Waaaay back in time (well, the early 1980s), when I was grabbing and exploring everything interesting on the local book shops shelves, I stumbled upon a copy of “Labyrinths” by Borges. At the time, I knew nothing about him (and I can honestly remember nothing about my reading of the book); but since then I’ve obviously become more aware of the author and his stature. He’s someone I’ve constantly been aware of it, a towering presence behind so much of what I now read, and particularly associated with authors like Adolfo Bioy Casares and Silvina Ocampo who I’ve read and loved recently.
So for quite a while I’ve wanted to read more of his works, and I was particularly drawn to a collected edition of his Fictions published by Penguin in the USA (I’m not quite why it isn’t available over here…) A couple of years back, whilst in the old Foyles in Charing Cross Road for a LibraryThing Virago Group meet-up, I spotted the Collected Fictions on their shelves, and so it came home with me – and it’s sat on Mount TBR since…
This is a bad habit I have – the buying of books which then hang around for years, and I was trying to work out why it was taking me so long to pick it up. I think it’s something I’ve been encountering with collected volumes in general (I have several poetry ones), in that they’re so large and imposing and potentially time-consuming that I’ve been put off reading them to the exclusion of other books. So I decided with the Borges that the best way is going to be to split it up into bite-sized sections; and as the book is divided up according to the original publication books, that should be manageable!
The first book in the collection is “A Universal History of Iniquity”, a group of short stories first published in 1935 and revised by the author in 1954 (when some extra parts were included). Borges is modest about them in his introductions, claiming they were “the irresponsible sport of a shy sort of man who could not bring himself to write short stories, and so amused himself by changing and distorting (sometimes without aesthetic justification) the stories of other men”. And indeed most of the stories are retellings of the lives of real criminals like Billy the Kid and Ching Shih (a lady pirate). However, Borges is being a little disingenuous here; as the excellent notes by translator Andrew Hurley reveal, the author made many alternations to his sources to fit the stories he wanted to tell.
So what of the stories and the characters themselves? Well, they’re not a pleasant lot… For the most part, we’re reading about people who are bloodthirsty killers, ruthless pirates, scamming slaves into thinking they’re escaping and committing hara-kiri all over the place. There are plenty of gangs and fights, and really you wouldn’t want to meet anyone in these stories in a dark alley – or even a light one!
All of the stories are brilliantly written, but the most intriguing is the one on an original theme and not based on a real life – “Man on Pink Corner”. It’s a first person tale of knife fighters, set in a rough area of Borges’ native Buenos Aires, and the dream-like quality of the narrative hints at the type of tales to come from the author. It also has a fascinating payoff in the last line, introducing an unexpected extra layer to the storytelling. And then there is the section entitled “Etcetera”, a collection of several short pieces dipping much more into the realms of fairytale or magic realism. These are surprisingly powerful for such short works, again hinting at what was to come in future.
“A Universal History of Iniquity” was a fascinating reintroduction to Borges, particular the later stories with the more fanciful elements in them. I think splitting the book up this way will work for me, and I’m very much looking forward to the next section, which is “Fictions” from 1944!