(You can check the previous one: (1)A Universal History of Iniquity)
This work would probably be the most well-known literature by Borges. Also, in the very beginning part of this literature, Borges said
It is a laborious madness and an impoverishing one, the madness of composing vast books- setting out in five hundred pages an idea that can be perfectly related orally in five minutes. The better way to go about it is to pretend that those books already exist, and offer a summary, a commentary on them.
Now we know why Borges did not bother to write a five- hundred- page novel.
This is a collection of 17 of his “best” short stories, held together merely by the thread that they are like nothing else you’ve ever read or even thought about. There are some of them I would like to highlight.
Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius
In this one, I underlined most part of this novel. It’s a full of creative and original imagination. It’s one of the most abstruse works I’ve ever read. “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” is a wonderful musing on the relationships between ideas, the written word, and reality. The narrator tells the reader of discovering a seemingly unique article slipped into a single copy of an encyclopedia, detailing (but vaguely) the profile of a country called Uqbar. As it turns out, Uqbar may not exist (or, may not have existed?) in our world, but may exist in a parallel world called Tlön. Tlön may be wholly the invention of a secret group of intellectuals who have conspired to create a hidden imaginary history – but their fabulist inventions seem to be sneakily creeping their way into our existence.
The story is aesthetically appealing to any lover of fantasy worlds – and any bibliophile. It’s delightfully multi-layered, with truth and fiction inextricably tangled.
Here are some of my favourite quotes:
I have said that the people of that planet conceive the universe as a series of mental processes that occur not in space but rather successively in time.
To explain an event is to link it to another; on Tlön, that joining together is a posterior state of the subject, and an neither affect nor illuminate the prior state. The paradoxical truth is that systems of thought do exist, almost countless numbers of them….There are systems upon systems of thought that are incredible but possessed of a pleasing architecture or a certain agreeable sensationalism.
The people of Tlön are taught that the act of counting modifies the amount counted, turning indefinites into definites. ….We must always remember that are Tlön, the subject of knowledge is one and eternal.
Tlön may well be a labyrinth, but it is a labyrinth forged by men, a labyrinth destined to be deciphered by men.
Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote
Another story set up as a mock review of one Pierre Menard’s attempt to recreate Don Quixote ― not copy it, but study Cervantes and his world so deeply that he can write Don Quixote exactly as it was originally written. The reviewer lauds Menard’s work, which uses the identical words as Cervantes, as far richer and more profound than the original. It’s an insightful satire, I would say.
The Library of Babel
One of Borges’ most famous stories, “The Library of Babel” posits a universe in the form of a library made out of connected hexagonal rooms, each room filled with books and the barest necessities for life. Each book contains 410 pages, with 40 lines of 80 letters each. There are 25 letters and punctuation marks in the alphabet. The Library contains every possible combination of those letters. Most of the books are complete gibberish, of course, but like the Infinite Monkey Theorem says, if you have enough monkeys banging away on typewriters for long enough, eventually they’ll write Hamlet. But life for the people dwelling in this library is profoundly frustrating, even depressing, since only a vanishingly small percentage of the books make any sense at all. Borges explores the ways that people react to this, with several nods to religion and philosophy. Mathematicians have had a field day with this book’s concept, figuring out how many books such a library would contain. Per Wikipedia’s article on this story, there would be far more books in this library (1.956 x 10 to the 1,834,097th power) than there are thought to be atoms in the observable universe (10 to the 80th power).
Here are some quotes I would like to share:
If the honor and wisdom and joy of such a reading are not to be my own, then let them be for others. Let heaven exist, though my own place be in hell.
Infidels claim that the rule in the library is not “sense”, but “non-sense” and that “rationality” is almost miraculous exception.
I am perhaps midled by old age and fear, but I suspect that the human species-the only species-teaters at the verge of extinction, yet that the library-enlightened,solitary,infinite, perfectly unmoving, armed with precious volumes, pointless, incorruptible, and secret- will endure.
The library is unlimited but periodic
Theme of the Traitor and the Hero
A man named Ryan researches the death of his great-grandfather, an Irish nationalist hero named Fergus Kilpatrick, who was assassinated and is now viewed as a martyr to the cause of Irish independence. Something about the manner of Fergus Kilpatrick’s death strikes Ryan as enigmatic, a series of events that are like “circular labyrinths” (that image again!), oddly echoing elements from Macbeth and Julius Caesar, Shakespeare’s classic tragedies of betrayal. In “Theme of the Traitor and the Hero” the conceptual aspects of this tale don’t override the compelling plot, and this was one of the stories I really loved.
A shopkeeper, who has suffered a paralyzing stroke and is lying on a cot, sees and overhears a confrontation between a Negro man, who has been hanging around the shopkeeper’s store, playing his guitar and waiting, and a man who rides up to meet him. Their conversation makes it clear that the black man has been waiting seven years for this meeting. As mentioned in an editor’s footnote, this brief, bleak story is essentially a coda to a famous Argentine 19th century epic folk poem, “Martin Fierro,” about the life of a violent gaucho. In a famous scene in the poem, Fierro crudely provokes a black man and then kills him in the resulting knife fight. Several years later, in this story, Fierro is an aging man with some regrets for the life he has lived, and whose free and lawless gaucho way of life is passing. Once I really grasped the connection between the poem and this story, it became one of my favourites in this collection.
The main character is Juan Dahlmann, a mixture of German and Spanish ancestry, whose life is mundane but who dreams vaguely of a more romantic life, inspired by the Flores side of his heritage and the Flores ranch in the South that he owns but has never visited. One day Dahlmann brushes his forehead against something in a dark stairway and realizes afterwards that he is bleeding. He develops a life-threatening infection and is taken to a sanitarium for treatment. After many excruciatingly painful and feverish days, he recovers, and decides that he will take a trip to his ranch to convalesce. He travels out of the city on a train, feeling as though he is traveling into the past, and has an unexpected confrontation as he nears his final destination. Or does he? You decide, but several clues in the text ― a mysterious cat, a spitball that brushes his face, a dagger tossed to him by an old gaucho ― have led me unequivocally to my own conclusion. The brain cells, by the way, were completely engaged by this tale, which was complex and layered enough to make me think, but didn’t lose me in a labyrinth of difficult-to-grasp ideas.
He sensed that had been able to choose or dream his death that night, this is the death he would have dreamed or chosen.
Repeated labyrinth imagery, scenes of deception, and challenges to our perceptions of what is real echo throughout the stories of Ficciones. These stories are often elusive, twisting out of your grasp or revealing unexpected depths just when you think you’ve got a handle on them. Even the lightest stories have several layers and hidden meanings to unpack. If you’re interested in philosophical ideas and are up for a literary challenge, I highly recommend Ficciones.