Tuesday, June 1, 1999

Jorge Luis Borges’ Collected Fictions (review #2)

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
Viking ($40)

Lamenting the exhaustion of literary forms and ideas in the wake of Modernism, Cynthia Ozick once wrote, “after Kafka, after Borges, what is there to do but mope?” She answers the question immediately with a discussion of Italo Calvino, one of the most inventive of the post-Borgesians (everything after 1944 is post-Borgesian), but the sentiment lingers. Building one of the most towering fictional—and often fictitious—catalogs in modern literature, Borges wrote with infinity in mind. Writing in Spanish, though, it took a while for his infinities to infiltrate the rest of the world’s literature, and over the years most of us have had to make do with teasing samplers and greatest-hit packages, only guessing at the labyrinths hidden just a little south of the equator. But now, with Collected Fictions, the tower of labyrinths stands tall—freshly translated and, like the encyclopedic world of “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” poised to preclude any other reality.

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.

Written with an almost mathematical rigor and employing a dizzying combination of the tangible and the infinite, Borges’ stories reveal a world of palimpsests existing simultaneously with our own. To read Borges is to feel an eerie sense of recognition—recognition of spaces and times that we always knew existed somewhere in some catalog of possibilities but which we’d left filed away because we’d been incapable of fully imagining them.

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.

Another sense a Borges reader gets is that the stories are all variations—or rather versions. Not of the same story, but of the infinite stories that exist everywhere. His earlier works are all sly combinations of the original and the stolen, and his Internet-speed erudition links it all together in a way that makes it impossible to tell what’s made up or who made it up. Gaining momentum quickly, Borges’ second collection, Ficciones, finds him in full command of the genre, but it’s even clearer that, no matter how brilliant and original he is, he’s more of a medium for the infinite than an autonomous creator. It’s Ficciones that contains “The Library of Babel,” as well as the masterful “Funes the Memorious,” an examination of memory and the mind’s relationship to the world. Funes, a character as memorable—and elusive—as any in modern literature, serves as a metaphor for Borges’ sleepless battle with memory, his inability to forget illuminating Borges’ role as cipher for the universe’s stories.

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.

—David Wiley

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