Wednesday 14 January 2015

Reading the Classics: Ficciones by Jorge Luis Borges

Studying for my online course, The Fiction of Relationship, took a back seat over Christmas and I'm now so far behind that the programme has officially finished. Happily, I discovered all my links were still working and was soon absorbed back into the world of Brown University and Professor Weinstein's video lectures on Borges's Ficciones.

Jorge Luis Borges (1899 - 1986) was an Argentinian writer and translator of short stories, essays and poetry. His work is widely regarded as abstract and esoteric, making him an unusual choice for this particular syllabus, as course tutor Professor Weinstein freely admits. His argument is that Borges regularly takes the theme of relationship into strange, uncharted precincts.

In Ficciones, one of his most well-known short story collections, Borges stretches and destabilises accepted notions of identity and frequently introduces a 'who am I' riddle into his narrative. The Shape of the Sword, for example, contemplates an Englishman with a face 'traversed by a vengeful scar', but our perceptions of this man are completely turned around by the ending.

Ideas come first for Borges, taking on a life of their own. In the story Funes The Memorius, Ireneo Funes's mind is altered by a fall from his horse. He is no longer capable of abstract thought and is irritated to find that a dog seen from the side at three-fourteen in the afternoon is described as the same dog seen from the front at three-fifteen. Funes has a prodigious memory and observes each momentary perception in the minutest detail. He'd be a natural on any mindfulness course, but Borges captures the exhaustion of life at this extreme:
With one quick look, you and I perceive three wine glasses on a table; Funes perceived every grape that had been pressed into the wine and all the stalks and tendrils of its vineyard. He knew the forms of the clouds in the southern sky on the morning of April 30, 1882, and he could compare them in his memory with the veins in the marbled binding of a book he had seen only once, or with the feathers of spray lifted by an oar on the Rio Negro
In The Secret Miracle, Borges bends the perception of time in a different way, as his protagonist Hladik, facing a firing squad, wishes to complete an unfinished play before his imminent death. Conventions of time and place are transcended as his mind constitutes his freedom, but only for a finite period. In Borges's world, bills are paid and, ultimately, there is no cheating. In the end, Weinstein posits, we are all standing in front of that firing squad.

Borges will also take a familiar story and explode it. The House of Asterion tells the tale of Theseus and the Minotaur from a different point of view and Three Versions of Judas suggests that, far from being a figure we should revile, Judas sacrificed himself to deliver the betrayal necessary for Christ's salvation. If we are all human pieces of a pre-ordained design, our world view is completely reversed; every negligence becomes deliberate and every death a suicide. As in The Traitor and The Hero, we fulfill the role that has been scripted for us, like actors in a play.

The Garden of Forking Paths is widely viewed as one of Borges's masterpieces and Weinstein suggests that the choice of forking paths we take throughout our own lives shapes who we are. We're in a constant state of evolution; he uses the image of a developing Polaroid film as a metaphor for identity emerging and gradually being defined.

A displaced Chinese spy fleeing capture has to convey to his masters the details of a city that should be bombed. Visiting the home of a man whose name he picks out of a phone book, he comes to view  him as no less a genius that Goethe. This man has solved the mystery of a labyrinthine book written by the spy's own ancestor, and explains it to him:
In all fictions, each time a man meets diverse alternatives, he chooses one and eliminates the others; in the work of the virtually impossible-to-detangle Ts'ui Pen, the character chooses - simultaneously - all of them. He creates, thereby, 'several futures', several times, which themselves proliferate and fork. That is the explanation for the novel's contradictions. Fang, let us say, has a secret; a stranger knocks at his door; Fang decides to kill him. Naturally, there are various possible outcomes - Fang can kill the intruder, the intruder can kill Fang, they can both live, they can both be killed, and so on. In Ts'ui Pen's novel, all the outcomes in fact occur; each is the starting point for further bifurcations. Once in a while, the paths of that labyrinth converge: for example, you come to this house, but in one of the possible pasts you are my enemy, in another my friend.
Borges suggests that no choice is definitive, each is the beginning of another choice. He is exploring the territory of 'The Road not Taken' by Robert Frost and defying Western logic, the binary of choosing A over B. In more contemporary terms, he has the outlook of a video games designer.

Ficciones is a densely-written yet riveting collection of short stories which expose the wiring of their construction and unlock possibilities of time and space. Borges often appears to be playing philosophical games; beginning by posing metaphysical conundrums to be unravelled and ending by confounding any expectations you may have had of the outcome. While I immediately understood why Borges is seen as the father of magical realism, it has taken Professor Weinstein's lectures to explain to me the aspects of these abstract works which reflect upon our own identity and relationships.

Image of Borges in 1951 courtesy of Wikipedia, Ficciones courtesy of Amazon. I read Penguin Modern Classics' 'Fictions' by Jorge Luis Borges, translated by Andrew Hurley and available from Wordery.


  1. Hi Claire, I haven't read Borges yet, but wanted to say thank you so much for your recommendation back in November of Marcelo Figuera's Kamchatka, which I just finished and adored. It is an incredible account of a young boys curiosity tinged with a desparate sadness at the circumstance he and his family find themselves in. I found it almost a celebration of the end of childhood, though we don't know what it was like for him in the years that followed. I would love to read about the teenage "Harry". Still thinking about it and collecting my thoughts, but so pleased to have been pointed towards it, thanks again Claire.

    1. It's brilliant, isn't it, so glad you enjoyed it! I love the idea of a teenage "Harry", it was very difficult to let him go at the end of the book. Also would love to see more of Marcelo Figueras' work translated - as far as I'm aware Kamchatka is the only one...


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