Ficciones by Jorge Luis Borges
Translated by Andrew Hurley

My final read for the #1944Club is a book which comes with a massively high reputation, and although it was not a difficult read, actually writing about it may be harder than expected. I’ve written about Jorge Luis Borges on the Ramblings before; a titan of South American literature, I read him back in my early twenties, and have revisited him more recently when I read his first collection “A Universal History of Iniquity” (1935). However, for the Club I’ve visited the next section of the rather large book in the picture and it was a spellbinding experience, to say the least…

“Ficciones”, which was published of course in 1944, consists of two slim collections entitled “The Garden of Forking Paths” and “Artifices”. Slim they may be in size, but certainly not in content. In 1956, Borges added three extra stories to the latter selection, and they’re included with “Ficciones” in my beautiful Collected Fiction volume (American edition, deckled page block edges, gorgeous). So I did read them, even though technically speaking they were published after 1944 – but I co-host the Club week, so I don’t care! 😀

Anyway, Borges…. What a bloody amazing writer, basically. Does he need any introduction? I’m not going to attempt one here, so if anyone reading this post doesn’t know who Borges is, I suggest they go and Google him straight away and then read him. However, Wikipedia says “Jorge Francisco Isidoro Luis Borges Acevedo KBE was an Argentine short-story writer, essayist, poet and translator, and a key figure in Spanish-language literature” and the BBC, while stating the case for Borges being the most important 20th century author, says “Reading the work of Jorge Luis Borges for the first time is like discovering a new letter in the alphabet, or a new note in the musical scale”. Quite. I agree. So let me dispense with waffle and attempt to respond to my reading of what could be argued to be Borges’ most important work, or at least the stories that made his name.

Ashe was afflicted with unreality, as so many Englishmen are; in death, he is not even the ghost he was in life… My father had forged one of those close English friendships with him (the first adjective is perhaps excessive) that begin by excluding confidences and soon eliminate conversation.

Firstly, it’s worth noting the sheer breadth of the stories in this collection, which range far and wide in both location and also subject matter. There are historical narratives in any number of locations; stories of fictional worlds, cowboys and gauchos, erudite scholars, Europeans and South Americans, world builders and criminals. There are spurious biographies of fictional authors; and memorable characters, such as Pierre Menard, whose ambition was to write “Don Quixote” – not a version of the book, but the actual book that Cervantes had already produced…. Obviously at times Borges has his tongue firmly in his cheek, although each story still has a serious purpose behind it; “The Lottery in Babylon”, for example, is a parable of the random forces at play in our lives.

Borges often blends fact and fiction, and he and his friends often feature as characters in the various stories; and the fantastic and the surreal mingle in a way which is utterly captivating, leaving a haunting impression on the mind. Each story is a gem, a breathtaking piece of writing in its own right, and coming to these stories after decades of reading since I first discovered Borges I saw so many resonances in other authors’ works; particular my beloved Calvino, whose strange worlds and allegorical tales seem to me to have been informed by the legacy of Borges. There are recurring themes of labyrinths, mirrors, unreal or non-existent books or worlds; and several of the stories have wonderful twists at the end.

He understood that the task of molding the incoherent and dizzying stuff that dreams are made of is the most difficult work a man can undertake, even if he fathom all the enigmas of the higher and lower spheres – much more difficult than weaving a rope of sand or minting coins of the faceless wind.

I’m not going to discuss any more specifics as I would rather just encourage you to pick up this book and read with no real preconceptions – and prepare to be blown away by your encounter with a unique and glittering imagination. If you want favourites, well “The Garden of Forking Paths” is pretty damn perfect, as is “Death and the Compass”, as it the aforementioned “The Lottery in Babylon”, as is “The Library of Babel”. Oh, basically it’s a work of genius! 😀

Re the translation, there’s not a lot I can say except that it reads beautifully to me, and Andrew Hurley has also provided useful supporting notes. It’s so long since I read the “Labyrinths” collection that I have nothing to compare this to, but I think Hurley deserves an award for translating all of these stories so wonderfully so they can be gathered in a collected edition – ’nuff said.

Via Wikipedia Commons

Well. This is not really the kind of post I expected to write on Borges, but frankly when I sat down to gather my thoughts I wasn’t sure how I would tackle it, and I felt vaguely incapable of doing justice to these stories, so you can just have my reactions. Borges needs no praise from me as he’s already a revered writer (and as Mario Vargas Llosa is quoted as saying on the cover of this book, it was a crime that Borges never received the Nobel). If you’ve never read him, I would urge you to do so. He’s *not* a difficult writer; just a stimulating, thought-provoking, intriguing, mind-bending, clever and unforgettable one. My last read for the #1944Club was a marvellous experience, and it’s wonderful to think that I’m only a third of the way through the book – all that lovely Borges left to read…. 😀