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Posts Tagged ‘Jorge Luis Borges’

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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I have been eagerly looking forward to October, because it is Diverse Detectives Month hosted by Bina from If You Can Read This and Silicon from Silicon of the Internet. The phrase ‘Diverse Detectives’ is used in the sense that the detective in question is not a regular detective like Hercule Poirot or Sherlock Holmes or Miss Marple, but someone who is a person of colour (African, African-American, Chinese, Japanese, East Asian, Latin American, Persian, Arab, Native American, Indian etc.) or / and someone who is gay or who has a fluid sexual orientation, or LGBTQIA+ as the current acronym for that goes. I think it is easier to find the first kind of detective. It is hard to find the second kind. I will look forward to finding out what books other participants read especially with respect to the second kind of detective. I remember Pierce Brosnan saying sometime back that it was time for a black Bond, it was time for a gay Bond. I don’t know whether Bond will ever become black and / or gay, but I can definitely say that diverse detectives have arrived, if you look at the suggested reading list for the event.

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One of the fun parts of participating in a reading event is making reading plans. I always love making reading plans. Whether I stick to the plan or not is another matter 😂 I had a lot of fun making plans for this event. When my constantly evolving reading list finally took shape, I was so excited. Here it is. I am hoping to read some of these books over the next month. I divided the list into three parts as you can see.

In English

(1) The Walter Mosley Omnibus, comprising, Devil in a Blue Dress, A Red Death and White Butterfly

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I got this book years back at an Indian version of the Parisian bouqiniste, or a platform bookshop, as we affectionately call it here. I had heard of Walter Mosley a few days back and as such things happen, a few days later the book leapt at me when I was browsing. The blue, red and white in the titles makes me think of the French national flag and its meaning and the Colours trilogy directed by Krzysztof Kieslowski. I don’t know whether Walter Mosley was trying to say something there. I loved the fact that these three colours are featured in the cover – I am sure that was intentional. I read the first few lines of the book and I am thinking that Walter Mosley might be the African-American Raymond Chandler and his detective Easy Rawlings might be the African-American Philip Marlowe. I will know when I finish reading the book.

(2) The No.1 Ladies Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith

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I have wanted to read this book for years. Can you believe that I haven’t read a single Alexander McCall Smith book? Time to remedy that. Can’t wait to read about the adventures of Precious Ramotswe, Botswana’s finest detective.

(3) The Coroner’s Lunch by Colin Cotterill

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One of my favourite friends gifted this book to me a while back and I have wanted to read it since. It features the seventy two year old coroner Dr.Siri Paiboun and is set in Laos. It promises to be a lot of fun.

(4) Blanche on the Lam by Barbara Neely

I first discovered this book through Eva from The Charm of It. And before I knew it, I started spotting it everywhere, like in the Diverse Detectives reading recommendations and Bina’s TBR list. It features the detective adventures of Blanche, who is a plump, fiesty, African-American housekeeper – how can one resist that.

In Translation

(5) Four Short Stories by Jorge Luis BorgesDeath and the Compass, Tlön, Uqbar and Orbis Tertius, The Approach to Al-Mu’tasim, A Survey of the Works of Herbert Quaint

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I have read just one story of Borges before. I have read that he was a master at taking a traditional detective story and turning it on its head. ‘Death and the Compass‘ is supposed to be the most famous of his ‘detective’ stories. I can’t wait to read that one and the others.

(6) Death of a Red Heroine by Qiu Xiaolong

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I have had this book for years, since my Chinese days. I have never read a detective mystery set in China and so am very excited.

(7) Three Byomkesh Bakshi books (Picture Imperfect, The Menagerie, The Rhythm of Riddles) by Saradindu Bandyopadhyay

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These stories featuring the Indian detective Byomkesh Bakshi first appeared in the 1930s, and were originally written in Bengali. They are quite famous in India  and have been adapted for TV. My Bengali friends rave about them and I can’t wait to read them.

(8) The Complete Adventures of Feluda by Satyajit Ray

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Satyajit Ray is one of India’s greatest filmmakers. But like many other artists, he was a man of many talents, and one of them was writing mysteries featuring the detective Feluda. The original stories were written in Bengali and first appeared in the 1960s and have delighted generations of Bengali readers, young and old alike. The collected Feluda stories come to around 1600 pages and I wouldn’t be able to read them all in one go. Hopefully I will be able to read some of them.

Not Available in Translation

Time to look at some of the books in my language, Tamil 🙂

(9) Manimozhi, Forget Me by Tamilvanan

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I read my first Tamilvanan book when I was in my preteens and promptly fell in love with his works. Tamilvanan was probably the greatest detective mystery / crime fiction writer in Tamil in the twentieth century. He wrote from the ’50s to the late ’70s. He started his career writing literary fiction, but after a not-very-impressive start he shifted to crime fiction. (I don’t know why he didn’t hit it off as a literary fiction writer, because I have read his literary fiction and it is pretty good.) One of the fascinating things about Tamilvanan was his prose. He wrote Tamil which didn’t have the slant of any regional dialect. It didn’t have any English words. It wasn’t the way anyone spoke. It was the ideal version of Tamil, somewhat like the ideal version of the Queen’s English or the Parisian French. It was an absolute pleasure to read. I remember spending many an hour of my teen years taking in the delightful pleasures of Tamilvanan’s prose. Tamilvanan wrote books which spanned the complete range of crime fiction – detective mysteries, noir crime and every other genre in between. Half of his stories featured two detectives and the other half were standalone crime novels. His main detective was called Shankarlal. He was a combination of Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot and James Bond – sometimes he would go to the crime scene and collect evidence and look for clues like Holmes did, at other times he would call everyone and sit inside a house and run thought experiments and solve the mystery like Poirot did and at other times he would be travelling to exotic locales and would be speeding away on boats with a damsel-in-distress in tow with the villains chasing them. When I think about it now, it all seems illogical and unbelievable, but when I read these books, I loved all the different facets of this detective hero. Tamilvanan was the inspiration for all the detective mystery / crime writers in Tamil who followed him. I don’t know how many books he wrote, but I think I have around a hundred of his books, all stocked up for a rainy day. Most of his books went out of print, and I got some of the last copies available. These days, his publishers are trying to bring some of his famous works back into print, which is great. ‘Manimozhi, Forget Me‘ is a crime novel. A father one day calls his twenty-something daughter and tells her that he is not the good guy she thinks he is, and bad guys are going to kill him, and he asks her to leave town. What he is, really, and what happens to the daughter forms the rest of the story. I read it the first time years back and it was gripping and page-turning like the best detective/ crime fiction is and I loved it. I can’t wait to read it again.

(10) The Sea Mystery by Tamilvanan

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My english translation of the title doesn’t really say anything about the story. I still remember the first scene – a man hires a boat in the night to take him to a ship, which is at the outer anchorage. While the boat is waiting quietly this man boards the ship. Ten minutes later he comes running across the ship’s deck being chased by gunmen, jumps from the ship onto the waiting boat and the boat speeds off to safety. It was a scene straight from a Bond movie. I loved it when I first read it. I can’t remember much of the story now except for that first scene. I hope to read it again and rediscover it.

(11) Detective Sambu by Devan

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Devan was the Tamil Dickens. He wrote books about everyday middle class people, his descriptions of life were realistic and authentic and his stories were told with lots of humour. This is one of his famous works. Sambu is a clerk in a bank. He is forty years old. His boss calls him an idiot – in the sense, when his boss wants to speak to him, he tells his secretary – ‘Call that idiot.’ Sambu is frustrated with his life and his career, when one day surprising things happen. How this clerk becomes a detective – I can’t wait to find that.

(12) The Murderous Autumn by Sujatha

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Sujatha was one of the great Tamil literary masters. His fans called him ‘Vaathiyaar‘ – an affectionate way of saying ‘Teacher‘. Detective mystery was one of the genres he wrote in. He also wrote literary fiction, feminist fiction, historical fiction, short stories, plays, nonfiction books on science for the general reader, literary essays, translation of ancient Tamil epics into modern Tamil and all kinds of things in between. He even wrote screenplays for movies. He was a true allrounder. His detective mysteries mostly featured the lawyer duo of Ganesh and Vasanth. They were probably modelled after Perry Mason. This is their most famous story. My translation of the title is not perfect – the original title ‘Kolaiyudhir Kaalam‘ can be more accurately translated to ‘The season in which people are murdered and drop dead like leaves during Autumn‘. I don’t know how to shorten that into a few words. I read this book years back and I remember it being a combination of murder mystery, paranormal, science and an unexpected ending. I can’t wait to read it again.

So, this is my reading list for Diverse Detectives Month. Are you participating? Which books are you planning to read?

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