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On Borges’ Collected Fictions

The ugly:

Borges was very much a product of his time, as we euphemist­ic­ally say. The means that there are eth­nic slurs — the trans­lator (Andrew Hur­ley) has kept them and devotes a few para­graphs to explain­ing his decision, want­ing to pre­serve the coarse­ness that Borges imbues some of his less savory char­ac­ters with — which, while they work in con­text, are still jar­ring. Less defens­ible is how black people more often than not don’t even get a name, even in con­texts where other char­ac­ters do. And women? Well, to Borges’ prot­ag­on­ists they are magical, almost myth­o­lo­gical beings around whom a whole story can revolve — as an object. Either that, or they are beneath notice.

The bad:

Not a lot, actu­ally. You can tell Borges is still hit­ting his stride in the first col­lec­tion (‘A Uni­ver­sal His­tory of Iniquity’). In his fore- and after­words, he is always draw­ing atten­tion to his own short­com­ings as well, which is admir­able and humble. From ‘The Garden of Fork­ing Paths’ onwards, though, every col­lec­tion con­tains at least a couple of gems. I found him least inter­est­ing when get­ting bogged down in mat­ters of local (Argen­tine) his­tory. This is mostly because of my lack of know­ledge in that area, so a lot of the sub­tleties are lost on me, but these stor­ies also rarely con­tain the ele­ments that make Borges stand out.

The good:

When Borges is good, he is bor­der­ing on genius. And Borges is at his best when writ­ing about a few ulti­mately inter­re­lated sub­jects: the divine, infin­ity, non-lin­ear time, mod­els of the world, mod­els of the self (i.e doubles), and the occult, mean­ing stor­ies where the divine is encryp­ted or encoded in the world. There is a recur­ring fas­cin­a­tion with any­thing that hints at things tran­scend­ing the mundane: impossible meet­ings, num­bers that don’t add up, maps that grow until they swal­low up the world, books that con­tain everything that was ever writ­ten or might be writ­ten, names that, when spoken, con­tain the entirety of being. The trick is that Borges weds these high-strung motifs to a style that is clear and eco­nom­ical, almost under­stated. This only height­ens the sense of awe and mys­tery that is con­jured up by what he describes. In addi­tion to this, I feel I should men­tion that Borges writes a mean detect­ive or hor­ror story when he feels like it. In all of this, Borges wears his influ­ences on his sleeve: Ger­manic myth­o­logy, Eng­lish lit­er­at­ure, Latin Amer­ican his­tory, the whole his­tory of the European occult…

I’m not going to go into a dis­cus­sion of indi­vidual stor­ies, as oth­ers have done that far bet­ter than I ever could, and some of them deserve reviews wholly unto them­selves, not as part of some over­view. How­ever, I’m going to end with a purely per­sonal list of my favour­ite stor­ies from the book. If you’re only plan­ning on read­ing *some* Borges, you could do worse than start­ing with these:

The list™:

Et cet­era
Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Ter­tius
The Lot­tery in Babylon
The Lib­rary of Babel
The Garden of Fork­ing Paths
Death and the Com­pass
The Zahir
The Writ­ing of the God
Ibn-Ḥakam al-Bokhari, Murdered in His Labyrinth
The Aleph
Argu­mentum Orni­tho­lo­gicum
Par­able of the Palace
Borges and I
On Exactitude in Sci­ence
The Other
There Are More Things
The Mir­ror and the Mask
The Disk
The Book of Sand
August 25, 1983
Blue Tigers
The Rose of Paracelsus