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Archive for May, 2018

I was in a reading slump for a while. Then one day I watched a video by an American navy admiral, a commencement speech he was giving to new cadets. In that speech he said that we should focus on small tasks. Like when we get up in the morning, we should make our bed. That will lead to a sense of accomplishment and then we can go and work on the next small task. I found that speech very inspiring. I thought I will try to get out of my reading slump by focusing on a small thing. Like picking up a book of short stories and reading one story. If things go well, I will read the next story. And take things one story at a time. When I thought of short stories, Jorge Luis Borges’Collected Fictions‘ leapt at me. Borges’ stories were mostly short – the shortest ones were less than a page while the longest one ran to sixteen pages. I thought it would be perfect. Of course, I didn’t know at that time, what I was getting into.

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I first discovered Borges years back, when I read a review of one of his books, probably this one. I have always wanted to read his stories since then. Across the years, I have dipped into this volume and others, and read a few short stories of his. I have always wanted to come back and read this collection properly from the first page to the last, but had been postponing that. Now I am happy that I have finally been able to do that.

The first Borges story I ever read was ‘The Other‘. In that story, Borges himself is the main character. He is sitting on a bench in a park, enjoying the evening, when a stranger comes and sits at the other end of the bench. What happens after that is strange and amazing and mindblowing. When I read ‘The Other‘ the first time, I was amazed and my mind was bursting with energy and I was thinking about it and couldn’t sleep the whole night. It is there in this collection, in the book, ‘The Book of Sand‘. The second Borges story that I ever read was ‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius‘. In that story the narrator and his friend read about a new country in the encyclopedia. But they don’t find those pages in other copies of that encyclopedia. Then they discover a volume of another encyclopedia which is about a whole new planet. As they investigate more into this, the surprises they discover are mind-boggling. This was one of my favourite stories in the book, because it reveals new secrets with every new re-read and the ending is brilliant everytime.

Some of the other stories that I loved from the book were :

The Circular Ruins‘, in which a strange man ends up in the ruins of a temple and he tries to dream of a human and bring that human into the real world. The ending of the story is unexpected and mindblowing and brilliant.

The Garden of Forking Paths‘ – I don’t know how to describe it other than to say that it is about mazes and labyrinths, which really doesn’t say much.

The Library of Babel‘ – a brilliant story about an infinite library

The Immortal‘ – a story about a man who goes in search of immortals. Brilliant story with a brilliant ending.

‘The House of Asterion‘ – in which a prince narrates his story and it all goes nicely till we discover in the end that the prince is no ordinary prince and the story is no ordinary story.

The Shape of the Sword‘ – an amazing story. I don’t want to say more. I didn’t see that ending coming.

Deutsches Requiem‘ – a story with an unusual narrator and a fascinating point of view.

The Zahir‘ – an incredibly scary story.

The Maker‘ – when we discover the identity of the narrator in the end – wow!

Everything and Nothing‘ – a mindblowing surprise in the end.

Unworthy‘ – a story about gangsters

The Gospel According to Mark‘ – in which a young man reads the gospel to a family everyday – a family who don’t know how to read. This leads to some unexpected results.

A Weary Man’s Utopia‘ – Borges’ attempt at science fiction. He pulls it off brilliantly.

There were also three stories set in India, or which had an Indian theme, which I liked very much – ‘The Man on the Threshold‘, ‘The Book of Sand‘ and ‘Blue Tigers‘.

Though I have mentioned the names of a few of my favourite stories above, the book has nearly a hundred stories and I loved them all.

There were two things that I felt were recurring elements in a Borges story. The first was the surprise ending. In two of his early books, ‘Fictions‘ (‘Ficciones‘) and ‘The Aleph‘, the surprise ending keeps coming again and again and stuns the reader. It is not a regular surprise, like we would encounter in a murder mystery, like the identity of the murderer. The surprise ending that Borges delivers, is mindblowing. It turns the story upside down in unexpected ways. It makes us go back to the first page of the story, look for clues, and wonder how we missed it. Sometimes the story is just a couple of pages long and we don’t suspect what is coming. The second recurring element that I found in a Borges story is the fact that he plays with form. For example, a detective story is not a straightforward detective story. For example, ‘Death and the Compass‘ reads like a Dan Brown / Robert Langdon mystery. There is a murder and there are clues which are related to religion. Our detective uses the clues in the investigation and comes close to finding the murderer. But then Borges turns the story upside down there! Borges keeps doing this again and again – he takes a traditional form of a story from a particular genre, and applies his inventive genius to it and creates something unexpected and new and beautiful out of it.

Some of the recurring themes that I noticed in many of the stories were labyrinths, libraries, infinities.

There are stories of all kinds in the collection. There are gangster stories, detective stories, science fiction, fantasy, horror, literary fiction, mythology and every other kind. Though many of the stories are set in Argentina and Latin America, many other stories are set across the world, in other times, or in mythical or imaginary worlds. Borges, it seems, didn’t want to be tied down by artificial restraints that lesser writers impose on themselves.

There was a story in the collection called ‘The Story of the Two Dreamers’ which was very similar to Paulo Coelho’s ‘The Alchemist‘. I am wondering whether Coelho was inspired by that. There is also another story in the collection called ‘The Zahir‘. There is a Paulo Coelho novel which is also called ‘The Zahir’! I don’t know whether they have similar plots. 

Many of the books in the collection have a foreword by Borges in which he elaborates on some aspect of the stories. Some of the books have an afterword because Borges doesn’t want to reveal any surprises. I loved that. There is a note on the translation in the end, in which the translator, Andrew Hurley, talks about the pleasures and challenges of translating Borges into English.

When I finished reading the book, my heart leapt with joy. Because I had finally read this book from cover to cover. But soon a deep wave of sadness and melancholy enveloped my heart. Because I had read my last story by the Master. There was no new Borges story left. Jorge Luis Borges was one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century. And probably the greatest ever Argentinian writer. But though he wrote for more than half a century, his literary output is very thin. His entire collection of fiction, which his original readers enjoyed over half a century, has been compiled into this one book. This is all there is. It is sad. I wish there was more. But instead of mourning for what is not there, it is time to celebrate what is there. I am glad the Master wrote these fantastic stories. I loved them and I will be re-reading them again and again and try to unearth new truths and surprises that they choose to reveal.

I will leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book.

“…when one confesses to an act, one ceases to be an actor in it and becomes its witness, becomes a man that observes and narrates it and no longer the man that performed it.” (from ‘Guayaquil‘)

“Your father, rest his soul, told us once that time can’t be measured in days the way money is measured in pesos and centavos, because all pesos are equal, while every day, perhaps every hour, is different. I didn’t fully understand what he meant then, but the phrase stayed in my mind.” (from ‘Juan Muraña‘)

“Fate is partial to repetitions, variations, symmetries.” (from ‘The Plot‘)

“His many years had reduced and polished him the way water smooths and polishes a stone or generations of men polish a proverb.” (from ‘The Man on the Threshold‘)

“…like every writer, he measured other men’s virtues by what they had accomplished, yet asked that other men measure him by what he planned someday to do.” (from ‘The Secret Miracle‘)

“It is generally understood that a modern-day book may honorably be based upon an older one, especially since, as Dr.Johnson observed, no man likes owing anything to his contemporaries.” (from ‘The Approach to Al-Mu’tasim‘)

“Tennyson said that if we could but understand a single flower we might know who we are and what the world is. Perhaps he was trying to say that there is nothing, however humble, that does not imply the history of the world and its infinite concatenation of causes and effects. Perhaps he was trying to say that the visible world can be seen entire in every image, just as Schopenhauer tells us that the Will expresses itself entire in every man and woman. The Kabbalists believed that man is a microcosm, a symbolic mirror of the universe; if one were to believe Tennyson, everything would be – everything, even the unbearable Zahir.” (from ‘The Zahir‘)

Have you read ‘Collected Fictions‘ or any other collections of Borges’ stories? Which is / are your favourite stories?

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