A Persian Cafe, Edward Lord Weeks

Sunday, 14 January 2018

Review: Jorge Luis Borges, Ficciones

Borges is a writer who I had been somewhat aware of for a while, read a few passages of and enjoyed, but never got around to reading deliberately. So when I set out a reading list for 2018, his collection Ficciones, generally regarded as the most accessible starting point in reading him, seemed an obvious inclusion.

Ficciones is a set of seventeen short stories, originally published in two separate volumes in the 1940s and then later collated; they first appeared in English in 1962. Borges wrote in Spanish, though he was heavily influenced by English writers, in particular G. K. Chesterton. There is a tremendous playfulness in many of Borges' stories, exemplified by my favourite story from the collection: Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote. Pierre Menard is a deceased author and the story is an appreciation of his work, in particular of his greatest project: an attempt to rewrite Don Quixote in the exact same words used by Miguel de Cervantes. The narrator of this story therefore takes Menard to have made a conscious decision to write not in his own native land and time, but instead in "the land of Carmen during the century of Lepanto and Lope". His Don Quixote is a wild and romantic figure, in contrast to de Cervantes' more pedestrian protagonist.

There are other wonderful stories. The Library of Babel is an excellent counterpoint and companion to Pierre Menard, Three Versions of Judas is another masterful piece of intellectual trolling, and The Form of the Sword and Theme of the Traitor and the Hero provide scintillating plots which blast by in only a few pages. Borges' writing style goes after my own heart, with numerous allusions to both the real and the imaginary. But the quality is distinctly uneven. The Circular Ruins is eminently forgettable. The End will seem quite pointless to anyone who is not already familiar with the Argentine national epic Martín Fierro. Perhaps the biggest disappointment is The Secret Miracle, a story about a Jewish playwright in 1940s Prague struggling to complete his masterwork before his execution by the Nazis. By a miracle he is allowed to unfurl it all to its conclusion, to put each word into place - but only in his head, and it dies with him. There's a fantastic basis for a story there, but it seems so incomplete. One might argue that the point would be spoiled if we were to know what this play is about, but I'm not buying that - we already know that he was granted this miracle to complete it, something which no-one else inside the story would have been privy to. So the content of this play seems like a massive missed opportunity to draw parallels with the greater story, to exude some moral about life, or to draw some dramatic irony with the situation in which the playwright finds himself.

Indeed, with several of the less allusive stories one begins to wonder why one does not simply read the Wikipedia page for each of the stories. Perhaps one does not gain so much intellectually from reading Pierre Menard that one could not also learn from the Wikipedia page, but Borges' charming voice makes the extra reading time well worth the investment. Some of the better stories combine abstract theorising and an actual story, again making them worth the time to read properly. But unless one enjoys all of the writing styles which Borges employs, one is liable to find some of the stories to be distinctly full of air and little else.

Overall, I definitely recommend the book - if nothing else, most of the stories are pretty short and there's a pdf of Borges' collected works to be found on Google for free, so the costs of trying him and not enjoying it are trivial. More importantly, while there are some dull stories the greatest stories are magnificent, and the good significantly outweighs the mediocre. But if, after a couple of pages into a story, you still have no idea what it's actually about, take that as a sign that it may be worth skipping ahead to the next one.

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