Ficciones, by Jorge Luis Borges (1941-1956).
The Spanish education system gets worse each day but even if you suffered LOGSE you still get to study Jorge Luis Borges at school. As a teenager he sounds intimidating and boring as hell to you. Painted as erudite, obscure, full of symbolism and difficult to read in general, the portrayal from my textbook didn’t look very inviting, so I kept ignoring him in my literary journeys.
Ten years later, my self-taught roaming brought me repeatedly to “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” and “Pierre Menard, author of the Quixote” and I said, why the hell not. I feel I wouldn’t have liked him before, but this is the moment of my life where I’m a screaming fangirl of Borges.
Borges writes in the prologue to The garden of forking paths: “It is a laborious and impoverishing nonsense to compose vast books; to expound on five hundred pages one idea of which the perfect oral exposition takes a few minutes. It is a better procedure to pretend that those books already exist and offer a summary, a comment on them.” (All translations in the review are my own.) The longest story in this anthology is about fifteen pages. And there is not one single word missing or in excess in any of them. Borges never wrote a full-length novel, and he never was interested in it. You sometimes wish he had, like in “An Examination of the Work of Herbert Quain”, where he describes “a novel with nine different beginnings, trifurcating backwards in time” (1). The novels diverge so much that one is symbolic, another, supernatural, other two are communist and anti-communist, respectively… But well, you have to admit that anyone who tried to write such a novel would probably botch it. Even Borges.
Books are extremely important in almost every story in Ficciones, and sometimes even an identity between books and reality is presented, like in “The Library of Babel”, about a world that is an infinite library populated by librarians and books which contain every possible combination of the symbols that make up written language. “The garden of forking paths” is a story about a book that is a labyrinth… and also about spies. Other stories are completely serious reviews or comments on books that don’t actually exist (he did mean it). He uses these as an opportunity to play with concepts of literary theory and criticism.
Borges doesn’t give two shits about your literary ghettos and snobbism. “Flaubert and Henry James have got us used to supposing that works of art are infrequent and of a laborious execution; the Sixteenth Century (let us remember Journey to Parnassus, let us remember Shakespeare’s fate) did not share that inconsolable opinion”. Every story in Ficciones is either a fantastic, crime or spy story. Not exactly what scholars usually consider high literature. Still, he’s one of the most extraordinary writers of the Twentieth Century and apparently the only reason he didn’t get the Nobel was that he was too fond of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet. He’s incredibly erudite and well-read; he was the director of the Argentinian National Library for decades for a reason. That’s probably why he doesn’t care about what other critics considered “good literature”, or what is fancy to consider good literature. He just went and wrote exceptional literature.
Because underneath the fantastic and the crime novel tropes there is a deep understanding of philosophy and a desire to inquire life about its secrets. He has not only read classical and contemporary philosophers but has also developed his own philosophical questions in the form of fiction. It’s not a wonder that he appeals to scientists, mathematicians, people of letters and casual readers alike: his writing shows puzzlement towards a world that is infinitely rich, and not always makes any sense, and a playful willingness to explore its limits and contradictions.
This is a classic, and not a boring-classic. It’s an enjoy-every-page-of-it-classic. If you want to be challenged, baffled and charmed, this book is for you.