The Boston Phoenix
September 3 - 10, 1998

[Book Reviews]

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Jorge Luis Borges: Collected Fictions, Translated by Andrew Hurley

Viking, 560 pages, $35

One of the quieter signs of the millennium, perhaps, is the centenary of Jorge Luis Borges's birth next year. By the time he died, in 1986, Borges had nudged Latin American literature to world stature, influenced future generations of writers, and unhinged not a few undergraduate minds with a host of luminous miniatures that genially explored the unthinkable. Viking Press will celebrate this anniversary by publishing his collected work in separate volumes of fiction, poetry, and nonfiction.

A fine idea, but curious in its structuring when one considers that his first distinctive "fiction" (not including the Hart Crane-ish "Street Corner Man," here translated as "Man on Pink Corner," and the sardonic profiles of A Universal History of Iniquity) was "The Approach to

al-Mu'tasim," a 1935 review of an imaginary book that was so pedantically convincing that some tried to find a copy of the volume. Borges, it seemed, did not take too seriously the division between fact and fabrication that has recently plagued less illustrious members of the journalistic profession.

Or rather, he took it very seriously indeed. A few years later, in "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius," Borges posited an imaginary world accidentally discovered in an apocryphal encyclopedia; its rationality and meticulous detailing begin undermining the messier phenomena of the real world as fictitious objects start intruding into the fabric of the everyday.

In a sense, "Tlön" prefigures the subtler effect of Borges's subsequent career. As compact, finely wrought, and inscrutable as the fantastical artifacts he wrote about, his writings dropped into the mind like those Japanese paper pellets that expand into sculptures in water. He shunned longer forms: as he wrote in the foreword to 1941's The Garden of Forking Paths, "It is a laborious madness and an impoverishing one . . . 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." And so his tales of a few pages encapsulate the universe itself.

Such is the case with one of his finest, "The Aleph," in which a spot in a talentless poet's basement is "one of the points in space that contains all space." But though Borges's subject was everything, he focused on a handful of themes that he refined and repeated until, over time, they grew predictable as well as revelatory.

His own sharpest critic, he confessed later in his career: "A mere handful of arguments have haunted me all these years; I am decidedly monotonous." In "August 25, 1983," one of his last stories, he summarized these notions and motifs: "false recollections, the doubleness of symbols, the long catalogs, the skilled handling of prosaic reality, the imperfect symmetries . . . , the not always apocryphal quotations."

Not to mention dreams and the nature of personal identity. The story, like the earlier "The Other," is a dialogue between a younger and an older Borges, one of whom, apparently, dreams the other. Who is writing these words, and why, is a problem Borges never quite solved. He seemed to suspect that he was -- to quote the title of one of his tales -- "Everything and Nothing," the empty artificer distracting the void.

-- Peter Keough