You who read me… are you certain you understand my language?
Although I’ve read far too little of it, magic realism has always appealed to me viscerally; Jorges Luis Borges is, if not a magic realist himself, certainly connected with magic realism. I am, as you’ll have noticed, a world-builder by hobby; Borges is widely regarded as a patron saint of world-building, second only to Tolkien himself. It should be a surprise, then, even given my slovenly attitude to reading, that I didn’t read anything by Borges until I was already at university. I only have one book of his, and this marks only my second read of it. Again, I’m not really sure why, as I know I enjoyed it last time.
Fictions is a collection of short stories, divided into two halves. At present, I only intend to review the first half, The Garden of Forking Paths, but I’m sure I’ll return to the second half later. That I cannot summon the enthusiasm to read the entire collection in one go should not be seen as a criticism of Borges; although I’m willing and able to plough hurriedly through the thickest of multi-volume epics, I encounter a strange repulsion when attempting to read a collection of short fiction. Picking up each story feels like picking up an entire novel for the first time, which for me is a mighty task, however much I expect to enjoy the contents. It’s remarkable I’ve even read this entire collection – probably one of only two short fiction collections of which this is true, though I own many other fine examples I have put down after a particular story with the honest but vain intent to revisit at a later time.
The Garden of Forking Paths contains (at least in this version) eight stories, none of them particularly long. The particular translation I have is one by Andrew Hurley, published in the Penguin Classics series – I assume that this translation is adequate, though the translation issue does of course enjoin us to give the original author a little more charity in our complaints.
The first story is the famous and beloved Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius, almost an aquila for the world-building community – a rare story not only by us but about us. Unfortunately, time has not fallen on it kindly, and an early, foundational section about the language of Tlön feels truly painful – the sort of idea that might well have appealed to an early-20th-century European dilettante, but that is as transparently naïve to the modern reader as De Las Casas or Montagne discussing the noble savage. No noble savage here, but an alien, exciting savage. Borges may not be European in geography, but he speaks a European tongue, and this bias is uncomfortably clear in his exoticisation of, and miscomprehension of, what is fundamentally only the mundane sort of native language spoken by many of the pre-European inhabitants of his continent. These are the sorts of (obvious but ultimately nonsensical) linguistic ideas that appear instantly to every Indo-European child who embarks on language-creation, and it’s unsettling to have a master like Borges take on the position of a neophyte. I am perhaps doubly cursed, as I am (have been?) also a philosophy student, as the next development, idealism, neither follows coherently from the linguistic fancy nor is particularly original or engaging – Borges himself makes reference to Schopenhauer and to Berkeley, and unsurprisingly I found that both Berkeley and Schopenhauer presented their ideas more convincingly, and intriguingly, than Borges can. I had a brief moment of delight when I found what looked like an early example of what we might call the Pratchett Principle, that belief shapes reality, only to find it was less creative than that – merely the belief that observation shapes reality*. The idea is put forward appealingly, even strikingly, but cannot hold the attention. The general topic of conworlding is gratifying but, for a conworlder, unexciting; the final twist is unconvincing (and better explored in some of his other stories), and the absolutely-final inversion is brilliant but unexplored. I felt constantly that I should be liking this story, but in fact felt only that a great writer was trying too hard to talk about things he knew too little of.
EDIT: Some days later, the obvious symbolic meaning has finally occured to me, and I am reminded yet again just what an idiot I am. That he should have hidden the meaning of the story in what is, essentially, a bare pun, did not occur to me – I was not even looking for a hidden meaning at all. What does this change in my opinion? Not as much as it might, for it seems to me that the symbolism is secondary to the discursion – an added barb to the wire. Undoubtedly, it adds a greater degree of pathos, and makes the structure seem better-judged, by casting the ending in a new light. Nonetheless, the symbolised is not really examined in any depth by this story, and none of what is examined is shown in an entirely new light. It improves, but does not rescue, the tale.
The Approach to Al-Mu’tasim is a lighter work, and in style benefits from it – it is all well within Borges’ capabilities. That, frankly, is my complaint – it is no stretch at all. The story is the summary of a book that doesn’t exist, following Borges’ stated project of merely describing books to save himself the bother of writing them – justified by his own nature as ‘a more reasonable, more inept, and more lazy man’. In this case, he succeeds in painting the idea of a great novel – a novel I should like to have written myself – but fails to justify this attempt. It is a description of a great novel, but neither the novel nor the description are astounding nor unique – many authors less famous than Borges could have written this just as (or almost as) well. Perhaps this is a personal bitterness speaking here: I find it very easy to narrate to myself, or even to others, the plots and themes of novels I intend to write some day, but rather more difficult to actually write those novels (witness my writing this because my own novel has stalled and I have not yet deduced the proper path through it). Perhaps I should just give up trying to write, and instead try selling summaries as short stories. It has often been remarked that there is no author like Borges – a cynical (and admittedly unfair) explanation might be that no author will ever again be able to get away with writing (or avoiding writing) like Borges. Do not misunderstand me – this was an enjoyable and interesting story. It just wasn’t really worth reading – you may as well listen to your own future novels in your head, or, if you don’t have any, go and read a real review of an actual great novel. There’s plenty of them to choose from without making more. On the other hand, we should remember that perspective influences reading, and remember that this story did not originally appear as a story, but as an essay, posing as a genuine review (so genuine that, the myth runs, one of Borges’ friends tried to buy the book reviewed). I unashamedly remember (read: am reminded by a note in the book, read accidentally while searching for the publication dates I mention below, and return back up here to innocently add this addendum to a paragraph I completed some time ago) this now, and this new perspective has completely changed my opinion of the work – the deceit, or show of deceit, in my opinion justifies what would otherwise be without any great purpose.
If you think I’m being too harsh on Borges, know that I too was disappointed by my reactions. I remember being far more impressed last time – and in Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote, we can see why. This story is, in my opinion, genius, and explains why editors let him get away with fluff like the preceding story. It’s easy to think of this as a simple gimmick, but this time Borges actually pursues his ideas, and performs the sort of Copernican moment that he attempted, and in my opinion failed, in Tlön. Pierre Menard ought to be compulsory reading not only in literature classes but also in philosophy – a clearer and more persuasive blow for post-Enlightenment perspectives than a dozen tomes of Derrida (though I acknowledge a risk that a trained Continental philosopher may find the story derivative and barren – even here, however, the early date of the story should be noted).
The Circular Ruins can, like many of these stories, be read as a plain fantasy – a ghost story, I think – or symbolically, with the symbolism of course being debateable. Unfortunately, the tale is slight, and showcases a particular flaw of Borges – these short, scant stories can establish symbolic meanings between two planes of reality, but do not have enough emotional weight to really say anything about either, except in the broadest, most philosophical, least interesting terms. Ruins does not detract from this collection – it’s an interesting enough little read – but nor does it really add much, and is not in itself a reason to read the book, in my opinion.
I have little to say of The Lottery in Babylon – again, Borges seems to try too hard. His established default mode is to take some idea, not too far from the mundane, and follow it into what appears fantastical or absurd, until his descriptions are redolent with the double-natures of dreams and laden with intimations of revelation, and alienation. In Lottery, however, this mode is followed lazily – the pursuit is half-hearted and unconvincing, and the inevitable ‘oooh, isn’t it weeiiiiird’ passages feel un-earned. Rather than eroding the barrier between real and irreal, it feels as though Borges has simply run at the barrier, checked that nobody is looking, and slipped around the side.** Nor is anything in Lottery so striking or exotic as to outshine this poor construction.
Like Al-Mu’tasim (and arguably Menard), A Survey of the Works of Herbert Quain is meta-fiction – it describes stories rather than being a story. It is more varied, more exotic, than the earlier story, and hence more immediately approachable – but it is shallower, and less affecting. All the works of Quain described seem to hammer at a single point – which is, essentially, the poststructuralist application of perspectivism to literature. Again and again we are shown (as we are in Menard) that our interpretation of a text depends on our perspective; ‘readers’, as Quain says, are extinct, and we are all ‘writers’ now. Fine; but I am reminded of my reading of Dhalgren, in that I do feel an urge to shout “yes, OK, I know that, but what do you have to say that’s new?”. Come on, Quain! “the aesthetic act must contain some element of surprise, shock, astonishment – and… being astonished by rote is difficult”. Now, we must pause, and check again the date – Menard is from 1939, and Quain from 1941. Truth and Method still lies twenty years in the future; Derrida and post-structuralism, even further. I don’t know enough about the history of (particularly continental) philosophy to say how ground-breaking Borges was at the time, but even if he was not entirely original (and let’s not forget that he was half a century after Nietzsche and Dilthey) he was at least at the forefront of the wave (a difference from Dhalgren, which is a more affective and complex account, but written once the wave had passed). Surely we should credit him for that?
Well, yes, we should – but we should also be careful to look at what we are valuing when we give that credit. If we value that shock, that astonishment, that derives from something new, we are valuing something that is held hostage by the passing of time. This book predicts the wave, and so seems stale, familiar; that book walks out into the water by itself, and stands alone for centuries, a lighthouse that illuminates the shore. These vicissitudes of subsequent fashion have nothing to do with the work itself – or do they? If Quain is right, and we are all writers now, we cannot think of the story as we read it (or, we might say, the story as we rewrite it, renew it) as being identical with the story as a historical artefact, the story as written on that day or night long decades ago, pinned between the pages of an original copy. That copy is meaningless, because it can never be read – we are always reading our own story, because we’ve all read different introductory chapters. If that copy has become damaged, the ink washed away by the leak from a roof, it is no more unreadable. It does not exist ideally in the aether, without a reader, without a context, to be talked about unproblematically through the generations. All we can read is the story as it stands today. So if we give extra credit or demerit for some fact of historical interest (“did you know, when this was first read, the readers had not read anything like it?”), we are not marking this to the account of the story itself, the story as the living, breathing thing with which we interact (by which, we might fancifully suggest, we are temporarily inhabited as by a narrative loa), but as a historical artefact. I think that Herbert Quain expresses it well when he says that “I belong not to art but to the history of art” – and sometimes it does feel that, through no fault of his own, the value of Borges may be relegated to his place in the history of art. No fault of his own? Not so – the more an artist grasps for the present moment, they more vulnerable they are to the new colours cast on them when the light changes with the season – as much when they seek to exceed that moment as when they seek to imitate it. By putting such emphasis on ideas, Borges helps us to devalue his work in its role as art, as nothing is more dustily historical than an old idea. Whether Borges would be displeased by this is hard to say – Quain himself both rejects the fate (by regarding history as the lowest of subjects) and accepts it (by intentionally seeking the new and the shocking, inescapably trapping himself in his moment) – and given that Borges credits one of his own stories to Quain it is tempting to see one as the eidolon of the other. Frankly, I don’t much care either way – all I can talk about is my own view, and I would think it sad (though not dishonourable) if Borges were to be consigned entirely to history.
Of The Library of Babel… I have very little to say. It stands with Tlön and Lottery as another journey-of-a-thought fantasy. Unlike those stories, its concept and construction are genius, and beautiful too – at once a wholly fantastical thought-experiment and a soft symbology of human beauty and folly. I don’t think it could be improved.
Finally, there is the story of The Garden of Forking Paths itself, which represents something of a change in tone from the rest of the collection – as it features an actual character. Two stories are combined in one – a simple but effective puzzle-story about a spy, and a long discursion into the nature of time. The former is truly pleasing, though its conclusion is rushed and simplistic; the latter feels sadly familiar from the intersection of Library and Quain – the collection would have benefited from putting this story before those, I think. The combination itself, the twist, is audacious and surprisingly pleasing, given how easy it would have been for such an authorial conceit to be obnoxious.
Regarding the demi-collection as a whole – I have made note of my own scores for it, but I shall wait until I have finished the second half, when I’ll give my over-all view of the collection.
EDIT: second half of the review up here
*A suggestion: the Pratchett Principle is a cargo-cult extension of Protagoras’ belief that all beliefs are true. From this, we leap, with the addition of causality, to the idea that things are true because they are believed, and that if they were not believed they would not be true – and we have the world of Discworld (and many others). Borges, on the other hand, chooses to extend Berkeley, which is less impressive as it has been mostly done by Berkeley already. Tlön, we might say, is merely Berkeley’s world without his god – an interesting thought, but one only hinted at by Borges.
**I’m reminded of beautiful description (by Nagel, iirc?) of our attempts to deal with scepticism. He divided the approaches into the heroic, the tragic, and the oblivious. We stand and observe our destination, kept from us by a gigantic chasm. The tragic philosopher walks to the edge and weeps that he cannot cross; the heroic philosopher takes a great long run-up and leaps out across, and into, the abyss, to his doom; the oblivious philosopher walks with determination to the edge, turns to put the chasm at his back, and declares to those who watch him that he has succeeded, and is now on the other side – the writer suggests the infamous example of Moore’s hands for this last category. I think perhaps something could be said of the delimning of the real: realists dig a chasm; magic realists try to fill it in again; Borges at his best builds the sort of solid, slender bridge that gets us to the other side but fills us with vertigo in the process; but at his worst, he sometimes seems to simply come to the chasm and turn his back.