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January 3, 2013

Best Stories by Jorge Luis Borges

In 1961, the Argentinian author Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986) finally arrived on the radar screen of readers and critics when he received the first Prix Formentor, the (European) International Publishers Prize, at a time that he was already in his 60s - Borges' best work had appeared in the 1930s and 1940s. Now many translations of his short stories followed, in English (Ficciones and Labyrinths appeared in 1962) and other languages. Until that time, Borges had - except in his native country - only been known in France, where translations had appeared already in the 1950s, and Italy where Italo Calvino had enthusiastically written about his work.

 [Jorge Luis Borges - Photo from Wikipedia]

The rest is history - the mirrors, labyrinths, dreams and endless libraries of Borges now occupy an immensely important position in world literature.

In 1998 Viking/Penguin published Jorge Luis Borges' Collected Fictions, in a new translation by Andrew Hurley - until then, there had been several different translators, and although many were good enough, it is nice to have all Borges' stories in one and the same English voice, in what is evidently the most complete collection. Viking has also published companion volumes with anthologies of Borges' poetry and essays. The Collected Fictions is relatively complete, with only the strange omission of all works written in collaboration with others, such as The Book of Imaginary Beings (published separately by Penguin) and the many stories written together with Adolfo Bioy-Casares. Another editing decision I do not approve of is to translate only the prose from The Maker and leave the poetry out - although Borges clearly meant this as a unified work. And a third point of criticism concerns the notes, which are too scanty. One now has to keep Google open next to the book (luckily easier thanks to the recent proliferation of pads and pods). Why are publishers afraid of notes?

Borges stories were originally published in the following collections:
  • A Universal History of Infamy (Historia universal de la infamia, 1935)
    Mostly retellings of historical legends about famous impostors, including the Japanese Chushingura in "The Uncivil Teacher of Court Etiquette Kôtsuké no Suké." Original is the last story, "Man on Pink Corner" ("Hombre della Esquida Rosada"), a violent tale about gaucho machismo and a knife fight that brought Borges some notoriety.   
  • The Garden of Forking Paths (El Jardín de senderos que se bifurcan, 1941)
    The eight stories in The Garden of Forking Paths are all sublime, vintage Borges at his best. Borges explores the labyrinthine nature of reality and the impact of language on literature and philosophy. Several stories are concerned with imaginary books penned by fictional authors; reality and fiction have been seamlessly rolled into each other.
  • Artifices (Artificios, 1944) [together with the previous volume also brought out as Ficciones]
    Nine stories that continue in the same vein and on the same level as the previous collection.
  • The Aleph (El Aleph, 1949)
    The third great collection, although these 17 stories about the relationship between consciousness and reality and time and eternity are a bit more sprawling and less concentrated than those in the earlier collections. 
  • The Maker (El Hacedor, 1960).
    Aphorisms and sketches mingled with poetry. The complete book has been translated into English as Dreamtigers.
  • Brodie's Report (El informe de Brodie, 1970)
    11 new stories, written by Borges after he became world-famous - the popularity of his earlier stories must have formed an incentive to write another collection. Emphasis on gaucho's, like in the last story of A Universal History of Infamy, rather than imaginary books.
  • The Book of Sand  (El libro de arena, 1975)
    13 more stories. This time back to the theme of infinity.
  • Shakespeare's Memory (La Memoria de Shakespeare, 1983)
    Four final stories, published by Borges in a Spanish-language collection of short stories from the whole world which included tales by his favorite authors as Stevenson, Meyrink, Villiers de L'Isle-Adam, Bloy, Kafka, Poe, Wilde, Saki, Pu Songling, etc.
In all, Borges' fictional prose consists of about 100 stories, sketches and aphorisms. Many of Borges' works are hybrids - part story and part essay. Borges has been called "postmodern," in the sense that his stories are built on a huge range of other literature. Borges also employs fake sources, literature he himself has made up. His great examples were Poe, Kafka and, perhaps more surprisingly, Chesterton (Father Brown) - several of Borges' stories take the form of detective fiction (Borges is not very fond of Conan Doyle/Sherlock Holmes, who in his "puzzles" withholds crucial information from the reader).

Here are ten stories which I consider among the best (although this is very relative: all Borges stories are of the highest level, especially those in the Ficciones):
      • "The Library of Babel." ("La biblioteca de Babel", from The Garden of Forking Paths)
        In this story the universe consists of a labyrinthine library, built of interlocking hexagonal rooms, containing on infinite number of books, imprinted with every possible ordering of letters on a fixed number of pages. The majority of the books, of which the order is random, are pure gibberish, but in this infinite number of books the library must also contain, somewhere among its billion billion billion (etc.) books, every book written or possible to be written in the future. In other words, the library contains all useful information, but in such a random way that it is completely useless (there was no Google yet). Borges himself was a librarian - he served for many years as Director of the National Public Library of Buenos Aires. This story was the inspiration for Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose (1980), which features a labyrinthine library, presided over by a blind monk named "Jorge of Burgos."
      • “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” (from The Garden of Forking Paths)
        A spurious volume is found of a famous encyclopedia, containing an article about a mysterious country (Uqbar) which turns out to be part of an imaginary world (Tlön). As later becomes clear, behind this article is a conspiracy of intellectuals to imagine (and thereby create) a world known as Tlön, as an exaggerated form of Berkeleian idealism. In Tlön, the 18th c. philosophical idealism of George Berkeley is viewed as common sense and materialism is considered as heresy. Physical objects can be willed into existence by sheer force of imagination. The story later turns darker, as fascination with the idea of Tlön begins to distract people from paying adequate attention to the reality of earth. In this way, the story is also a protest against totalitarianism (which in the early 1940s when the story was written had the world in its grip).
      • “Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote” ("Pierre Menard, autor del Quijote", from The Garden of Forking Paths)
        A story in the form of an essay, a mock literary review of Pierre Menard, a fictional 20th-century French writer. After listing up Menard's work, Borges talks about his magnum opus, a word for word recreation of the Don Quixote in the original language. Borges uses this set-up to pose the problem of the interpretation of literary works, for Menard's Don Quixote, written in the 20th c. and therefore of necessity seen through different critical glasses than the original by Cervantes from the early 17th c., is "more subtle and richer" than the original - although both are word for word the same! "Every time a book is read or re-read... something happens to the book."
      • “The Babylon Lottery” ("La Lotería en Babilonia", from The Garden of Forking Paths)
        A vision of a society ruled by a random, invisible, and godlike corporation. All activities are dictated by a huge lottery. But the lottery gradually changes in a sinister way, when punishments are introduced, and participation becomes mandatory for all but the elite. Secrecy also increases:  "The Company has never existed, and never will." Rather than an allegory for the role chance plays in life, this is a dark vision of a dictatorial society. 
      • “The Garden of Forking Paths” ("El Jardín de senderos que se bifurcan", from The Garden of Forking Paths) A unique spy story about the elaborate strategy employed by a Chinese scholar, operating as a spy in England during WWI, for sending a message to his contact person in Germany. In the short compass of under ten pages we find an intricate plot, featuring Borges' trademark labyrinth, riddles, cross-cultural confusions, duplicitous role playing and an alternative reality angle. Borges also describes the concept that a novel can be read in multiple ways - in other words, he "invents" the hypertext novel long before its time! (This idea was put into practice by the Argentine author Julio Cortázar, whose 1962 novel Hopscotch can be read via various paths). 
      • “Funes, the Memorius” ("Funes el memorioso, from Artifices)
        An accident leaves a teenage boy, Funes, paralyzed, but with such a strong memory that every incident in his life is preserved in his mind and he can forgot nothing. But because Funes can remember every physical object he ever saw, he has no need of generalization and therefore lacks that ability. This in fact means that he is worse off than ordinary people - his detailed memory serves no purpose. In order to think, as in science and philosophy, it is necessary to make generalizations and abstractions. "To think is to forget a difference, to generalize, to abstract. In the overly replete world of Funes, there were nothing but details."
      • “Death and the Compass” ("La muerte y la brújula", from Artifices)
        A private investigator attempts to solve a mysterious series of murders which seem to follow a kabbalistic pattern; the principal clue is the unspeakable four-letter name of God (near the scene of the first murder is found the text "The first letter of the Name has been written"). The scholarly efforts of the detective, however, lead only to his doom - known to the criminal via newspaper accounts, they are used to set a deadly trap. In the story Buenos Aires is presented as a labyrinth, and the end takes place in the southern, lawless part of the city, the final frontier.
      • “Emma Zunz” (From The Aleph)
        I have selected "Emma Zunz" as it is a rarity in Borges' work: the only story where a woman is the protagonist! It is a seemingly straightforward - but shocking - tale of how its eponymous heroine avenges the death of her father, by killing the industrialist who drove him to suicide. She commits the "perfect crime" as well... (But one that in our times of DNA testing would not be feasible anymore).
      • “Borges and I” ("Borges y Yo", from The Maker)A one page story about Borges, the "I" (the Self) and Borges the famous author (the public persona). Gradually the author is taking over the "I", although, as the "I" claims, they are not at all the same and have different preferences. "Little by little, I have been turning everything over to him, though I know the perverse way he has of distorting and magnifying everything."
      • "The Gospel According to Mark" ("El Evangelio según Marcos", from The report of Brodie
        A naive student is trapped by heavy rains in the house of a rural family in the deepest Argentinian countryside. To pass the time, he starts reading to the illiterate farm family from an old Bible. The family is captivated by the story of the crucifixion as told in the Gospel of Mark, and he has to read it again and again, not realizing that the ignorant peasants see him as the Savior and have already erected the cross... (hear this story in a reading by Paul Theroux)
      From the time I obtained a copy of Labyrinths when I was at University, Borges has been one of my favorite authors. 
      Website on Borges
      Trivia: In The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco one of the central characters is called Jorge of Burgos; the library in the novel is also based on Borgian notions, as in The Library of Babel. And in Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville, the detective outwits an evil computer with poetry based on Borges.