Thursday, December 10, 2015

Ficciones by Jorge Luis Borges

The composition of vast books is a laborious and impoverishing extravagance.  To go on for five hundred pages developing an idea whose perfect oral exposition is possible in a few minutes!  A better course of procedure is to pretend that these books already exist, and then to offer a resume, a commentary.  Thus proceeded Carlyle in Sartor Resartus.  Thus Butler in The Fair Haven.  these are works which suffer the imperfection of being themselves books, and of being no less tautological than the others.  More reasonable, more inept, more indolent, I have preferred to write notes upon imaginary books.

I recently moved.  During that ordeal, almost all of my books were packed up, and I was forced for a whole month to raid the book room at the school where I teach for stuff to read.  That was fortuitous, actually, otherwise I would not yet have gotten around to reading Borges' short story collection Ficciones, or Hemingway's The Snows of Kilimanjaro, or Alison Bechdel's terrific graphic memoir Fun Home.  But Borges' stories, stuffed as they are with labyrinths, and stories nested within stories like boxes within boxes, actually seemed reminiscent of my apartment while I was packing.

So I lived in a "Garden of Forking Paths" for a little while--but in a less tongue-in-cheek way, the famous story of that title did make me think about the way I ended up here, at this moment, moving to this place with this person, when it might so easily have been otherwise.  "The Garden of Forking Paths" is about a Chinese spy for the German government, living in Britain, who murders a renowned Sinologist because the man's name, Albert, will reveal the location of a similarly named artillery park when his name is published in the newspaper.  Albert is familiar with the legend of the narrator's grandfather, who vanished leaving his two goals unfinished--to write an intricate novel, and to create an equally intricate labyrinth.  The book and the labyrinth, Albert tells the narrator, are the same; the book sought to encompass all of the possible paths that fork in time, branching off at the junction of each decision.  And yet it is not a labyrinth we can navigate or escape, for as the narrator says:

Then I reflected that all things happen, happen to one, precisely now.  Century follows century, and things happen only in the present.  There are countless men in the air, on land and at sea, and all that really happens happens to me.

Borges' stories are all like that, tangled intellectual knots on the subjects of time, fiction, and imagination.  Many of them are only brief commentaries on longer works that never existed, playing with the illusory border between fiction and the real.  In "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote," he writes a fictional memoir about a fictional author whose masterwork is a line-for-line reproduction of Don Quixote, which surpasses the original because the 300 intervening years have made its allusions richer.  In "The Library of Babel," he describes a universe which is comprised of a massive library, where all books are composed of random letters and punctuation.  Those born into this universe reason that all information must be somewhere in the library--each person's biography, predictions of the future, even the full index of the library's own contents--and go mad searching for sense among the nonsense.  Their predicament sounds grotesque--but is it different from our own experience, searching for patterns in a random universe to create meaning?

I was surprised how philosophically dense most of these stories are.  In "Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius," he describes a conspiracy to create an imaginary country, Tlon, which becomes a discussion of metaphysics and subjective idealism, the philosophy which maintains only minds and ideas exist.  (At the end of the story, Borges suggests that the real world is becoming, or merging with, the imaginary Tlon!)  The influence of Borges is easy to spot, but it's hard to name a writer with the same kind of intellectual heft, or the compelling brevity.

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