As I mentioned in my post on “With Borges”, after finishing that book I felt incapable of reading anything but more of Jorge Luis Borges’ own fictions – so obviously that meant digging out my lovely US Penguin volume of his ‘Collected Fictions’ (translated by Andrew Hurley). I picked this up many years ago on a trip to Foyles in Charing Cross Road, and have slowly over the years been making my way through it. The first collection of his was called “A Universal History of Iniquity” (1935) and I read that back in 2016; his next work “Ficciones” was one I was delighted to read as part of the #1944Club. So going chronologically, next up is “The Aleph” from 1949, and I couldn’t wait…

And instantly I come up against the barrier of how to say anything new or profound about a wonderful and revered writes like Borges. As I said in my review of “Ficciones”, what a bloody amazing writer he is. I don’t know I’ve read anyone with an imagination like his, or the ability to conjure up strange tales and words. Anyway, here goes…

“The Aleph” contains 17 short works (and they *are* short, some only a couple of pages) which range far and wide over setting and topic. There are puzzles, doubles, mysteries, magic and of course the regular appearance of labyrinths and mazes; in fact, one is the crux of a story, “Ibn-Hakam al-Bokhari, Murdered in His Labyrinth”, which is set in Scotland and is also a kind of clever locked room mystery (the fact that I mentioned John Dickson Carr as one of Borges’ favourites authors here is perhaps relevant…!) Mysticism also creeps in, with explorations of Islamic culture and characters, the Aleph of the title story (a magical point in space and time which appears to hold all points of space and time at once) plus the secret of immortality. Borges’ prose quite brilliantly conjures the strange cities and landscapes in which his stories are set, and it often seems there is no limit to his imagination.

I had realized many years before I met David Jerusalem that everything in the world can be the seed of a possible hell; a face, a word, a compass, an advertisement for cigarettes – anything can drive a person insane if that person cannot manage to put it out of his mind.

Mirrors, a recurring trope, make an appearance, as well as South America cowboy-style plots, strange architecture, the clash between reality and dreams, the passing of time, crime and vengeance. As with all of Borges’ work, each story is wonderfully woven, with twists often appearing unexpectedly (there’s a marvellous one at the end of “The House of Asterion”) and I think repeated readings would reveal so much more.

Borges in 1951 (via Wikipedia Commons)

I loved all of the tales, and was particularly taken with “Emma Zunz” which although it appears on the surface to be a tale of revenge taken by a woman is also, I think, about the fine line between truth and falsehood, and whereabouts one becomes the other. “Deutsches Requiem” is another powerful piece, narrated by a Nazi concentration camp administrator who sets down his version of events, feeling no guilt and triumphing that violence has won – it really is chilling, to say the least. The title story and “The Zahir” both deal with the narrator’s obsessions, whether with a mysterious marker or a dead woman, and they’re haunting.

Now an implacable age looms over the world. We forged that age, we who are now its victim. What does it matter that England is the hammer and we the anvil. What matters is that violence, not servile Christian acts of timidity, now rules. If victory and injustice and happiness do not belong to Germany, let them belong to other nations. Let heaven exist, though our place be in hell.

Well, once again I could go on and on, but I stand by my description of Borges as “bloody brilliant”; these stories are just stunning and unforgettable, and Borges really was a genius of a storyteller. Haunting, mind-bending, imaginative and strange, “The Aleph” is an astonishingly brilliant collection and a real joy to read. Fortunately, I’m only just over half way through the book so I still have plenty of Borges left to enjoy… ;D