Collected Fictions (Part II)

borgesMy thoughts about the first third of this book of Borges’s short stories came at the end of November. Time at long last for me to return to the next section of it: the stories that come in the books The Aleph, The Maker, and In Praise of Darkness.

In my last discussion of these stories, I talked about the sheer variety of them. Each story is a different genre, if you will: a literary review of an imaginary book; a detective story; a work of science fiction or fantasy; a western. In this discussion, I’ll talk a little more about what some of these stories have in common — some of the complex images and motifs that link them.

One of the (many, many) things Borges is interested in doing in his stories is turning his own premise inside out. He does this structurally, linguistically, thematically, and with references between stories — in any way you can imagine, in fact. So, for instance, he loves retellings, whether of Greek myths or of national myths. He’ll take a well-known story and let us see it from such a completely foreign viewpoint that our epistemology of it is completely changed, possibly forever. His hantise with labyrinths is, I think, structurally similar: for Borges, a labyrinth is not only a Daedalian maze, but anywhere you can get lost. A desert can be a labyrinth, or a straight line, as long as you don’t know where you are on the line. Change your point of view, and you change your world.

These stories, as I mentioned before, are philosophically about different points of view. Borges takes philosophical stances and plays them out to their logical ends: how would it affect language? Love? City life? His stories are full of reverses and obverses, coins, books with a magically infinite number of pages, the strange meetings of two men, the stranger meeting of Borges with himself. This doubling happens throughout these stories. A person could get lost.

He loves lists. In “El Aleph,” a man is able to see the entire universe from a point no more than two or three centimeters wide:

Each thing (the glass surface of a mirror, say) was infinite things, because I could clearly see it from every point in the cosmos. I saw the populous sea, saw dawn and dusk, saw the multitudes of the Americas, saw a silvery spiderweb at the center of a black pyramid, saw a broken labyrinth (it was London), saw endless eyes, all very close, studying themselves in me as though in a mirror, saw all the mirrors n the planet (and none of them reflecting me), saw in a rear courtyard on Calle Soler the same tiles I’d seen twenty years ago in the entryway of a house in Fray Bentos, saw convex equatorial deserts and their every grain of sand, saw a woman in Inverness whom I shall never forget, saw her violent hair, her haughty body, saw a cancer in her breast, saw a circle of dry soil within a sidewalk where there had once been a tree…

This list goes on for another page. It’s one of the most astonishing pieces of prose in the book. Again, Borges pulls his premise inside out: the small contains the infinite and the infinite contains the small. Notice the repetition of the word “mirror.” As I’m constantly telling my students, this kind of thing doesn’t happen by accident.

The very short works — often no longer than a few paragraphs — in The Maker and In Praise of Darkness are different in scope. Most of them are not short stories at all, but — what? Reflections, perhaps. Despite their scope, though, they’re powerful: not gut-punches but subtle needles. Many of them have the same themes: two men meet in a strange set of circumstances; a tiger paces; a labyrinth lies before you.

It’s difficult to explain what it’s like to read these stories. They are pure pleasure to read, because they are touching and entertaining, and they are also difficult to understand and unravel with the mind. Part of the pleasure — part of the entertainment — is that unraveling, like listening to a complicated piece of music and trying to hear all the strains at once, the cello and the flute and the harp, and how they make the symphony. They are a marvel. I look forward to writing about the third section of stories, which were similar in some ways and quite, quite different in others.

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