Steven Wu's Book Reviews
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by Jorge Luis Borges

A book review by Steven Wu
March 24, 2002

Rating: 5 (of 10)

First I'll give some overall comments, and then I'll write some specific remarks about each story.

Borges's fiction is best taken in small doses. I found that reading too many of them at once causes them to sound gimmicky and contrived rather than mysterious and magical. But even in small doses it's hard not to begin resenting the little tricks that Borges plays: his obsession with labyrinths, his fiddling with reality, his confusing and unnecessary erudition.

On the other hand, when Borges is on, he's on. His stories are an endless fountain of ideas. He never develops any of them fully, but within one story he'll reel off concept after concept that lesser writers would try to base their life works on. And, although his truly great stories are few and far between, when they come up they're truly gems, to be remembered forever.

Unfortunately, that's all his stories are good for: ideas. When there aren't any cool ideas in them, or when there is only one idea being communicated, his stories fall flat. And none of them really speak to "the human condition," or provoke any sort of real emotion. Instead, his stories feel like puzzle boxes; sometimes they're pretty lame, sometimes pretty neat, and mostly they're just tiresome. He's inventive, I'll give him that; but he's not a great writer.

One final note: I've read lots and lots of effusive praise about Borges's "shimmering" or "effervescent" prose. I beg to differ. The translations in Ficciones are somewhat inconsistent; sometimes there'll be a phrase that I particularly like, and sometimes there'll be a phrase that will stop me in my tracks with befuddlement, or make me laugh out loud in disbelief (not in a good way). I think Borges's Collected Fictions is supposed to be much better in terms of style, since all of the stories there are translated by a single person, but Borges's writing here isn't all that great.

Now, on to the individual stories.

"TLÖN, UQBAR, ORBIS TERTIUS"--A tale about Tlon and Uqbar, two fictional worlds. Uqbar is a possibly fake city, Tlon is a city that the people in Uqbar write about, and the Orbis Tertius is an encyclopedia (in the real world) about Tlon (which may not exist). Tlon also has strange rules of physics and society. This is a crazy story, a good introduction to Borges's love of spinning circles around the reader. But ultimately, as with many others, it's just confusing.

"THE APPROACH TO AL-MU'TASIM"--A (fictional) critical essay of the eponymous book (also fictional). Borges delights in describing what this book is like. The plot summary of the first two chapters is insane. For example:

"The story which begins in Bombay continues in the lowlands of Palanpur, lingers an afternoon and a night at the stone gates of Bikaner, narrates the death of a blind astrologer in a Benares sewer, conspires in the multiform palace of Katmandu, prays and fornicates--amid the pestilential stench of Calcutta--in the Machua Bazaar, watches the days be born in the sea from an office in Madras, watches the afternoons die in the sea from a balcony in the state of Travancore, hestitates and kills at Indapur and closes its orbit of leagues and years in Bombay itself, a few paces away from the garden of the mooncolored hounds."

"PIERRE MENARD, AUTHOR OF DON QUIXOTE"--I really liked this story, even though I've never heard of it. An obituary of Pierre Menard (fictional, of course), a writer who has penned some of the most ridiculous articles I've ever heard described. For instance, while listing all of Menard's publications, Borges describes the following: "A technical article on the possibility of enriching the game of chess by means of eliminating one of the rooks' pawns. Menard proposes, recommends, disputes, and ends by rejecting this innovation." Menard presents a ridiculous proposition, then rejects the "innovation"! A classic parody of academic writing. All of Menard's publications are similarly silly. Another example: "A manuscript list of verses which owe their effectiveness to punctuation." But the real meat of the story--and the reason for its title--comes when Menard rewrites Don Quixote--word for word. Borges writes, with a straight face, "The text of Cervantes and that of Menard are verbally identical, but the second is almost infinitely richer." And then Borges launches into a hilarious comparison of two identical passages from Cervantes's book and Menard's, commenting on how Menard's passage must be interpreted differently from Cervantes, even though the words are exactly the same. I think Borges is making fun of literary analysis, which so often takes "authorial intent" to be controlling. I happen to agree with his opinion of literary analysis, and so I found this story priceless.

"THE CIRCULAR RUINS"--A classic. This is the first Borges story that I read, a long, long time ago, when I was a freshman in high school. I found it cool back then; now, years later, I still find it cool. This story contains some of Borges's best writing. Two lines that I have stuck with me through the years: "Any father is interested in the sons he has procreated (or permitted) out of the mere confusion of happiness"; and "clouds of smoke which rusted the metal of the nights." The twist at the end of the story is not entirely foreseeable, but it raises interesting questions about epistemology. This, rather than The Matrix, should be required reading for anybody about to embark on Descartes's Meditations.

"THE BABYLON LOTTERY"--Another classic. Here is a great example of Borges's ability to take a truly bizarre idea and stretch it to its fullest without ever really developing any of the strands he pulls out. Basically, the premise of this story is that the government of Babylon begins to be run entirely by lottery, so that no decision is made--even at the smallest level--without the intervention of random chance. This leads to conundrums like the following: "A slave stole a crimson ticket, a ticket which earned him the right to have his tongue burned in the next drawing. The criminal code fixed the same penalty for the theft of a ticket. A number of Babylonians argued that he deserved a red-hot poker by virtue of the theft; others, more magnanimous, held that the public executioner should apply the penalty of the lottery, since chance had so determined." As with many of Borges's stories, there's no real point; it's just interesting considering the ideas he presents within.

"AN EXAMINATION OF THE WORK OF HERBERT QUAIN"--Another review of a fictional author's works. Unlike the story about Pierre Menard, this one was insufferably erudite. For example, "The sixteenth century (we need only recall Cervantes' Viaje al Parnaso, or Shakespeare's destiny) did not share this disconsolate opinion"; and "Someone has perceived an echo of Donne's doctrines; Quain's prologue prefers to evoke the inverse world of Bradley in which death precedes birth, the scar the wound, and the wound the blow (Appearance and Reality, 1897, page 215)." What exactly is the point of showing off how much he knows? (Or, if he's just making it up, what's the point of that?)

"THE LIBRARY OF BABEL"--Perhaps the single best example of what Borges is capable of at the height of his imaginative powers. The library of Babel is a vast but finite library consisting of all possible books of a certain number of pages and words. As usual, Borges spouts ideas like a fountain but develops none of them. The library would be a great setting for a sci-fi story.

"THE GARDEN OF FORKING PATHS"--Some Chinese guy gets information to the Nazis. The premise (how the Chinese guy gets his message across) is fairly clever, but the story feels fairly shallow. After "The Library of Babel," one single idea just doesn't cut it. Plus Borges somehow feels compelled to riff about all sorts of metaphysical crap anyway.

"FUNES, THE MEMORIOUS"--Supposedly, "a long metaphor of insomnia." Surprising, that; the story put me right to sleep. I don't remember it.

"THE FORM OF THE SWORD"--It's about an Irish guy with a scar. Parts of it reminded me of James Joyce's writings about Irish rebellions. The surprise ending is not entirely unpredictable. Even if it were I don't think it's particularly interesting. A mediocre tale.

"THEME OF THE TRAITOR AND HERO"--This story starts off great; Borges builds layer upon layer of the puzzle until I was wondering how he could pull something reasonable out of this delightful muddle. Then, he does--and it's lame.

"DEATH AND THE COMPASS"--Like the previous story, another story with a great buildup and a really disappointing ending.

"THE SECRET MIRACLE"--A guy is about to be executed. Time stops right before his execution so he can finish writing a perfect play. He finishes it, and dies. Hurrah.

"THREE VERSIONS OF JUDAS"--Borges's parody of Biblical exegesis? I don't know. I didn't really read it.

"THE END"--To explain the premise of this story, I recount here the epilogue: "This account of a knife fight with Martín Fierro, the Argentine gaucho of José Hernández' great folk poem, takes up the story of Fierro where the popular poem leaves off. A singing encounter, or challenge, with a black man (one of ten brothers, the eldest of whom has been killed) occurs toward the end of the poem. A fight is at that time averted. Borges here gives us the account of a subsequent meeting." I don't know who Martín Fierro is. And so this story, though refreshingly simple, meant nothing to me.

"THE SECT OF THE PHOENIX"--Describes a sect tied together by an unmentionable, unmentioned secret. But is it interesting? No.

"THE SOUTH"--Another knife fight. Just as bad as "The End."

Copyright © 2002 Steven Wu

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