The God of Small Things – Arundhati Roy

“Anything’s possible in Human Nature… Love. Madness. Hope. Infinite joy.”
Of the four things that were Possible in Human Nature, Rahel thought that Infinnate Joy sounded the saddest. Perhaps because of the way Chacko said it.
Infinnate Joy. With a church sound to it.

The more I think about The God of Small Things, the less I like it. As I’ve now thought about it quite a lot, and still really, really like it, that’s actually a compliment.

My copy comes complete with page after page of praise at the front. It’s effulgent, it truly is. It makes it out to be the great masterpiece of our age. I thought it was, the first time I read it. I think it works best at the first reading.

The truest comment in the praise is from John Updike, who says that it creates its own language. Surprisingly, this is actually true. It’s what’s great about the book – and also why I didn’t like it at first, when I was trying to read the beginning of it.

The closest explanation I can manage is that Roy is a Minimalist writer. Reading her novel was like listening to something by Steve Reich. Every time I turn on Vermont Counterpoint I am repelled by it, like diving into a very cold pool. Everything about the music is alien to me: it’s harsh, it’s repetitive, it’s simplistic, it’s obvious, it’s wholly impermeable. But I keep listening to it, and by the end, I love it, and hope it won’t end.

Like Reich – better yet, like Taverner or Pärt – Roy uses repetition as a device to create a womb-world of envelopement, a self-supporting aura, an almost religious awe, a sanctity. I know, that’s a poor explanation.

Elements – from styles to concerns to specific words and phrases – are hammered into us again and again and again, merely re-arranged a little, or very slightly altered, or combined in various ways. At first, the effect is alienating and ugly: but like the slow intonation of a mantra, what at first seems peculiar gradually encloses us in an attitude in which everything makes sense.

The initial rejection is tempered somewhat by the dual nature of the narrative. The God of Small Things employs a non-linear structure, in which two distinct but codependent ‘stories’ are told, with frequent interconnections between the two, and modulations into other time-periods. On central story is the story of Rahel, a thirty-odd-year-old woman returning to the house of her childhood, in Kerala, after a long period living in America. Her house is decaying, inhabited only by her repulsive great-aunt, a housekeeper, and more recently by her silent “two-egg” twin brother, from whom she has been separated since they were both children. The second story, which takes up most of the book, is the story of what happened to destroy their childhood together, when their cousin came to visit them from England. Diversions tell us the stories of various secondary characters, such as their great-aunt, their grandparents, or how the parents of their cousin first met.

The two primary stories alternate chapters, although not strictly – some chapters move between the two time-periods. They start the book together, diverge as we move into the middle of the book, and then come together again at the end: the structure mirroring Rahel’s return to her memories and her attempt to come to terms with them. In addition to time, there is a considerable stylistic difference between the two storylines: the adult line is narrated largely in a very sophisticated, arguable over-written voice, while the childhood line is told in a simplistic, almost patronising, infested-by-childishness manner. The first line: “May in Ayamenem is a hot, brooding month. The days are long and humid. The river shrinks and black crows gorge on bright mangoes in still, dustgreen trees.” Next paragraph: “The nights are clear but suffused with sloth and sullen expectation”. From a child-section a few pages later: “They also believed that if they were killed on a zebra crossing, the Government would pay for their funerals. They had the definite impression that that was what zebra crossings were meant for. Free funerals.”

When the distance is greatest, in the middle, the effect is stronger. Near the end of a child-section:

“Estha and Rahel had to sing in English in obedient voices. Breezily. As though they hadn’t been made to rehearse it all week long. Ambassador E. Pelvis and Ambassador S. Insect.”… “Their Pre NUN sea ayshun was perfect.”

At the beginning of an adult section:

“The sound of the chenda mushroomed over the temple, accentuating the silence of the encompassing night. The lonely, wet road. The watching trees. Rahel, breathless, holding a coconut, stepped into the temple compound through the wooden doorway in the high white boundary wall.”

Both storylines are kept blurred by a lack of temporal focus, in particular by the drone-note of the tragedy of the Loss of Sophie Mol – and although this doesn’t occur until near the end of the novel, I’m not spoiling anything, because the funeral occurs in a flash-forward/flash-back on page four. Throughout the book, we know what is going to happen at the end of it – as the novel says, “the secret of Great Stories is that they have no secrets[…] they don’t deceive you with thrills and trick endings. They don’t surprise you with the unforeseen. They are as familiar as the house you live in. Or the smell of your lover’s skin. You know how they end, yet you listen as though you don’t. In the way that although you know you will die, you live as though you won’t.” We don’t just know that Something Terrible Will Happen – we’re told it again and again. The only thing we don’t know is exactly how it will happen, and part of the point seems to be that exactly how does not really matter. The characters of the novel are only pawns in the unstoppable progress of history, the manifestation of an eternal storyline.

“His feet walked him to the river. As though they were the leash and he were the dog.

History walking the dog.”

Although the repetition of what is about to happen is at first annoying, it does have a purpose – it creates an air of horrible, beautiful tragedy. It is in tragedies, where we know that the ending will be hideous, that we most fully latch on to the moments of beauty.

And, no mistake, The God of Small Things is a beautiful book. It is… baroque. An ocean of baroques. Every sentence is a rare, misshapen pearl. The prose is often excellent, and the imagery is cutting, true, and innovative.

It is also a very real book. It feels as though it is about the world, not something apart from it as polished literature sometimes does. It has things to say, and it says them with great humanity and subtlety. Most of all it talks about love: not so much romantic love (though it does several types of infatuation, some of which may be construed as love) as familial love. Ammu’s tender, martyred love for her children, and Rahel’s silent, impotent love for her estranged twin are both touched on delicately enough to draw tears. Also noteworthy are the reflections on modernity and tradition, in which a new resort for Westerners is portrayed as a double-edged “Heart of Darkness” in the midst of a sea of Indian ‘cultural flavour’.

[The novel has been called post-colonial, but I don’t buy it. It’s true one character muses on the negative consequences of Imperialism, but to me the motivating forces in the tragedy are all deeply Indian (while the fact that the main characters are Syrian Christians (a sect imported from the Middle East nearly two thousand years earlier) rather undermines the notion of an Indian/Western dichotomy); if anything, the sin of the West (both through the Empire and through Marxism, both of which cast significant shadows in the book) seems to have been to fail to dismantle the native social systems, in particular the atrocity of caste, that they found there; and while the Heart of Darkness and the thinness and superficiality of culture that it embodies are certainly condemned – and indeed the small parts in modern America hardly show the West in a good light, though the Oxford sections are more neutral – to me it seems the sought of condemnation that is very native to the West. It is a critique of consumerism, capitalism, social anomie, alienation – all things that the West produces its own critiques of, and all things that characterise a later era than that of colonialism.]

So: it successfully builds tension, it is meaningful, and it’s affectingly written. What DON’T I like about it?

Well, let’s start with the prose.  Yes, it gets better as you get used to it – but it’s still overdone. In the child sections particularly, there’s a Limit to how Meaningful you can make a Sen Tence by Adding Capitalletters and Joiningupwords. And Breaking Sen Tences. Into little Fragments. They’re fine techniques, and they work, but they’re employed too monotonously. The adult sections are less blameworthy, but can still be tough going in places, because every damn noun has to have a damn adjective of some damn kind.

And not just the words, but the meanings! Please, please, let us just know what’s in the room without a page of metaphors and similes every single time? Some of the metaphors are brilliant. Most are good. And I LIKE writing full of metaphors. That’s how I like to write myself. But this is an object lesson in why I should try for restraint, because dear heavens it was annoying by the end.

More generally: Roy has little regard for conventional pacing. The pacing of events is fine, but the pacing of prose is not. Every sentence feels, as I say, like a pearl, very carefully, very precisely crafted and laid in a long string of other, very precise pearls. At the beginning of the book, this is a little boring, and by the end, when we really want to know what’s going on, it gets far too frustrating. I don’t know how much of this is intentional and how much is accident – after all, it’s her first novel.

Precise is one word – I’m tempted to say “precious”. At times she seems to care more about the delicate writing than about the plot. Most frustrating of all are the times when she feels the need to use half a page of five-word little paragraphs to flesh out the description of something perfectly well described already. It’s like being dared to skip ahead.

But it’s not just the prose. It’s the plot as well. I don’t like to sound callous, but not enough happens to merit the air of excruciating tragedy. Some bad things, yes, but… I think the biggest problem is that, despite the idea of implacable history and everything playing its part, it just doesn’t hang together. She seems to want to hang guilt on everyone and no-one as though all are implicated – but the blame can be assigned too simply in some places, and at other times it all seems down to random chance. Not even ironic chance. If you compare this book to the truly great tragedies, so finely and subtly plotted, it seems too haphazard and straightforward. It makes the atmosphere of tragic lament and foreboding seem undeserved – as though she’s trying to make it more powerful than it really is. As though she’s trying to intimate a symbolism that didn’t, to me, seem merited. It’s hard to say why – why does one story seem symbolic of the human condition, while another seems like just something that happened? I think that the lack of cohesion is particularly problematic in this novel because the foreshadowing tells us what will happen – all that remains are the details, and fundamentally the details don’t matter. We want to find out things that matter, the little missing links that explain things – but here, the details don’t explain it. We know as much at the end as we did at the beginning.

Part of it is the characterisation. Rahel, her brother Estha, and their mother, Ammu, are beautifully and sympathetically drawn. But everybody else? They’re flamboyantly described, made very clear – like background characters. I didn’t get the ‘why’ of their lives, I didn’t have them live for me like the main characters. Which is important, because these background characters – and there are quite a lot for such a simple, familial novel – are all powerful forces in the plot. In the absence of their own animacy, they can seem a little too much like authorial puppets. [Worst offender: Chacko. I know why the author thinks he would act as he does, but I don’t feel why. And it needs a pretty big why. It’s a really obvious why, and I know many if not most people would act like that. But characterisation is about more than being justified, it’s about being vivid, like reality but more so.]

And alongside that (perhaps explaining it): everyone’s horrible! The children can’t really be blamed, and I like the adult Rahel, maybe the adult Estha (it’s hard to tell). Why wouldn’t anyone like them, they have no flaws? Huge, gaping problems, sure, but no real flaws. Ammu is understandably under pressure a lot, and doesn’t deal with it perfectly, but is otherwise unimpeachably likeable. Velutha is flawless, and, in the one scene we meet him in, his half-paralysed brother seems likewise. Everyone else is fundamentally unlikeable. Pappachi is horrible, Mammachi is horrible but slightly to be empathised with in places; Baby Kochamma is nightmarish (again, while I understand her life-motivations as explained by her backstory, I still don’t empathise with them, fundamentally because I don’t believe the author does either); Chacko could be likeable in a well-meaning mild-mannered way, but he is too weak, too stupid, too selfish, too blind, too egocentric and too pathetic, as though she’s layering on reasons not to like him; Margaret Kochamma is bland, and though her backstory is quite benign, the author goes out of her way to give her greater flaws than virtues; Comrade Pillai is a villain through and through; the police are all bastards; pretty much every passer-by or spectator is a bastard, and so on. Rahel, Estha and Ammu: VICTIMS. Everyone else in the world: VILLAINS. Oh, sure, she doesn’t condemn them all, she tries to explain their actions… but it’s just unrealistic to me that so many seemingly likeable people should really act in such immensely blockheaded, petty, selfish and spiteful ways, without any opposition. I know that that CAN happen, but it must be warranted, it must be purchased, by making it make sense, emotionally as well as intellectually. Instead, often it feels as though the author presents one fact (what has happened to a character, often long ago) and then another fact (how they behave), as though the juxtaposition, and the intellectual knowledge that one fact can lead to the other, it’s been demonstrated before, we all know it, is a substitute for seeing how one fact actually organically grows into the other. It feels sometimes as though they’ve been written like that for plot reasons, with the backstory-justifications tacked on to prevent complaints. They don’t feel like central characters. In the case of the central characters (at least, Rahel and Ammu) the same thing is done, but more thought is put into showing how one thing leads to another. It’s still not entirely clear (particularly for Rahel, where the important parts of her life are missing from the novel), but it feels true. For Chacko, or for Baby Kochamma, it just doesn’t. And for background characters, that’s fine – but too much of the background is happening right in front of the camera.

[Perhaps the problem is just ambition. The fact that the backstories are provided suggests that the author knows these characters need some strong grounding – but there’s really not enough space to give them all enough life to function properly. It feels as though it ought to be a sprawling, dynastic family sage (it does cover four generations!) but in fact it’s a simple snapshot in only 340 pages, which isn’t a lot when you cover nearly a century from start to end and three continents and a dozen characters and want to throw in some local political, social and religious history along the way!]

That’s why this novel isn’t brilliant.

Adrenaline: 3/5. By the time I was halfway through, I was hooked, but not viscerally. My pulse was mostly unaffected. The end could have been more exciting, but the author’s refusal to up the tempo of the prose shackled the adrenaline.

Emotion: 5/5. I was on the verge of tears repeatedly, even if they never actually fell. And not all the emotion is negative, either. There’s a lot of… well, “Love. Madness. Hope. Infinite Joy” in the novel. The ending, in particular, is a long way from sad, though there is sadness behind it. No criticisms here.

Thought: 3/5. The novel depicts a complex society and deals with difficult issues, and as such requires a degree of cogitation. However, there is little overt or innovative consideration of the themes and little moral complexity regarding the background characters, while the continual repetition of the foreshadowing takes away the element of wondering-what-will-happen (although curiosity regarding the details can remain).

Beauty: 4/5. I have to compliment it on its prose – it’s very dense and hit-and-miss, but the misses are not calamities, and the hits are devastating. What’s more, it feels a lot lighter than it is – for prose so rich and thick, it’s suprisingly accessible, perhaps because so much is written from a semi-childlike perspective. However, it isn’t perfect: she doesn’t know when to prune back a little, she overdoes the foreshadowing, and the plot lacks the beautiful composition we hope for from a tragedy. Likewise, the background characters lack a little subtlety, and it all feels a bit forced. Then again, some scenes are beautiful, particularly those dealing with love and hope.

Craft: 4/5. Inventive imagery, reliable writing, more tension than you’d expect from something so simple, and an admirably light-feeling novel for how much content is rammed into it; a sophisticated structure that really works with, not against, the plot. However, as may be gleaned from the above, there are also flaws. These flaws can mostly be considered to spring from the slight lack of judgement expected from a first novel.

Endearingness: 4/5. Fundamentally likeable; I’ve recommended it to many people. Approachable yet deep; moving, with central characters you can reach out and touch, and a little agony in it that makes you never quite forget it. On the other hand… it’s not quite right. It feels a little bit too much like being lectured at, or listening to a woman’s therapy sessions (apparently, many details are autobiographical – my edition even provides a photograph of the author, to compare to the identical description of the main character). I think what I miss is a sort of sense of connexion between the author and myself, some collaboration; it feels too distant from myself. Not written for me, just in front of me.

Originality: 4/5. Innovative structure and prose, a distinct and real perspective on the world from a non-Western (or semi-Western) viewpoint. But no character stood out as unique to themselves, nor any events, nor any images or devices. “Indian post-colonial novel dealing with family tragedies and the injustices of Indian society, heavily influenced by magic realism although not actually magic realism itself”… doesn’t describe it completely, but it describes it too well and too formulaically for it to score a 5 for originality.

Echo: 1/2. If you remember, this is the category for how a book shakes my state of consciousness. This book did that to some degree… but only to some degree.

Overall: 6/7. Very Good. First time I read it, I thought it was brilliant. Second time, some of the lustre is gone. Nonetheless, it remains an exceedingly good book, and an astonishingly good first novel. I earnestly await the second!

Short Reply to BotF.

Following on from this post here, I thought I’d copy across a further comment. DF, having refused to answer any further comments by me, made this brief post on his blog.

In reply I said the following (shorn of comments at the beginning and end that situated the reply in its context, and that are therefore irrelevent here; please read the first half not as an attack on DF, but as a statement of what I am NOT saying, to elucidate what I AM saying in the latter half), which might make clearer what I was aiming at in my last post:


You would feel less as though you were banging your head against the wall if you hadn’t built your own entirely fictional wall to bang your head against.

Yes, everyone sensible agrees (including any respectable critical theorist) that critical theorists should be damned – their job is to describe, not dictate.

But in this particular instance – what on earth are you taking? Nobody has ever said that “world-building” is the only ‘correct’ (whatever that may mean) term. You’ve said we’ve said it, repeatedly, and every time you’ve been corrected. If you kindly took the time to read anything that anyone else had written, you’d notice that you’re deluding yourself through the creation of ridiculous strawmen.

Likewise, nobody said to you that real places were not real – that would clearly be ludicrous. Again, this is a fiction dreamt up by yourself, seemingly in order to justify your refusal to engage with criticism.

Similarly, you did not address why non-fantasists might not like the term – which is a good thing, really, since nobody cares whether they like or use the term – but rather tried to establish that there was a distinction behind the use of the term, which is an entirely different point. As we’ve all said, there are differences in connotation between the terms, and that can explain differential patterns of usage – this is irrelevent to the question of whether there is a denotational distinction, as I’m sure you are aware, being an intelligent man, however much you have tried to conflate the two in this discussion.

Finally, it is utter nonsense to describe this as a battle against “the epic fantasy people”. Just because people at that board generally like the work of one particular epic fantasy writer does not make us ‘epic fantasy people’. In my own case, I’d say that currently my favourite books are One Hundred Years of Solitude, The God of Small Things, and Blindness; going more strictly into fantasy, I’d put the Silmarillion and the Book of the New Sun as the most impressive works in the genre; the best book I’ve read this year was A Canticle for Leibowitz. Most books I read, however, are philosophy books. I don’t see myself as a mere “epic fantasy person” – although unlike you I don’t see ‘epic fantasy’ as a term of abuse.

What IS being said? Some key points:

– “setting” and “world-building” may differ in connotation and/or register, but there is no clear-cut denotational distinction underlying this usage

– all stories are fictional stories; their events do not happen, their characters are not people in the way that you or I are, their settings cannot be walked through, their cultures do not grow outside the page, and the intricacies of their plots are dictated by the fiat of the author, not by the free will of the protagonists, nor by happenstance or by the will of God.

– consequently, the inhabitants of novels are merely simulacra and mimicries of things we have learnt of in the world. All things present in the imagination take their substance from the things of the world, albeit re-ordered and reconstituted into forms that need not replicate those seen in reality. All novels are simulations, and all contents of novels are reconstitutions of the real. There is thus no literary novel that is pure of invention – not even a report of a real occurence is the same as the occurence itself; and likewise, there is no fantasy that is pure of the real and the grounded; the only distinctions are quantitative. An unambiguous worldbuilder like Borges, a borderline writer like Garcia Marquez, and a ‘realist’ writer like Roy are all doing the same thing.

– this being so, “world-building” should not be scorned and used as the basis for insult and deprecation, by comparison to the behaviour of a favoured literary cadre. Borges, Tolkien and Wolfe are just as respectable in their project (however good or bad their execution) as Garcia Marquez, Roy, or Rushdie.

– similarly, paying great attention to setting (eg Borges, Tolkien) is no more “nerdish” than paying great attention to character, plot, or style (although an excessive attention to any, at the cost of the others, will likely make a work less accessible to a general audience; conversely, such works are likely to be praised by certain afficionados of that element; this is a matter of taste).

Reaction: The Story of San Michele

“A man can stand a lot as long as he can stand himself.”

“I repent little I have done; I retract nothing.”

“What you keep to yourself you lose; what you give away you keep for ever.”


“One of the FAMOUS books of this century”, says the cover. It can’t be denied: published in 1929, it was on its twelfth English printing by 1930, when it was the best-selling non-fiction book in America. Nor was it a transient phenomenon – more copies were sold of the seventy-fifth printing than of all the editions in the year it was first published. It has been published in at least forty-five languages, and a bestseller in most of them; at least one translation, into German, sold over a million copies itself – I assume the same is true of French, Italian and Swedish at the least, but I can find no figures on a cursory search of the internet. Certainly, it is probably one of the most read books of the 20th century. My copy is from the early 1960s, and is from the 81st printing.  I speak, of course, of The Story of San Michele, by Axel Munthe. It has enjoyed impressive success – for a book that was archaic in style and content even when it was first written.


Although he disliked the description, San Michele is the memoirs of a doctor – the youngest doctor in modern French medical history, in fact, being fully qualified at the age of 23. In later life, Munthe was a minor celebrity himself, as a writer, philanthropist, friend and host to the famous, and personal physician to the Queen of Sweden – but his memoirs focus primarily on his life in the late 19th century, when he worked as a fashionable doctor in Paris and Rome.


This has hinted at the most noticeable thing about the book: it makes no attempt whatsoever to pander to the audience’s expectations of what will be interesting. Munthe tells us, in essence, a long series of anecdotes – but they are the anecdotes that he wishes to tell. In one of the prefaces (they were accreted over the years as editors demanded new prefaces for new editions), he admits quite openly that regarding his own life he has “left out its saddest and most eventful chapters”; he expresses a wish to “leave the dead in peace and the living to their illusions.” He even goes so far as to claim: “I am not a bookwriter and I hope never to become one. The Story of San Michele was the result of an unforeseen accident”.


Just how large the missing chapters are only becomes fully apparent once the reader learns a little of the author’s own life. The Queen of Sweden is only mentioned once or twice, and only elliptically. He served in the Red Cross during the First World War; there is one throwaway mention of the horrors of Verdun, and another about treating maimed soldiers who had been heaped into a pile in a room. He was married twice; no wife is ever mentioned, nor even any but the briefest of romances. He abandoned his own honeymoon to treat a typhus epidemic on Capri – I think the existence of the epidemic is mentioned in one sentence, but not his role in it, nor his honeymoon. His second wife was English; he moved to England, and became a naturalized British citizen; his citizenship is mentioned in a preface, but there is no account of his decades living here. He had two children by his second wife, but they are not mentioned.  Munthe clearly is not writing a confessional, and feels no duty to be complete.


These omissions are possible because the book is not an autobiography, but only a collection of memoirs. There is no set timeline – events late in the book as a general rule occurred later than those early on, but as between neighbouring chapters there is no way to say which precedes which, or whether they are simultaneous. A servant is dismissed in one chapter, only to be mentioned again in the next, still employed. One chapter may span several years – only for the next to return to the beginning. Frequently, the author seems to have intentionally defied the reality of time: the events of ten years are compressed into a single turning of the seasons, while a week may seem like years. Each chapter generally has one (or sometimes two) themes, and, at least at first, deals almost entirely with that theme – if he is talking about his demonic housekeeper, he does not divert into discussing his work, and if he is talking about a particular patient he will not digress into discussing his friends. This patchwork technique allows many things – even two marriages and two children – to simply disappear into the cracks without trace or indication. Later in the novel, he gains more confidence, and chapters twist in unexpected directions, generally following only thematic, rather than chronological, principles.


The reader may not notice his omissions at first reading; what they will notice is the reverse, when unmentioned things float suddenly into view. These are usually not significant to the plot, yet serve to continually tantalise – in one anecdote about an arrest, for instance, the police divest him of five pocket-watches, and when he gives his name they do not believe him, for he is not wearing his Legion d’Honneur at the time. Until this point, we have no knowledge of his “mania” for watches (although there are hints), and we have had no clue (nor reason!) that the man has been awarded the highest decoration in France. When a story requires him to have solitude on a train, he reluctantly and off-handedly admits to us that was at the time the doctor of one of the Rothschilds, who happened to own the railway company. If we pay attention to a certain string of names, we happen to notice his friendship with August Strindberg. Munthe does not boast of his associations – he seems instead to be ashamed of them. Certainly he does not view them as interesting.


The habit of concealing things from us, added to a tendency to mention things in passing as though known to us, even when they only feature later in the novel (for instance, there are casually cryptic allusions to Mamsell Agata many chapters before she is actually employed – or else the events of the two chapters have simply been inverted; it is impossible to say), creates a curiously oceanic, almost nauseous, disconnection from time and causality. We are left entirely in the hands of the author, to guide us in the appropriate direction, as we have no way of knowing for ourselves which things will prove important and which will not.


Unfortunately for us, this requisite trust is not without complications: Munthe is not a reliable narrator. He admits openly that he has made omissions, and distorted his account in places to make himself appear more admirable (though this is easy to forget, faced with his continual air of almost vain humility). He even enjoins us to accept the conceit that because only parts of the book were written by hand, and others only by typewriter, that only the former sections are really his responsibility, while the latter can be partly blamed on the collusion of the Corona Typewriting Company. He does not say which passages are which, but he is interested to know whether we can tell the difference – he has set out to play games with us, even if he would never admit it. This duality of pen and typewriter is only one part of the systematic plurality of authorship – the man who acts and speaks, the man who remembers, and the man who is writing down those reminiscences are all given to us as distinct narrative figures, and yet their voices are not distinct. I am tempted to think that this plurality is a conceit to allow him to contradict and undermine himself; and yet any sort of conceit or manipulation is difficult to combine with the honesty and integrity of the author’s voice – even if that voice may sometimes take, sometimes explicitly and sometimes through irony, to lambasting its own pomposity, naivity, and dishonesty. If we cannot trust the man, should we trust him when he tells us he is not to be trusted?


Some instances of this unreliability are unknown to us as readers – only through external accounts could we learn that his acquaintance with Charcot was probably not nearly so close as it appears in the novel. Other examples we cannot but suspect, particularly regarding women. He is vague about his relationship with one of his patients and what exactly happened on a moonlit walk, and though he protests his innocence he does it with such knowing coyness that he seems to be trying to tell us something different from what he says. At one point, he takes under his wing an ‘orphan’ child, so like him in appearance that everybody believes that it is his illegitimate child, and he even lets some of them believe it – but he insists to us that it is merely coincidence. At another time, he is expelled by Charcot, when it is found that he has hypnotised a vulnerable young girl into going to his own house for, it is assumed, nefarious purposes; he, of course, presents his own perfectly reasonable explanation for why he hypnotised her and gave her those commands, but do we really believe him? On the other hand, if, as it seems, Charcot barely knew him, should we even take this sensationalist little story at face value? With Munthe, it is clear that he often writes himself in a better light than he deserves; yet, at the same time, we cannot discount the possibility that he is also making himself look worse than he is. And yet it is hard to believe that he is simply inventing these episodes, if only because, from the preface to the finale, he is unwavering in counterposing his own honest experience to the ignorant fictions of other. When a reviewer speaks of how the book could furnish the writers of short sensational stories with plots for their whole lives, he austerely regrets not having become such a writer himself: “Surely it must be a more comfortable job to sit in an arm-chair and write short sensational stories than to toil through life to collect the material for them”. He even castigates writers of fiction: “Novel writers, who insist on taking their readers to the slums, seldom go there themselves.” Munthe, however much of the peripheral material we take at face value, has certainly been there himself – to the slums, and to worse than the slums. His apparent untrustworthiness almost seems designed to make us doubt his undoubtable virtues.


Partly, this is because Munthe seems to take a perverse joy in confusing us. Repeatedly, he says one thing and we believe another – only to see that he intended himself to be disbelieved. Again and again, we see the enormous vanity and arrogance of the character – only for he himself, or another character, to mock him for it, or, worse, to undermine our reasons for thinking him arrogant. At one point he gives himself an almost appalling speech about the inferiority of women – only to have himself undermine his own argument. Another character disapproves of his misogyny, but the conversation is interrupted by the arrival of some prostitutes, who it turns out are Munthe’s friends, and Munthe gives, in the most piteous and sympathetic tones, the terrible life story of one of them, in which he himself is featured in a positive light, while men in general are condemned.


Munthe’s character, in short, is complex and troublesome, particularly to the modern reader. He is arrogant – and yet he often seems to have a strain of self-contempt. That, however, is not enough for him – looking back with hindsight, he mocks both his vanity and his self-loathing, to the point where it is impossible to tell whether he is acting entirely sincerely or entirely ironically, and whether an action is from self-love or self-hate, and we cannot but suspect that many of his flaws have been inserted to make himself look better. He has an insatiable pity, and a love for all those who are weak, powerless, isolated or condemned. He likes and cares for nobody more than for prostitutes. This pity drives what we would normally consider incredible philanthropy – which is such a matter of record that we cannot doubt it: he risks his life fighting cholera in Naples, typhus on Capri; saving lives in the trenches of WWI, and in the shattered and polluted ruins of Messina after the great earthquake (which, for modern readers unfamiliar with the event, killed up to 200,000, including 70,000 in Messina alone); he spends his spare time working for free in the slums, fighting diphtheria epidemics almost single-handed, operating on kitchen tables; he helps the vets at the Parisian zoo; he volunteers to work with dangerous rabies patients, helping Pasteur develop a cure, and frequently with violent lunatics; he forces the women who rely on him for medical help to donate toys and clothes that he distributes to the poor. His home on Capri, he made into a refuge for abandoned pets (including two tortoises, an owl, a baboon, and a mongoose), and he gave up other land to make a bird sanctuary. He made a fortune through his career, and gave almost all of it to charity. And yet this is not philanthropy at all. When he refuses to send bills to his patients, and instead demands the clothes off their backs, it is just as much to humiliate them as to help the children. He admits that he cares far more for animals than he does for humans – it seems that humanity in general he treats with hatred and contempt. He is a misanthrope, and he includes himself in the contempt.


And yet, for him, this misanthropy is a double-edged thing. He seems to operate an inverse hierarchy: the weaker and more miserable a thing is, the more he loves it. This is why he prefers animals to humans, women to men, prostitutes to respectable women, and the poor to the rich. This explains the bizarre contradictions between word and deed: why, for instance, he happily opines that women are inherently inferior to men, and that the chief desire of women is to be dominated by men, and yet throughout the novel undoubtedly admires the female characters more than the male – for him, being inferior is something praise-worthy. Inferiority exonerates – if women sin, he says, it is usually because they have been forced to by a man. Those who are controlled are freed from guilt: guilt resides at the top of the hierarchy, and in the institution of the hierarchy itself. This spurs in him a certain antinominalism, a certain appreciation of all forms of disrespect, which produces a distinctly un-Victorian admiration for lustiness, and even criminality; and yet he has double-standards with regard to himself, accusing himself in word of being a ‘fornicator’, yet portraying his actions as continually unimpeachable. Regarding sex, there is also something of a double standard when it comes to gender: he tends to condemn men, including himself, for their crude sexual impulses, yet appreciate the same things in women – because for women it is taking something of their own from their relationships, while for men, who are generally in the position of power, it is connected too greatly to exploitation. I think that he thinks it admirable when the exploited are able to find some happiness in their exploitation, but terrible that the exploitation exists at all. It is at the lowest, most primitive point of humanity – whether naturally among the native Lapps of his own country, or forced upon the shattered people suffering after Messina, that Munthe, it seems, believes humanity is reduced to the level of animals, which is to say, from his perspective, elevated to the status of the divine. The most pitiable human being of all the book may be the poor Sicilian peasant who has lost her home and her family to the earthquake, suckling two babies by the side of the road – and it is she who in the imagination of Munthe becomes one with the highest deity, the Mother Earth itself.


Of course, Munthe himself would never theorise so systematically as I have above: such speculation would be ‘un-English’. Whenever he does diverge into theorizing, it is plain to see that he is mocking himself. In the discussion on women, for instance, it is never clear what their ‘inferiority’ actually consists in – he makes an attempt to show how pathetic, and rare, their efforts have been in every discipline of art and science, yet he ends by confessing, as though not noticing the contradiction, that the greatest of all poets is Sappho, and he has already admitted, in parenthesis, that as a general rule women are considerably more intelligent than men. Throughout the novel, he expresses disdain for the way he treated women as a younger man – not because of any error of theory regarding them, but as a weakness in himself. It is hard not to wonder whether he puts his misogynist views into his own mouth to further degrade himself, to make even clearer how even he has been inveigled into the structure of domination and exploitation. Certainly he does not try to hide it: his main method of treatment is to bring women under his control, through bullying and occasional hypnosis; this is justified because most of his patients are hysterical hypochondriacs, and need nothing more than discipline and a good hobby. It is plain he despises them as a group – and yet every one of them is described in sympathetic terms. As with mankind in general, he has contempt for the species, but affection for the individual – because as he gets to know the individual, he discovers their flaws, and their flaws are what make them attractive to him.


This is why his misanthropy is double-edged: by viewing people as contemptible, he views them as pitiable. He loves the weak and hates the strong, but by revealing the hateable flaws of the strong, he shows how they are really weak. He shows this paradox explicitly when he condemns Judas as “the greatest evildoer of all time”, yet questions whether he had any choice in the matter, and ends by comparing him to Christ himself: “Was there not in that night on Golgotha more than one man who was made to suffer for a sin which was not his?” To criticize Satan, Munthe naturally compares him to an aristocrat (what could be worse?), and even then ends by pitying him – “poor old Beelzebub!” he exclaims, “I am sure it is not easy to be a devil for one who was born with wings.”


Those who are cruel and controlling are driven by flaws (fear, lust, greed) that are painful and demeaning to them, and that often result in their own downfall. One example he gives is of Guy de Maupassant, who is portrayed extremely negatively – degenerate, drugged, a serial abuser of vulnerable young girls whom he seduces and abandons – and yet it is clear that Munthe has affection for him. With most authors, this would be a puzzling inconsistency, but with Munthe it makes perfect sense: it is because he is flawed that Munthe pities him. In the end, Maupassant’s cruelty to women is his downfall, as his lust drives him into pathetic madness (a form of syphilitic lunacy; he was finally placed in an asylum after a suicide attempt). Maupassant wrote his own epitaph: “I have coveted everything and enjoyed nothing”. This is why Munthe was his friend: Munthe simultaneously could look down upon him, not only for his actions, but for his sniveling pessimism, and yet at the same time admire the bold and unapologetic acceptance of inadequacy, which he seems never to have been able to achieve himself: Munthe clearly is infected with a strong love of life, and had no time for whiners, including himself.


This, perhaps, is why he portrays himself in a negative light: as a way of praising himself by making himself seem pathetic. Or, to see it the other way, perhaps he is condemning himself by making himself seem vain. Does he unabashedly show us his vanity in order to display his inadequacy, or is he so vain that he even want to show off his powers of self-criticism? And that forces us to ask the question: should we believe his self-criticism any more than his self-praise? The book seems underlain by the pathological paradox that I have set out – but was Munthe really pathological, or is he just making himself seem that way? It almost seems at times that he is an entirely healthy, even joyful, man who is merely affecting this distorted self-perception. He even has an adjective for it: ‘English’. He admires the English greatly for it, yet he admits that he is not very English himself. Another paradox to hide the first…


This bizarre combination of vanity and humility is seen most explicitly in a passage where, in a letter to the Swedish Consulate, he flippantly rejects the award of the Messina Medal, on the paradoxical grounds that his policy has always been to accept only honours he has done nothing to deserve (hence his vast array of them), and that as he did a great deal to deserve this honour, accepting it would be a risky endeavour that would likely introduce confusion into his philosophy. And yet, he promptly tells us, the apparent humility was really all “humbug” – the medal is still in his drawer. And yet he accepts the humbug wholesale when he defends his decision to keep it by admitting that he had done hardly anything to merit it. And yet he undermines that defence by listing some of the things he did – which, he is quick to retort, was nothing compared to what was done by the real heroes of the earthquake, and in most cases was nothing more than anybody else would have done. Except that, as we know but he does not remind us, most doctors would not have rushed to the disaster site at the first opportunity, and lodged each night with murderers and looters.


Let it not be thought, however, that this book is full of self-obsessed reflection. Indeed, part of the confusion is that it is almost entirely absent. The worldview I have laid out as either being Munthe’s or as being presented by Munthe as his own is never laid out explicitly, and must be gleaned from hints here and there. Indeed, there is almost nothing about Munthe at all. This, perhaps, is why his wives and children are not mentioned: they would be too close to him, reveal too much about himself. Instead, “Axel Munthe” seems often like a lens for observing the follies of the late nineteenth century – including the follies of young men, doctors, and writers of memoirs, as exposed through the reported words and thoughts of a certain “Axel Munthe”. Munthe himself, in the guise of gentle mockery, draws attention to this idea when he reports the view of an American reviewer that “Axel Munthe does not exist”. It is an appealing thought – and yet the essence of Axel Munthe, is so immanently present in every page, so seemingly real, so simple and unitary, that it is hard to accept the theory, even as it is hard to remember the inconsistencies and pluralities.


I have said a lot, without saying very much. Perhaps I should talk a little more about reading this book. As can be seen from all of the above, a large part of the fascination of the book is the nature and character of the narrator, who simultaneously seems so close and graspable that by the end of the novel he is likely to be thought of as a brother, father or eccentric uncle, and yet so distant and intangible that it is almost believable that he does not exist at all. He seems, like the book itself, to be both ironic and unironic at the same time, through careful attention to, and flagrant disregard of, the nature of irony. The character, and his story, can be interpreted in two quite contradictory ways: and neither way makes sense unless the opposite way is also assumed.


Munthe, however, is not the only interest. Although he says little about the many luminaries of European culture with whom he was good friends, he is nonetheless a fascinating window into the turn of the century – a period about which I knew little. Sometimes his own views are so extremely of their time that they may appall a modern reader – not only his views of women, but his views on criminal punishment (he believes criminals should be used for live medical experiments) and on homosexuality (or rather “sexual inversion”, a phenomenon then very much in vogue, which seemingly combined elements of homosexual and transgender behavior with physical androgyny). And yet, though his views are clearly of his time, they are so not because they state prevailing opinions of the day (indeed, Munthe is consistently contrarian and sceptical throughout his career), but because they are unacceptable even in his day, but unacceptable in a dialogue with the opinions of his day, in which the very premises are alien to us. Sexual inversion is a good example: the very concept is likely to be considered offensive these days, and yet Munthe’s views are hard to fault morally on their own grounds. Not only does he insist that there is nothing immoral about it, and that it should not be penalized by law, but he even claims that it is not a medical condition, but an act of God, and that it cannot be cured either physically or psychologically, even by hypnotism (as was then popular) – and that attempts to treat it almost always caused far more harm than good. This may seem unexceptional to us, but it should be remembered that Munthe was an acquaintance of Oscar Wilde, imprisoned for sodomy. For comparison, homosexuality was not made legal in Scotland until 1980. In 1952, thirteen years after Munthe’s book was published, Alan Turing was forced, at threat of prison, to accept a ‘treatment’ for homosexuality based on dosing him with female hormones. We should not condemn Munthe too greatly for not being modern, and instead marvel at the many ways in which he was not Victorian. While he accepts the moral panic’s claim that sexual inversion is rising alarmingly, and even describes it in seemingly critical terms, his final comment on the matter is to wonder whether, if the reports are true, sexual inversion is not the beginning of a new stage of humanity in which the genders are more equal: the “last survival of a doomed race on a worn-out planet, missing link between the Homo sapiens of to-day and the mysterious Super-Homo of to-morrow”. A conservative transhumanist… another paradox.


As for the book itself, Munthe is quite correct in saying that he is no bookwriter – many passages are constructed inelegantly, and in particular he lacks any ear for authentic dialogue. Most agonizingly of all, he is seemingly unaware of semi-colons: he uses them correctly, but writes them as simple commas, a mistake it is essential to correct in one’s own head while reading, for fear of fatal annoyance. He is not, however, an ineloquent man, and though his arrangement of sentences may be sometimes clumsy, the sentences themselves are often pithy, endearing, humorous, or agonizing in their pathos. On the larger scale, it is hard to judge how much of the alienation from space and time is due to inexperience and how much is intentional – it is certainly intriguing. In addition to the paradoxes of time and character, there is also a surprising liberality with events – in essence, Munthe was a magic realist before such a movement existed. The Sweden of his childhood is not dissimilar to the Colombia of Garcia Marquez – a place where magic and reality, simplicity and modernity, co-exist and intermingle. He tells his tales, as Garcia Marquez puts it, as though they were being told by his grandmother, like fairy-tales – although most of the chapters have no opportunity to display this, it is a constant theme. No attention is paid to reality, or to the distinction between metaphor and narration – from the apparently demonic stature of his housekeeper, easily dismissed as exaggeration, to the goblin who talks to him in Sweden, he relates it all in the same, bloodily realistic, yet childishly whimsical tone. Nor is it clear when an episode is light-hearted and when it is serious: the episode with the goblin may be seen at first as a frippery, but it turns somewhat somber, and it is poignantly picked out at the conclusion to the preface, where he states that it is only the myth, the trolls and the goblins in the forest, whose habitat is being stolen by modernity, that is truly immortal: “Old uncle Lars Anders in Forsstugan, six feet six in his sheepskin-coat and wooden shoes, is dead long ago, and so is dear old Mother Kerstin, his wife. But the little goblin I saw sitting cross-legged on the table in the attic over the cow-stall is alive. It is only we who die.” The dreamlike quality is also particularly evident in the first chapter, set on Capri, where the young man discovers a seeming paradise, and makes his future life there his sole goal in the present – if it were filmed, it would be filmed with a blurred lens, much light, and cheerful rustic music. It is in fact somewhat off-putting to the casual reader, who is not to know that the book becomes rapidly more realistic.


Character, style, prose, themes… what of the plot? There isn’t any. He is young, he grows older, and then he faces death. There is no apparent rhyme of reason why certain things are including and others not, or why a certain order has been given, except that in general the book becomes increasingly disjointed, abstract, and meaningful. There is no destination, other than death – it is a book to read for the journey (and, indeed, when ON a journey, I’ve discovered – the discrete anecdotal chapters can fit into the most broken travel plan without causing frustration).


I’ve more or less run out of things to say now, or at least I have run out of things to say that I haven’t said already, although I do feel something of an urge to say a few of them again. Instead, I’ll leave you with the end of the “Instead of a Preface” to the book, written seven years later, where his thoughts yet again turn to death:


“…I ought to warn the reader to try not to believe all the nice things I have been telling about myself with un-English volubility. I am not conscious of having told any deliberate lies to my readers. Where I may deceived them, I have been deceived myself, deceived by the better man I might have been. But in one respect at least I can say with a clear conscience that I have not deceived m readers – in my love for animals. I have loved them and suffered with them my whole life. I have loved them far more than I have ever loved my fellow-men. All that is best in me I have given to them, and I mean to stand by them to the last and share their fate whatever it may be. If it is true that there is to be no haven of rest for them when their sufferings here are at an end, I, for one, am not going to bargain for any haven for myself. I shall go without fear where they go, and by the side of my brothers and sisters from the forests and the fields, from skies and seas, lie down to merciful extinction in their mysterious underworld, safe from any further torments inflicted by God or man, safe from any haunting dream of eternity.

The night will be dark for there will be no stars overhead and no hope for a dawn, but I have been in darkness before. It will be lonely to be dead, but it cannot be much more lonely than to be alive.”

And now to the evaluation!


Adrenaline: 2/5. I can’t deny it: I struggled through at times. Most of the chapters have enough interest to see me through to the end, but I often stopped between chapters. This is definitely a “read a chapter on the train each day” book, rather than a book to be read through in a single drive. Munthe doesn’t care too much to try to be sensational. That said, there were a couple of exciting moments, and plenty of curious ones.


Emotion: 4/5. Bizarrely mixed. I think perhaps there is a great river of pathos running beneath the book, but it is paved over with jollity, humour, and a stiff upper lip. Much of it was therefore fairly unemotional. I have to give it at least a 4, however, because it made me cry on several occasions, which takes a certain power.


Thought: 4/5. There’s no world-shattering rumination going on here. Nonetheless, the ramblings up above bear testimony to how itchingly engaging the novel was – my brain still wants to scratch at the memory until it makes better sense. Seeing the world through eyes so alien as Munthe’s is also inevitably going to encourage a degree of re-evaluation and confusion.


Beauty: 4/5. I think that there’s an ineffable elegance about not only portions of the prose, but the dream-like structure, the pathos, certain images and concepts, and much of the attitude – paradoxical or otherwise – of the narrator.


Craft: 2/5. As noted above, I have to mark him down for the prose, which is occasionally superb, but frequently pedestrian, and for the dialogue, which is rarely convincing. It is likely that a degree of the overall stylistic effect, and possibly even of his own self-portrayal, are accidental. It tells, at time, that this book is not written by a professional novelist – which is not always a flaw in general terms, but which does entail a somewhat lower degree of overall craft.


Endearingness: 4/5. I loved it as a child – I adored it. It was my favourite book in the world. Even today, I feel a strong attraction to it, to an extent not entirely justified by its quality. Much of this is due to the avuncular quality of the author. That said, on re-reading it left me just a tiny bit cold – probably because of the lack of a sufficient overall direction.


Originality: 5/5. I’ve never read another book like it, and I doubt I ever will. The combination of honest, simple Victorian memoir with a literary playfulness and a unique perspective make this book extremely difficult to find a replica of. Some books appear stunningly singular at first observation, yet could honestly be fairly easily replicated by another novel in the same genre: I’m not sure anybody could, and certain nobody will, replicate this one. When somebody asks “what’s that about”, I really don’t know how to answer them – there’s nothing to compare it to. The closest thing, presumably, would be to compare it to other fin de siècle memoirs – a genre almost entirely lost to time – but I can’t imagine any of them feeling much like this.



Overall: 5/7: Good. Never going to be on top of my list of books to recommend to people looking for great literature, but a book I’ll probably still be reading in old age, and that I’ll recommend to any grandchildren, when I think they’re ready for it. It enhanced and expanded my world; only a handful of books have had a greater impact on me, and though I didn’t enjoy it as much this time round, that’s mostly because I have now encountered a wider range of brilliant books – there’s much in this one that I never saw the first few times through.

Reaction: Ficciones (2)

The second half of Fictions, entitled Artifices, consists of nine stories, six of them written immediately after The Garden of Forking Paths; the remaining three were not composed for another decade. Although most of the stories were written within three years of those of the first volume, we are promised in the foreword that these stories shall be “less clumsily executed” than those that came before, but that otherwise they will be no different.

Funes, His Memory (better known as Funes the Memorious) is the first of the new stories, and if not less clumsy in execution is certainly a change in style and conception – again, the same semi-philosophical ponderings, but here expressed with more subtlety, and, dare I say it, even with a touch of human emotion, as the story is told through glimpses of a human life, not merely detached narration. The ideas themselves are not that new or interesting, but are given legitimacy by their placement in the human world – we see people caring, and we care accordingly.

The next three stories are closely connected in style – all three draw from a particular mode of writing in which the detective, the spy, the adventurer and the discoverer of ghosts could all equally feature if the author chose – a melodramatic style of puzzles and twists and brightly daubed colours – much the same style that we saw earlier in the outer story of The Garden of Forking Paths itself. The Shape of the Sword is the simplest and most forgettable of the three, being an extremely standard (and, disappointingly, extremely predictable) twist story about Irish conspirators*. Nonetheless, it is well told, though brief. The Theme of the Traitor and the Hero is considerably more clever, although not, I note, beyond the limits of the wilder historical ‘documentaries’ we have inflicted upon us (the plot, with its connexion to the death of Julius Caesar, is only one step beyond what some now suggest is the truth behind Caesar’s murder, however exotic an idea that might seem). Only at the end does the musing hit that certain emotive note of disconcertation and beauty. Unfortunately, Borges tells his story metafictionally – and not even, this time, by reviewing a fictional book as though it were real, but as, self-admittedly, a recitation of a plot that he has thought of. I dislike this idea in Borges that the book is an irrelevance that offers nothing more than can be gained from a few minutes recitation – his plot is a fair enough plot, and if it were in a book, with prose, and characters, and minor things like that, it might be affecting and powerful, but as it is it is only a few pages of a man saying “here’s a great idea I’ve had” – he limits himself to appealing solely on an emotional level, like a magician who does not deign to perform magic tricks, but instead just tells you what you would see if he were to perform the trick. Consequently, the story is flat and unengaging, without even the ironic amusement of the metafictional games he played in Al-Mu’tasim and Herbert Quain.

The third of the trio, Death and the Compass, is the most important of the three, and like The Garden of Forking Paths it combines a melodramatic tale (in this case a detective story with a twist) with musings about labyrinths; this time, however, the two are fully integrated. The balance has been shifted considerably toward the narrative side, with the labyrinths minimised; frankly, I was glad of it. As it is, the musings seem a little detached – almost as though as he neared the end of his story Borges realised that he had to throw in a “Borges-feature” to keep his reputation for labyrinths – but nonetheless engaging, perhaps precisely because they are touched on tangentially, not lectured on as in the earlier story (although, contrariwise, there is less of lasting interest here). The detective part of the story is fair enough, although personally I find the high-irony maximum-melodrama style to be somewhat grating – I’ve seen so many parodies (intentional and unintentional) of that type of murder mystery that the Borgesian pastiche is neither amusing ironically nor enthralling directly. This said, I did like the story overall – it’s short enough that the grating style could be overlooked, and (like Funes) it shows a promising trend to try to integrate his own preoccupations into a matrix of human life.

The Secret Miracle demonstrates this trend perfectly, and is itself a perfect story – and more ambitious than The Library of Babel, in that it combines many preoccupations. It takes the secret labours of Tlön, and the ubiquitous labyrinths, and adds them to yet another metafiction – but this time, the text does not simply stand, frozen, as it is described, but lives and changes – the creative process is addressed, as in Menard (and in the process links the theme of secret labour with the theme of hermeneutics) – and there is the strange, magical or surreal, intrusion of fantasy. But more importantly than all this, it is willing to talk about reality. The setting is real and important (there is a wonderful line about the Nazi need for administration), and the protagonist is genuine, and pathetic, in the sense of the word that denotes our position about him, and not his own qualities. In this story, the two sides of Borges, the wonder and the pondering (one might say, the magic and the science) are brought together and given a context of emotion. For once, I care about what he’s saying.

Three Versions of Judas is another strong story, at least in my view, although it denies all I have praised before – it is a plain metafiction with little emotive content or connexion with reality that concerns itself with semi-philosophical fancies. This time, however, there is something both profound and active about his themes. On the one hand, as in The Secret Miracle, he addresses Nietzschean themes (with clear overtones of Kierkegaard and Wilde), not of impersonal Time and Thought and Meaning, but of life, and death, and renunciation and iniquity; asceticism and glory and their paradox. On the other hand, he remains preoccupied with hermeneutics, but does not simply (as in, for instance, Quain) talk about hermeneutics, saying how different meanings could be construed – this time he shows different meanings being construed. This time, he does hermeneutics. Recall Wittgenstein: philosophy is not a theory but an activity (and Nietzsche, likewise).

The final three stories were written a decade later than those we have discussed, and reading them this is no surprise, as they have a distinct style of their own. Following on from Judas, Borges is now practicing hermeneutics rather than discussing it, and in the same vein he is infusing his stories with greater pathos and tension – he is, in essence, finally telling stories, rather than mentioning them. At the same time, there is a certain loss of clarity here, a loss of audacity. The End is a simple tale; a retelling, I am told, of an episode from a famous Argentine story, with a different ending and a new perspective. As a story, it is well told, but my distance from its cultural resonance makes it to small a story to have my attention. The Cult of the Phoenix is more intriguing – rather than, as Borges often does, starting in an ordinary place and driving into strangeness, it begins in strangeness and returns to mundanity (as, through the gradual recognition of the parent tale, The End presumably does to an Argentine reader). It does this by seeming at first to describe something strange and bizarre, and then to gradually make plain that it is something ordinary and familiar. This is an implementation of his hermeneutic preoccupations – a familiar story is told from an entirely new perspective. Readers of philosophy will be familiar with the technique from Wittgenstein. An additional level is added to the mirroring by the fact that Borges leaves the riddle unsolved – while we may think the answer is clear, it is always possible to consider other solutions. Hence, not only can each story be told in a different way, but each telling can be a telling of more than one story. It should also be said here that although Phoenix is told in much the same sort of discursive style as, say, Lottery, it is clear that his writing ability has increased over the years – I felt genuine tension as the riddle was built up, despite the impersonal and distant nature of the topic. On the other hand, like many intellectual exercises, I was left somewhat cold (in an apathetical, rather than horrified, way) by the ending.

The final story is The South, which Borges believed to be his best. I’m not so sure. The Nietzschean mode is alluring, though the petty thought intrudes that Borges, like Nietzsche himself, seems always inauthentic when regaling us with gauchos and knife fights. That said, there is more pathos in this simple story than in any other in the collection; unfortunately, that’s not saying much. In translation, the story is unspectacular – sufficient, perhaps elegant, but not remarkable or greatly moving. If there is any secondary meaning, as Borges suggests, I failed entirely to divine it, beyond the obvious philosophical/ethical considerations, which have been a continual, if secondary theme in this book (all the way down from the secret labours of Tlön). I can’t deny that I enjoyed reading the story, but I do enjoy reading stories. Somehow, it manages to be human, yet to remain sterile. [A problem, I must confess, I find in almost all short fiction].

Regarding Artifices as a whole, I agree with Borges that it surpasses The Garden of Forking Paths in execution, and in general contains the better stories. At the same time, a degree of vitality and ingenuity is lost in the progression from the earliest stories to the latest – or is that a function of reading too many of these stories consecutively? I think… not entirely – there is little new in the second half for those who have read the first half.

Fictions is certainly a book worth reading if you haven’t read Borges – particularly if you don’t read much philosophy, as Borges is to a degree a populariser of philosophy into a literary context. Some of the stories are brilliant. Pierre Menard, The Library of Babel, and The Secret Miracle should be read by everyone; I would collect these three with Al-Mu’tasim, Funes, Three Versions of Judas, The Cult of the Phoenix and The South for a an excellent collection half the size of this. Even those I didn’t like greatly often had some appeal.

The chief thing on offer in this stories is ideas – from the central gimmicks (and they often feel like gimmicks) of the stories themselves down to incidental remarks that cast common things in a new light. Unfortunately, even those ideas that may have been broadly innovative at time of writing will now feel familiar and worn to the modern reader. Few are explored or explained with any depth or nuance; at his best, Borges shapes his stories into brilliant little gemstones – hard, brittle, small, self-contained, alluring, of little function. Those looking to be intrigued, to be thrown about by unheralded images and interpretations, to be enchanted in, and educed from, labyrinths would be better served reading genuine philosophy. His voice is inventive – perhaps distractingly, hubristically so in places; the prose of the translation has a few great moments, and is continually readable, although exotic – whether this is Borges, or an intention of the translator, or the translator’s ineptitude I cannot say (and I’ve heard all three explanations) – but I had no problem with it. Its excesses tend toward an unusual variance in register, an unusual use of usual words, and a certain degree of archaism and stiltedness – all stylistic techniques I enjoy.


Adrenaline: 1/5. Borges does not seem interested in exciting the reader (and in these short, often very short, stories would have little room to build up pace even if he wanted). There are a few stories where my heartbeat rose, particularly in the second half, but not enough to raise this score.

Emotion: 2/5. Some stories had no emotional aspect whatsoever. Many, I should say. Some had glimpses. Some of the later stories did have a genuine element of pathos, which is why this has more than a one, but it would be lying to say that this was not a less-emotional-than-average read.

Thought: 4/5. Too familiar, and too cursory, to score a 5 – and please remember that this is being judged as art, not for its place in the history of art, and so contingent facts of subsequent fashions must be considered where they impact on the reader’s perceptions, even when they are not the fault of the author. This probably would have been a 5 in 1945 or even 1960; it isn’t now.

Beauty: 4/5. Some elegant phrases; some ugly ones. Lifted above average because some of its ideas are themselves beautiful in my opinion.

Craft: 3/5. A strange score for a master, but hard to escape. The prose is not notable – it is only a translation, after all. There is no large-scale construction to praise, because they are (almost entirely) independent short stories. The stories themselves vary greatly in their elegance of form – some are shaped perfectly, others feel unbalanced or over-rough.

Endearingness: 3/5. Intellectually, I find Borges amenable. His voice, I find the voice of a friend or ally (in most cases). Even if some stories evoke no more admiration than a brief bark of laughter, that’s still a reaction that disposes us well toward a book in our opinions. On the other hand, this hasn’t been a book I’ve come back to repeatedly. It has a certain escapist value for its playfulness and shear disregard for normal concerns, but by and large it is too cold, too inhuman, too baroque, to truly warm the heart.

Originality: 4/5. Nobody could say that Borges was only average in originality. That said, I don’t believe it’s a 5. Remember that ‘originality’ here is not a historical fact, but the issue of how easy I feel it would be for me to have written the same stories, or equivalent ones (talent and execution aside) – and I rarely felt stunned by them. I rarely thought ‘I could never have thought of that – how did he?’ Or to put it another way – how unique is this book among others? Unusual, but much of the same ground has been covered in places, even if the style itself has rarely been imitated. The best of the stories – yes. There, a peak of originality is reached. Overall – not really.

Composite Score: 3.00

Overall Score: 5/7. Good

I was expecting a higher score, to be honest, but the stories just don’t have enough power. It should also be noted that this is lowered by the uneven nature of the collection – had I considered only my favourite few stories, they would have unproblematically been Very Good – at least on a par with Leibowitz. I have briefly considered that the excellence within the collection justifies raising the overall score – but this, I think, would be unfair. This score reflects my experience of the book as a whole – and many books have great passages within them. That said, interested readers may find the rumoured presence of great quality within the volume a greater incentive to find it and read it, and so I wanted to make it clear.

*And it’s frustrating, incidentally, that Borges couldn’t pay a little more attention to his setting. He places the action in Connaught in 1922, when the Revolution is fighting for its life against the Black and Tans, who at one point are said to capture a city ‘once and forever’… except, of course, that the Truce came into effect in July 1921, the Treaty was signed in December, and the Black and Tans began their withdrawal in January. By March, the War of Independence was long past, and the Civil War had begun.

Does any of this matter? Not particularly – just read it as 1921 instead. Nonetheless, it irritates. A consistent compliment given to Borges is his immense ‘erudition’, which I find it difficult to be impressed by at the best of times – and a man of famous ‘erudition’ ought to be able to spend thirty seconds looking in a book to research his setting for at least the most egregious errors.

[I’m also extremely sceptical about the role of communism he imagines for their ‘revolution’ that has been destined to be victorious – it rather feels as though he’s just importing Latin American revolutionary modes into the Irish context – but I can let that be]

Reaction: Ficciones (1)

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.