In the foreword to Brodie’s Report, Borges acknowledges his debt to the “laconic masterpieces” of Kipling’s early stories. In other places, he speaks with reverence of G.K. Chesterton and of Robert Louis Stevenson’s “ever-happy pen.” If I had guessed for a year, I would not have thought of Kipling and Stevenson as influences on the person who wrote “The Library of Babel” or “The Garden of Forking Paths.” Chesterton, yes, at a distance; there’s a strong and gleeful sense in his works that the universe is full of chaos, and that order is therefore a triumph whenever it is found.
In Brodie’s Report and The Book of Sand, however, I can begin to see Kipling and Stevenson, or rather the apotheosis of those already-fine writers. Borges calls the stories in these books “plain tales.” Well. Maybe. If you look around on the internet, a lot of people accuse these last b0oks of being boring, or too violent and stereotypically Argentine-macho, or “not like the real Borges.” But whatever Borges writes is Borges. He is an explorer, an experimenter, even in plain tales. Everything he writes is a question about our perception of time or memory, the nature of consciousness, what it means to be self-aware. He can be very playful, even when he’s apparently being straightforward or even grim. He’ll let us in on the joke — we just have to be alert.
“Unworthy,” for instance, is a story about a young Jewish boy who hero-worships a criminal named Francisco Ferrari, and ultimately betrays him. The plot is just that straightforward. But the story is full of equivocations:
I am going to tell you about something (Fischbein began) that I have never told anyone before. My wife Ana doesn’t know about this, nor do my closest friends. It happened so many years ago that it no longer feels like my own experience. Maybe you can use it for a story — no doubt you’ll endow it with a knife fight or two. I don’t know whether I’ve ever mentioned that I’m from Entre Rios. I won’t tell you that we were Jewish gauchos — there were never any Jewish gauchos. We were merchants and small farmers. I was born in Urdinarrain, which I only barely remember… Chance dealt me a very different hero, to the misfortune of us both: Francisco Ferrari. This is probably the first time you’ve ever heard of him.
What’s going on here? Is the story true, or a version, or a fiction told to Borges, or a fiction Borges is creating whole? Were there Jewish gauchos or not? Was there ever a Francisco Ferrari? Is there anything we can know about this story? Inside this plain tale is a labyrinth of play with conventional narrative. This happens more obviously with stories like “The Gospel of Mark” and “Brodie’s Report,” which wear a clearer symbolism, but don’t be deceived by the straightforward sentence structure. Plain tales these may be, but a plain tale-teller? No.
Shakespeare’s Memory, the last book in the collection, still shows that exploration. The story “Shakespeare’s Memory” is one of the few I had read before beginning the collection: a man who accepts the gift of Shakespeare’s memory into his own mind. The story explores and experiments with what that would really mean. All your dreams and language would slowly be changed, but memory is so dark and unreliable, and in some cases deliberately suppressed — a vague sense of guilt, a shadow — that nothing would ever come thoroughly clear. Borges puts all this into the context of Shakespeare, of course, because he is a writer. How does the process of creation happen from the tools of memory, discounting understanding and will? Can we ever know? Maybe not. But the labyrinth is the center.
I feel that by reading these stories, I’ve given myself something essential; a gift. They are not just beautiful, and entertaining, and fascinating, and touching. They are also tools for reading other works with my eyes and mind more alert than before. Do put these on your own list, to read at your leisure.