One of the perks of working at the Calder Bookshop occasionally is that it gives me the opportunity to plunder the shelves on my lunch break. Many are the books I have enjoyed over my midday sandwich, and Sarah Stonich’s recent post lamenting the decline of short fiction reminded me of one of the best: Fictions, a collection of stories by Jorge Luis Borges.
I am apparently a rarity among my peers in entirely lacking an appreciation of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. On revealing this secret shame I have frequently received looks of mingled horror and pity – so many that by the beginning of this year I had begun to harbour an irrational resentment towards South American authors in general. It was with some trepidation then that I took the Calder edition of Fictions down one afternoon and began to read – my doubts were soon dispelled.
Many authors seem to work on the principle that the more complicated the ideas discussed in their work, the more cryptic their style should be. Borges does not fall into this category – he chooses lofty concepts to tackle, but thankfully his writing is somewhat more down to earth. Not that any of the stories in this collection could be called ordinary – they are among the most imaginative and fascinating that I have ever read – but at the most basic level Borges’ style is realist, even conservative, and a necessary and satisfying complement to the unfailingly fantastical subject matter of his work.
My favourite of the stories is probably the first, ‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius’, in which the narrator describes a conspiracy by intellectuals throughout the ages to disseminate pseudo-historical information concerning an imagined land, and thereby bring that land, Tlön, into existence. In describing Tlön, Borges does a good job of making the inconceivable comprehensible – a world in which the complete determination of reality by thought is seen as common sense, and in which the notion that a man might drop a coin from his pocket, only to find the same coin at a later date, is seen as paradoxical; a world in which there is a language with no nouns. I’m not sure if 'Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius’ is an exploration of metaphysics, or a mocking of the entire discipline. Either way it is a tale about abstract ideas which manages to be utterly gripping – no mean feat for an author to achieve.
Another favourite piece of mine is ‘Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote’. It takes the form of a work of literary criticism on the (non-existent) 19th-century French author, Pierre Menard. Menard is apparently most famous for his word-for-word reproduction of Don Quixote in 17th-century Spanish. The author contends that Menard’s version is far more complex and richer in allusion than Cervantes’s original – a proposition that, by the end of the story, I was inclined to agree with. Once again, with measured prose and limitless imagination, Borges achieves a sort of literary alchemy, this time transmuting the wholly absurd into the eminently reasonable.
Working in publishing has given me a new appreciation of the art of translation. I’ve seen plenty of good and bad examples, and I know how rare it is for a book to read entirely naturally in a language other than its original. It is the highest compliment I can pay Anthony Kerrigan, the translator of this edition, to say that I forgot I was reading a translation at all until halfway though Fictions. When I did eventually realize, I thought it must have been translated by Borges himself, bilingual as he was. Not understanding Spanish, I can’t comment on the faithfulness of this translation to the original, but it has a wonderful flow to it and never sounds forced.
Borges is my kind of writer, and I’ll be reading a lot more of his work. Doubtless most of you will be familiar with him already, but if you aren’t, and if you’d rather have your mind bent by outlandish ideas than by the effort of trying to decipher cryptic prose, I advise you to give Fictions a read. A thumbs up from me, then.