Just after I finished writing my less-than-positive post on world-building in Jean-Christophe Valtat’s Aurorarama I encountered an example of fantasy that put it to shame in a fraction of the length.
It’s probably not fair to compare most writers, especially most contemporary writers (who haven’t been preselected for us by their staying power) to Borges. But the timing made it inevitable.
In “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” the first story in the 1941 collection The Garden of Forking Paths, Borges does in multiple layers what the other novel only dreams of doing in one. The first chapter brings us the mystery of Uqbar, a seemingly unreal land that appears in an encyclopedia with it’s own complicated bibliographic situation. But only in a single version of the encyclopedia. Investigations lead to further mysteries; the second chapter takes the story to a much higher level of speculation, metafiction, metaphysics, and complexity.
And throughout, Borges skillfully gives exactly the details that inform, entice, and lend verisimilitude, at least in his surreal world. It’s hard to explain what it is that makes this work, as opposed to what I would judge Valtat’s failings. What can I say, beyond “it is effective”? Indeed, Borges manages to convey the entire cosmology of a world in just a few pages.
I use the word “convey” with purpose, because as I said, it’s about strategic detail. The disquisition into Tlön linguistics is satisfyingly complete, without, of course, teaching you any Tlön. A paragraph on Tlön metaphysics gives the feel of a culture absorbed in cerebral philosophy; the workings of Tlön geometry get us a nice joke that we’ll understand if we’ve been paying attention to the other bits; the existence of hrönir is fascinating, classic science fiction, and brilliantly devised. But nowhere do we find any idea of what Tlön life is like, what the planet is like, what the people are like, what they do, what kind of technology they have. “Their fiction has but a single plot, with every imaginable permutation.” But we don’t know what the single plot is!
All the stories in the collection are brilliant, of course. Others include “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote” and “The Library of Babel.” I shouldn’t be writing about it now; I should have written about A Universal History of Iniquity first. But I shouldn’t be writing about Borges at all—he remains a complete mystery to me.
At first impression, “The South” misses many of the signature Borgesian qualities of stories like “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote” and “The Library of Babel.” There are no magical numbers, no flights of philosophical fancy, no fake footnotes, and no intrusive first-person narrator. “The South” is just not that flashy.
But it subtly has many of the same dreamlike qualities. Juan Dahlmann, in a dreamlike state, doesn’t realize he’s gashed his head on an open window while walking up the stairs with his nose in a book. He perceived it as “[s]omething in the dimness brush[ing] his forehead,” but it lands him after days of septicemia locked in a sanatorium, undergoing tortures. Then, he is released.
“Reality is partial to symmetries and slight anachronisms,” and Dahlmann leaves the sanatorium the same way he came, in a cab. But is this reality? Fiction is also partial to symmetries after all. Dahlmann’s release is too literary and too romantic—too like himself. “The first cool breath of autumn, after the oppression of the summer, was like a natural symbol of his life brought back from fever and the brink of death.” Along with natural symbols are scenes constructed from the melding of memory with romantic imagination: “bouillon served in bowls of shining metal, as in the now-distant summers of his childhood”; “long glowing clouds that seemed made of marble…like some dream of the flat prairies”; “something in its sorry architecture that reminded Dahlmann of a steel engraving, perhaps from an old edition of Paul et Virginie.” The narrator notes that the city-dwelling librarian’s “direct knowledge of the country was considerably inferior to his nostalgic, literary knowledge.”
Dahlmann’s trip to the South ends as literarily as it begins (just as earlier, he feels “something lightly brush his face” which will turn out much more dangerous than it appears), and with more explicit hints that we are now in a story of his own construction (“had he been able to choose or dream his death that night, this is the death he would have dreamed or chosen”). The very last sentence switches intriguingly from the past to the present tense. Earlier, in Dahlmann’s dream-world, he petted a cat and felt “that he and the cat were separated as though by a pane of glass, because man lives in time, in successiveness, while the magical animal lives in the present, in the eternity of the instant.” That puts a pretty dark spin on Dahlmann’s reality, stuck in the eternal present being tortured and like an animal, though perhaps the “magical” makes this more positive than it seems.
“The South” felt very appropriate after reading about Argentina’s immigrant history and literature. Juan Dahlmann is the grandson of Johannes Dahlmann and also of Francisco Flores, “who died on the border of Buenos Aires from a spear wielded by the Indians under Catriel.” Somehow “the contrary pulls of his two lineages” caused Juan’s “Germanic blood” to choose the “romantic ancestor” or “romantic death” and become Argentinized. And it is just this Argentinization, based on abstract and literary ideas about his country and heritage, that brings him to the South to begin with.
This is the last week of unstructured Borges short story reads hosted by Richard at Caravana de recuerdos. Check out his blog for links to this week’s other participants.
When I wrote about Borges last week, I mentioned I was often bowled over by him. “The Library of Babel” is for me another example of why. Borges returns to many of his usual themes: books and literature, infinity, words and their meaning, the universe and its comprehensibility (or lack thereof), numbers and mathematics. He plays with these subjects and arranges them into a pleasing shape with beautiful prose, but my ultimate impression is always that these stories are probably best understood in the context of his whole project, which I have yet to fully absorb.
He’s certainly a reader’s writer; what book-lover wouldn’t love a universe in the form of a massive library, containing every possible book of a specified length? And what numbers-lover wouldn’t love thinking about the permutations of hexagons that would contain the unfathomable number of volumes therein? “You who read me, are You sure of understanding my language?” Ach, so wonderful; I’m gushing.
I’ve found writing about short stories in general on the difficult side, but writing about these is even harder. These are sort of vignettes. Borges gives us the Library of Babel, and it’s in a first-person narrative form so he does give us someone’s life history, but it’s the picture of this universe that dominates. What would this universe be like, and is it different in any way from our own, other than at the most superficial level?
I will head over to Caravana de recuerdos and find out what my fellow bloggers had to say on Friday. Stay tuned for “The South” this Friday to wrap up our Borges readalong.
I’m going into May’s group reads of Borges stories a bit cold; I’ve read Borges before but only in the loosest, most casual sense of the term. I don’t think I’ve read “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote” before, but couldn’t swear to it. Briefly, I loved it, and it has everything I expect in a Borges story: an absurd, somewhat fantastical but mostly bizarre premise, a metafictional element, and an intrusive narrator who seems as much to be writing a nonfictional treatise as a short story. Oh, and me not really knowing at the end exactly what it is I’m supposed to think. Borges kind of bowls me over like that.
Pierre Menard, the subject of the story, is an eccentric academic who has written a wide variety of “visible” work, from poems to monographs on Boolean logic, as well as the “invisible” work of recreating Don Quixote. This is such a strange idea that it takes a while to figure out what that really means, and when it becomes clear it seems sort of brilliant. Crazy, but brilliant. But mostly crazy. And totally absurd and pointless.
That reaches a head when the narrator quotes from Cervantes’s Quixote and Menard’s Quixote the same passage, proceeding to interpret the two passages, which are word-for-word identical, entirely differently. The ideas expressed by the same words are totally different, and:
The contrast in styles is equally striking. The archaic style of Menard—who is, in addition, not a native speaker of the language in which he writes—is somewhat affected. Not so the style of his precursor, who employs the Spanish of his time with complete naturalness.
Ridiculous! Ridiculous things happen when you leave the text behind. But what the narrator says is not untrue. Should we be, as he suggests, “encourage[d] to read the Odyssey as though it came after the Aeneid“? It could enrich our reading, couldn’t it? But legitimately? You can see this is a very question-y post. I do not trust myself to read this correctly, alone with just the text as I am.
I also wanted to note, considering the certain affinity between Borges and Nabokov, two passages that put me in mind of poshlost’. “Like every man of taste, Menard abominated those pointless travesties” that set up a historical character in the present day, as “good for nothing but occasioning a plebeian delight in anachronism of (worse yet) captivating us with the elementary notion that all times and places are the same, or are different.” Later, Menard “ignores, overlooks—or banishes—local color.”
Please visit Richard at Caravana de recuerdos for his post and links to others participating.