Sunday, November 29

Considering Jorge Luis Borges' “Collected Fictions”

I have a small rule. I call it “The ceding small portions of your life to chance makes it all more interesting rule.” It goes something along the lines of “Should I hear allusion to a particular work or artist at least three times in a brief span of time, I will endeavor to be audience to said work or oeuvre.” So, you can see how after finding an article comparing The Dark Knight and “Three Versions of Judas,” having one of my stories called “Borgesian” and reading an essay considering the Argentinian's treatment of death, I had no choice but to buy Borge's Collected Fictions. Granted, the last two coincidences are a bit of a cheat since the same friend who made that comment on my story wrote the essay on death, but I'm cool with all that. Otherwise I might have missed out on this master or, at the very least, been delayed in our introduction.

Borges' stories are singularly unique creations. From the fictionalized biographies that make the majority of A Universal History of Iniquity to the ideas masquerading as stories in Fictions and The Aleph to the fragments of thought in The Maker, I have never seen fiction like this before. Book reviews and obituaries become narratives, and the death of a street tough in Buenos Aires becomes poetry. These stories are powerful little punches, too. Borges' words make up 515 pages of the volume. One hundred-odd stories are collected. On average, each story is under five pages long. In this short space, Borges crafts lasting characters and powerful moods. It is a testament to his restraint and precision in word choice.

Despite this vast disparity in style, there is something that unifies all these works: a drive to exhaust all knowledge and imagination. In the fewest words possible Borges attempts to anticipate every argument and alternative to the central idea. The story is not complete until everything that could be written has been written. At times, this works. When the subject is infinity and the inscrutable, we find ourselves drawn up in the awe that must have inspired Borges himself. The implications of an infinite library or entire society governed by lottery are truly awesome to behold in Borges' stories.

At other times, this urge to explain fails Borges. His characters find themselves on the periphery of a great mystery that smacks of magic and the occult. They delve deep only to discover something quite mundane beneath all the complexity. For all the talk of futures and labyrinths, “The Garden of Forking Paths” is a murder mystery solved. There is no name in “Death and the Compass,” just revenge. After the first one, it already feels like a cheat. In such an heavy collection where it happens over and over again, it becomes tiring.

The dueling examples of “The Theme of the Traitor and the Hero” and “Three Versions of Judas” are revealing. The follow similar trajectories. Academics look into a legendary story. Academics discover a vast conspiracy behind it. Academics ultimately become accessories to the conspiracy's continued concealment. The difference? One deals with an Irish revolutionary and the other with the Christ. One is human and the other divine. One is scrutable and the other moves in mysterious ways. And therein lies all the difference and all the interest of all Borges' fictions.

Not that it would surprise me if this were Borges' purpose. He is a great commentator on his own work. Side characters from his earliest stories reappear decades later to tell their own tales. Many stories are told as though they were discovered in lost archives or told to him by the characters years later. In his explanations of the human, Borges may be making light of his own attempts to describe the indescribable. Just how far can he, a finite creature, go in talking about the infinite? In the end, these mysteries and all their wonder may be no more than illusions, and if they are, Borges is going to have the first laugh.

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