Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Jorge Luis Borges – ‘Fictions’

This is one of those books that is so acutely self aware that there hardly seems to be any point in writing about it. Or rather, you could use it as a starting point to spiral off into infinity debating the nature of reality, but you would inevitably end up being less impressive on the subject than Borges is at an angle to it. Reigning in is his great talent. My comfort read at the moment is The Complete Yes, Minister, and one of Bernard’s pedantic admonitions to Jim Hacker is along the lines of, ‘Excuse me, Minister, but you can’t actually stop something before it starts’ (they’re trying to stop a press release going out). In his stories, Borges does exactly that. If a typical Charlotte Brontë plot begins by hiding everything, and ends by revealing the last piece of the jigsaw, Borges will start with a bibliography, and end with a jigsaw piece. Maybe two. There is much to expand upon, but you’d feel like a vandal doing it, unpicking all that careful concealment, breaking in upon the mystery.

As to what they are like to read: the stories are brief, averaging about ten pages. Some are told in the language of literary criticism; others in that of the detective story. There is always an underlying concept: what would it be like if a man could remember everything? (‘Funes, His Memory’) What if everyone in society swapped roles, periodically and at random? (‘The Lottery in Babylon’) What would literature which took account of all possible variations of plot be like? (‘The Garden of Forking Paths’, ‘A Survey of the Works of Herbert Quain’). One argues, convincingly, that in Christianity Judas rather than Jesus should be considered the son of God, because he sacrificed not just his body but also his soul:

God, argues Nils Runeberg, stooped to become man for the redemption of the human race; we might well then presume that the sacrifice effected by Him was perfect, not invalidated or attenuated by omissions. To limit His suffering to the agony of one afternoon on the cross is blasphemous. (pp. 135-6, from ‘Three Versions of Judas’.)
The big theme, though, is the crossover between fiction and life, and the ultimate indivisibility of the two. Hence in ‘Tlôn, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius’, an invented, hoax society, made with nothing more than strategically placed stories, comes to replace the ‘real’ (I should say the pre-existing) society. In ‘The Circular Ruins’ a man spends all his time and strength dreaming up another man, only to discover that he has himself been dreamt into existence. In ‘Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote’ the author of the title attempts to write certain chapters of Don Quixote – not merely to copy them out, but actually to write them. At first he attempts this by imagining himself in Cervantes’ position, but then, when this seems too easy, he tries to do it as himself: to end up with the same chapters, word for word, the only difference being that they arose not out of Cervantes’ skill, situation and temperament, but those of Pierre Menard. In ‘The Circular Ruins’ the protagonist wants to break from thought into physical reality; in ‘...the Quixote’ Menard wants to go the other way: from living breathing man to a collection of words.

Without a doubt, the stories of Fictions are told with the intention of surprising their audience, and their effects are often dazzling. But the effects are a means as well as an end: they are not there to take the reader out of reality, but to defamiliarise it for us, the better to understand its flaws. In his section of The Paris Review Interviews, Borges says:
Conrad thought that when one wrote, even in a realistic way, about the world, one was writing a fantastic story because the world itself is fantastic and unfathomable and mysterious. (The Paris Review Interviews, p. 140).

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