readers and writers to re-discover just what the a mind can do when faced with an infinity of fictional possibilities.