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
Mutations
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