Monday, 13 July 2009

'the dizzying world'

by Jorge Luis Borges

Well this book has been living on the shelf for years. My wife bought it originally after the playwright August Wilson had mentioned him as an influence, but finding it all a little difficult to get into it went back on the shelf where it has been gathering dust and the occasional glance ever since. I don't know what made me pick it up the other day and I certainly don't know why I'm attempting to write anything about one of the most influential and studied texts of the twentieth century but maybe I just want to mark the fact that I did eventually tackle Borges. I realise that the stories may only take a matter of hours to read and perhaps a whole lifetime to appreciate but perhaps like the child who points out the simple beauty of the sky I might light on something that finds a resonance for those that know far more about him than I do.

I dimly remembered that there has been some controversy surrounding the translation of Borges' work and no shortage of criticism for the particular translation in this Penguin edition from Andrew Hurley. I don't speak Spanish, I have no comparison, so I can't comment. My main problem reading these stories was grappling for a hold on 'the dizzying world' which Borges creates. Some stories are puzzling, others labyrinthine, still more metafictional, coming together to form a collection which has the layering effect and faded imprint of a palimpsest. Whilst many of the stories are little more than a few pages long they are like the TARDIS, bigger on the inside than they seem from the outside.

Just the first handful of stories contain more than most writers could hope to achieve in a lifetime. The endeavour of the intellectuals in Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius is matched by Borges himself, not only creating an entirely new world but imagining its reference books, language, and philosophy. How do you classify a story which reads as part science fiction, part philosophical hypothesis, other than calling it Borgesian. That SF feel is continued in stories like The Library Of Babel which creates a similar disorientation in the mind of the reader as the inhabitants of the labyrinthine library. The Lottery In Babylon - 'not wholly innocent of symbolism' according to Borges' foreword develops brilliantly from describing the first rudimentary lotteries played amongst the commoners, to the vastly intricate system run by the shadowy 'Company' which is so nuanced that some have the temerity to suggest that Babylon is 'nothing but an infinite game of chance'.

Borges' startling imagination even created literary criticism for texts that don't exist. We meet Pierre Menard, the French writer who recreated Quixote word for word, the two identical texts providing entirely different meanings for the scholar due to their place in time, or should that be history?

...truth, whose mother is history, rival of time, depository of deeds, witness of the past, exemplar and adviser to the present, and the future's counsellor.

By Cervantes these words are merely 'rhetorical praise of history' but by Menard they become 'staggering', historical truth not so much what happened as what we believe happened. A Survey Of The Works Of Herbert Quain uses algebra to illustrate experimental structures in writing before really turning up the heat with a conclusion that turns everythign you're readiong on its head.

One of the stories (not the best) hints at two plots; the reader, blinded by vanity, believes that he himself has come up with them. From the third story, titled 'The Rose Of yesterday', I was ingeneous enough to extract 'The Circular Ruins,' which is one of the stories from my book The Garden Of Forking Paths.

I know! That's the book I'm reading. That very story brilliantly describing imagination or creation, if such a thing is possible. See what I mean about a palimpsest? I often found my brain being tickled and challenged by the faint trace of his other writings whenever I thought i had managed to focus in one any particular story. The wealth of imagination is extraordinary and I have no problem now in seeing why so many writers cite him as an influence. For the first time reader it's all a bit daunting but that's the beauty with books. I can place it back on the shelf now, no longer such a foreboding presence, and come back to it again when I feel like having my brain tickled.

For more information on the man that some see as the definitive translator of Borges click here and here.


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