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It is remarkable that the fiction work of a writer of Borges’ stature, cumulated over a long lifetime, is scarcely over 500 pages’ worth—not even so many words as typically appear in any one of the “doorstop” novels today’s popular authors crank out every few months of their working lives. At least two conclusions are suggested by the fact.
The first is that Borges worked in the short-story mode; and that conclusion is wholly correct. In the edition I have, not in particularly small type, the longest tale I see in a rapid scan is fifteen pages—many are but a page or two in length.
The second conclusion, which the first supports, is that for a writer of such modest fictive output—the equivalent of less than a page a month over his half-century-plus career—to be so very highly regarded as is Borges, his works must be, in the most literal sense, extraordinary in their quality. And so they are.
(From our special perspective, also noteworthy is that, while Borges is universally accepted as a fantasist or fabulist, many of his 101 tales contain no element whatever of the fantastic, save as we may remark that “everyday life” is often a fantastic thing.)
The short story is a very different medium from the novel. The short story stands in somewhat—though not exactly—the same relation to the novel as does a still photograph, or a painting, to a motion picture. The well-crafted photograph or short story does not so much tell a tale as imply a tale (or many possible tales). The story differs from the photo (or painting) a bit in that it is not quite a single frozen moment, but the analogy is a strong one. It is, I think, worth noting in this context that Borges’ latest translator chose to render the title of one of Borges’ better-known stories (originally Hombre de la esquina rosada) as “Man on Pink Corner” ; the more usual rendering in English is “Street-Corner Man”, something rather different. The translator quotes (also in translation) a commentator on Borges, who says in part: “The title of the original publication, which omits the definite article, reminds the reader of the title of a painting…. It stresses the graphic aspect of the scene, which Borges…called the ‘pictorial intention’ of his work.” (Whether that “his work” means that particular story or his entire oeuvre is unclear in the context.)
Stories of a very few pages in length, effectively portraits, cannot easily be evaluated by the same set of criteria—plot, characterization, setting, language—one applies to longer works. That said, we can still look at some of those aspects; language use in particular remains a constant criterion for any work.
We who read in English must take it—as with Calvino, Hoffmann, Mujica Lainez, and a few others listed here who did not write in English—that the translator has rendered the author’s words well: not only with accuracy, but with fidelity to the “feel” of the original. (Calvino was assuredly well-served: Weaver’s translations are universally respected.) The new standard for translation of Borges is Andrew Hurley’s, for he is the only translator to have translated all of Borges’ fictions. Opinions seem divided over the quality of Hurley’s work (but an interesting analysis of those opinions shows that they themselves have defects as expressed). Whether Hurley conveyed Borges as the original texts would to one fluent in Spanish I simply cannot say; but, based solely on my own reading of Hurley’s work, and of Hurley’s fairly extensive notes on his choices, my feeling is that this is a satisfactory translation (as another review of the work agrees), sufficient to convey the essence of Borges. Nonetheless, be aware that not all agree.
With that caveat, that we are working with a translation, I would call the language pellucid, even crystalline. I will illustrate with a couple of samples, as usual chosen quite at random:
Reality is partial to symmetries and slight anachronisms; Dahlmann had come to the sanatorium in a cab, and it was a cab that took him to the station at Plaza Constitución. The first cool breath of autumn, after the oppression of the summer, was like a natural symbol of his life brought back from fever and the brink of death. The city, at that seven o’clock in the morning, had not lost that look of a ramshackle old house that cities take on at night; the streets were like long porches and corridors, the plazas like interior courtyards.
Without the slightest change of voice, Ireneo told me to come in. He was lying on his cot, smoking. I don’t think I saw his face until the sun came up the next morning; when I look back, I believe I recall the momentary glow of his cigarette. His room smelled vaguely musty. I sat down; I told him about my telegram and my father’s illness.
Sometimes Borges’ sentences are lengthy, almost Victorian in balance and complexity; but as a rule they are, like those above, relatively short and simple—sometimes reading much like Raymond Chandler in their “hard-boiled" directness.
(Borges and his close friend Adolph Bioy Casares wrote some tales—which, as co-authored works, are not in the one-volume Collected Fictions of Borges—about a detective named Isidro Parodi, a wrongly convicted prisoner, who solves crimes for the police without ever leaving his jail cell; he was, as his name suggests, an affectionate parody of Sherlock Holmes, as was Umberto Eco’s William of Baskerville in The Name of the Rose. Some of Borges’ own stories can be considered highly sophisticated crime/mystery tales.)
Beyond language use, the other qualities—so important in novels—here need only be glanced at.
Settings: Many of Borges’ tales are set in his native Argentina or neighboring lands, in contemporary or not-long-gone times, and are wholly authentic (and instructional to those not familiar with Latin America). But not a few others are set in lands that, while at least nominally true parts of our familiar world, are far off in space or time or both: antiquity, the Middle Ages; Babylon, Bremen, Boston. Little or nothing overtly takes place outside our familiar world, the most notable exception being the renowned tale “The Library of Babel”, which begins:
The universe (which others call the Library) is composed of an indefinite, perhaps infinite number of hexagonal galleries.
But in all cases Borges’ descriptions of his settings bear a master’s hallmark: we feel we are reading description by a man who has been to the place of which he writes and has spent time there, whether the place is the block Borges actually lived on or ancient Arabia.
Plot: In a short story, “plot” is almost an oxymoron, and needs little comment here. The sequence of acts and actions in short tales serves chiefly to put in place the props and to pose the chief subjects for the instant when the writer’s equivalent of the photographer’s flash bulb will go off to capture, to freeze, some crucial moment or scene. Indeed, many of Borges’ short tales arguably have no “plot” at all, being in effect short discourses. (Just below, as a demonstration, is one complete Borges tale—“Argumentum Ornithologicum”.)
I close my eyes and see a flock of birds. The vision lasts a second, or perhaps less; I am not sure how many birds I saw. Was the number of birds definite or indefinite? The problem involves the existence of God. If God exists, the number is definite, because God knows how many birds I saw. If God does not exist, the number is indefinite, because no one can have counted. In this case I saw fewer than ten birds (let us say) and more than one, but did not see nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, or two birds. I saw a number between ten and one which was not nine, eight, seven, six, five, etc. That integer—not-nine, not-eight, not-seven, not-six, not-five, etc.—is inconceivable. Ergo, God exists.
Character: This also, in the short story, is—while vital—in a sense yet another prop, a static thing to be conveyed as, one might say, part of the setting. Borges is, as we may expect from a master writer, highly skilled in the nuances with which the short-story writer quickly conveys to us what we need to know of his subjects’ characters for them to assume, in our minds, their poses for the snapshot.
“This,” said Dunraven with a vast gesture that did not blench at the cloudy stars, and that took in the black moors, the sea, and a majestic, tumbledown edifice that looked much like a stable fallen on hard times, “is my ancestral land.”
Unwin, his companion, removed the pipe from his mouth and uttered modest sounds of approbation.
The man at our feet was dying. My thought was, whoever had fixed his clock, his hand had been pretty steady. But the Yardmaster was tough, you had to give him that. When he came to the door just now, Julia had been brewing up some mate, and the mate went around the room and came all the way back to me before he was finally dead. “Cover my face,” he said, when he knew he couldn’t last anymore. His pride was all he had left, and he wasn’t going to let people gawk at the expressions on his face while he lay there dyin’. Somebody put that high-crowned black hat over his face, and he died under it, without a sound. When his chest stopped rising and falling, somebody got up the nerve to uncover him—he had that tired look that dead men get.
But though Borges carves out gem-like cameos of men and women in illuminating poses that well illustrate the human comedy—work that, did it comprise “only” realistic vignettes like those suggested just above, would still be work of genius—it is in the curious and almost invariably profound seeds of ideation that his fantastic tales plant in his readers’ minds that his especial genius, genius beyond ordinary genius (if any such thing can be said to be, and Borges demonstrates that it can), lies.
Borges’ fantastic tales, like all his tales, are stately, elegant, almost academically dry in their telling. I say “tales”, but, as I suggested earlier, many of these fictions really read much more like discourses—there is no plot, there are no characters, nothing “happens”—and not a few are deliberately framed to seem so. At first, many of these little fantasies seem controlled exercises in oddity, even absurdity.
Those who have insinuated that Menard devoted his life to writing a contemporary Quixote besmirch his illustrious memory. Pierre Menard did not want to compose another Quixote, which is surely easy enough—he wanted to compose the Quixote. Nor, surely, need one be obliged to note that his goal was never a mechanical transcription of the original; he had no intention of copying it. His admirable ambition was to produce a number of pages which coincided—word for word and line for line—with those of Miguel de Cervantes.
“My purpose is merely astonishing,” he wrote me on September 30, 1934, from Bayonne. “The final term of a theological or metaphysical proof—the world around us, or God, or chance, or universal Forms—is no more final, no more uncommon, than my revealed novel. The sole difference is that philosophers publish pleasant volumes containing the intermediate stages of their work, while I am resolved to suppress those stages of my own.” And indeed there is not a single draft to bear witness to that years-long labor.
—from “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote”
“It can’t be, yet it is,” the Bible peddler said, his voice little more than a whisper. “The number of pages in this book is literally infinite. No page is the first page; no page is the last. I don’t know why they’re numbered in this arbitrary way, but perhaps it’s to give one to understand that the terms of an infinite series can be numbered any way whatever.”
Then, as though thinking out loud, he went on.
“If space is infinite, we are anywhere, at any point in space. If time is infinite, we are at any point in time.”
His musings irritated me.
“You,” I said, “are a religious man, are you not?”
“Yes, I’m a Presbyterian. My conscience is clear. I am certain I didn’t cheat that native when I gave him the Lord’s Word in exchange for his diabolic book.”
—from “The Book of Sand”
I pulled out a handful, but felt that there were still two or three I had missed. A tickling sensation, the slightest sort of quivering, imparted a soft warmth to my palm. When I opened my hand, I saw that it held thirty or forty disks; I’d have sworn I’d picked up no more than ten. I left them on the table and turned back to get the rest out of my pocket. I didn’t need to count them to see that they had multiplied. I pushed them together into a single pile, and tried to count them out one by one.
That simple operation turned out to be impossible. I would look fixedly at any one of them, pick it up with my thumb and index finger, yet when I had done that, when that one disk was separated from the rest, it would have become many. I checked to see that I didn’t have a fever (which I did not), and then I performed the experiment, over and over again. The obscene miracle kept happening. I felt my feet go clammy and my bowels turn to ice; my knees began to shake. I do not know how much time passed.
—from “Blue Tigers”
One could multiply such examples many times, but their superficial oddity is not the point. These are not simple tales of the fantastic, they are allegories, or parables. They do not truly speak of eccentric authors, unholy books, or enchanted stones: they speak—deeply—of, well, Life, the Universe, and Everything (as Douglas Adams so charmingly and definitively put it).
Nor are the allegories always as straightforward as some of those quoted from above may seem; to convey, or even suggest, many of them would require quoting, in fact, the entire story in question. And that is another hallmark of the master: there is nothing extraneous in any of Borges’ tales, no simplification or extraction really possible—each is exactly the right length. Even the telling quotations above do not by any means express the whole of the idea-packages Borges has tucked into the corresponding stories.
Borges deals in large ideas, but not solemnly. Though the telling of the tales often seems dry and factual, there is usually a current of laughter playing beneath the surface. One mechanism with which Borges amuses himself and us (if we take care) is facts and quotations that are subtly wrong, as a rule for no clear reason. Also, his tales commonly mix real persons in with his fictional creations, though frequently at impossible places or times for those persons. One of those real persons is himself:
In Buenos Aires the Zahir is a common twenty-centavo coin into which a razor or letter opener has scratched the letters N T and the number 2; the date stamped on the face is 1929. (In Gujarat, at the end of the eighteenth century, the Zahir was a tiger; in Java it was a blind man in the Surakarta mosque, stoned by the faithful; in Persia, an astrolabe that Nadir Shah ordered thrown into the sea; in the prisons of Mahdi, in 1892, a small sailor’s compass, wrapped in a shred of cloth from a turban, that Rudolf Karl von Slatin touched; in the synagogue in Córdoba, according to Zotenberg, a vein in the marble of one of the twelve hundred pillars; in the ghetto in Tetuáan, the bottom of a well.) Today is the thirteenth of November; last June 7, at dawn, the Zahir came into my hands; I am not the man I was then, but I am still able to recall, and perhaps recount, what happened. I am still, albeit only partially, Borges.
I feel I am not doing justice here to Borges, who is—for me, anyway—the most difficult subject I have essayed so far on this site. Critics make observations such as: “Borges presents each of his writings as an ontological enigma.” Illuminating ontological enigmas is not what this site is about: convincing you to sample authors listed here whom you may not yet have read is. But, as that same critic also observed: “Borges offers—through the perfection of his language, the extent of his knowledge, the universalism of his ideas, the originality of his fictions, and the beauty of his poetry—a real summa that does honour to…the universal mind.” I could not agree more.
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Borges is a large figure on the stage of world literature: a search merely for his name will turn up reams of information, analysis, criticism, and suchlike.
A few web pages devoted to Borges are:
Those can take you to many other Borges resources on line. Moreover, the “Author’s Calendar” is its usual reliable self in providing a Borges page with full biographic information and a fine discussion of the works. And an article on Borges in The New York Times, “Borges and the Foreseeable Future”, is interesting reading, as is an older but more or less related essay in Salon, “Web master Borges”.
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Here are a few possibilities you can look into:
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