By Jorge Luis Borges.
New York: E.P. Dutton, A Dutton Paperback, 1978.
Comments by Bob Corbett
This is a collection of 13 short stories, and in much like his volume Labyrinths, most of them are very strange, occult, mysterious, seemingly impossible claims made and so on. Yet, many are challenging and exciting to read, at least one I simply didn’t understand in the slightest!
There is a line on one of the stories which seems to me to best capture a central motif I found in the collection. The narrator of a story about a translation of an ancient text says of his work: “My translation is faithful, but it is not literal.”
We cannot understand Borges stories by concentrating on the literal meanings of the stories. There are ambiguities, absurdities, puzzles. The reader has to work with him, almost as if one were reading a book of word games. Yet he is always “faithful” to the basic reality.
I was gripped by this volume, often very puzzled as to what was being offered or what it meant, but yet I almost always had a sense that the story was telling me something worth having. If only I could get to those disguised gems. I had much the same experience with another collection of his I read several years ago, LABYRINTHS.
Brief comments on the stories.
1. THE OTHER. Pp. 11-20
An old professor is sitting on a bench near a river on the Cambridge campus. It is about 1964. A young man comes to sit on the same bench and they begin to talk. They are both Jorge Luis Borges. The older professor is the narrator and they talk about how this can be. The young Borges claims to be on a bench in Geneva. The older man does suggest that at least one of them can’t be dreaming, since that would set up an infinite regress. The older Borges remembers that in 1918 he, as a then very young Borges, had the same experience with a then older Borges. That story, “Borges and I” appeared in his book Labyrinths, p. 246-247.
I really like this story especially since the narrating older Borges is quite aware that he is now no longer that younger Borges’ whose views and ways he recognizes, but no longer is. I’m now 72 and I think back on the “me” of years ago and see how much I am no longer he.
I was taken by the claim the older Borges utters:
“Russia is taking over the world; America, hampered by the superstition of democracy, can’t make up its mind to become an empire.”
Since this was written in the 1960s I think it is a quite challenging perception. Alas, I wish it had been so, but it seems to have been false, now leaving us in this current international mess we are in.
2. ULRIKE Pp. 21-25
Ulrike is a Norwegian woman whom the narrator meets in New York. He is Columbian and quite old, yet they have a short romantic encounter and a mysterious night of sex.
3. THE CONGESS Pp. 27-49
In a short introduction Borges tells us this is his favorite story of the collection and one on which the book as a whole may stand. It was written in 1955 and tells of an eccentric very rich man in Uruguay, but just across the border from Buenos Aires. He forms a select group that will investigate virtually all matters of science, politics, literature and nearly the entire corpus of world learning. Little by little they meet and talk, and enlarge the circle to include people from the whole world, and in time they begin to build a library to support their research and search for knowledge.
Eventually the founder (and funder) decides that they are really just trying to recreate what people in the world do everyday, and thus their work is necessarily repetitive and limited. He closes the project.
One line of Borges grabbed me very much. The narrator is 71-72 years old and a teacher of English. He reveals of his writing style is telling this story:
“I am aware that I am going to die soon; I must, consequently, control my digressive tendencies and get on with my story.”
Oh my goodness, I can fully relate to that sentiment! On the other hand, at times I enjoy my digressions more than I do my primary ideas and intents.
4. THERE ARE MORE THINGS Pp. 51-59
Ah me, I just have to admit it – I never really understood this story. Someone (or something) took over a remote property and built a house designed for “it.” However, this “it” does not seem to have been human. I think I have that right. Not sure.
However, I did love one passage of the story in which the narrator says of his uncle:
“My course of study was philosophy. I remembered that it was my uncle, at the Casa Colordo, his home near Lomas, on the edge of Buenos Aires, who without invoking a single proper name, had first revealed to me philosophy’s beautiful perplexities.”
I was for 36 years a professor of philosophy and truly loved philosophy. However, like his uncle, I was not much interested in WHO held what in philosophy, rather, I wanted to introduce my students to the process and questions of the pursuit of philosophical ideas. The “WHO” who had advanced this or that interesting question or view, was, for me much less interesting than the inquiry it spawned in our reflections and the processes it revealed.
It made me happy to find someone with such a seemingly kindred notion to my own.
5. THE SECT OF THIRTY Pp. 61-65
An ironic story, claimed to be an ancient manuscript of a small cult. They take the beatitudes very literally and yet with some hilarious logical outcomes, and weave a sort of Christian-related cult. The only two figures who matter are Jesus and Judas, each holding equal positive weight.
The narrator is calling for the end of the cult.
6. THE NIGHT OF THE GIFTS. Pp. 67-73
A scholar and a young man’s grandfather are discussion abstract philosophy of a Platonic mode, trying to decide what is real. A grandson, seemingly in his 40s by this time, interrupts and tells his own story.
It is set on April 13, 1874. The narrator is taken to a small town of Lobos Auguestina. He’s naive and about 16. He is taken into town by a brash cowhand a good deal older than he. A prostitute tells her story, she is THE CAPTIVA, the captured one. Everyone knows and loves this story she tells over and over. However, a feared outlaw shows up and the boy hurries up a staircase and hides out. He is later found by La Captiva. She takes him to bed with her. His story is to argue that concrete experience, not metaphysical exhortations, are the source of truth.
7. THE MIRROR AND THE MASK. Pp. 75-79
Ollan the bard is to set the battle of Cluntarf into words. The Irish have defeated the Norwegians, but the king says “the greatest deeds lose their luster if they are not coined in words.” Thus the bard writes three poems.
A difficult story; one I more “feel” more than I can describe.
8. UNDR. Pp. 81-87.
The narrator’s translation of an ancient text is said to be: “My translation is faithful, but it is not literal.”
Perhaps this line is the essence of a central motif running through these stories. On this view it is important to record things in words, and a good writer can, indeed, capture “reality.” But the meaning, while accurate, is not literal.
This paradox is the essence of good literature.
A traveler to northern lands seeks the meaning of the only word needed in that culture’s poetry. The word is: Urdr – “wonder.”
9. UTOPIA OF A TIRED MAN Pp. 89-96
Cites Quevedo: “He called it UTOPIA a Greek word meaning there is no such place.>
Great sentence from the man on the pampas when the narrator tells him he writes “. . . imaginative tales.”
“I remember having read, not without pleasure, two tales of an imaginative nature,” he said. “Travels of a Captain Lemuel Gulliver, which many people take to be true, and the Summa Theologiae"
The narrator meets a man of the future, living his own Utopia.
Humans control their own lives and deaths. No seeming communities.
10. THE BRIBE Pp. 97-104.
The main character in 1961 is a Professor at U. of Texas, specialist of Old English. He flatters his department chair in such a way that the chair recommends this professor for a lecture which one of their colleagues wanted as well. Later, the younger professor confesses his tactic to the department chair, who accepts this information with grace.
“Ah me, men of intelligence, integrity and talent. One outfoxed the other, but the other won the honor of impartiality.”
11. AVELINO ARREDENDO. Pp. 105-111
Set in Montevideo 1897 and tells of a group of men who met on Saturday mornings at Café del Globo. The main character, Arredendo feels inferior. He is small and aloof.
He tells everyone he is going away to another place, but he actually hides out at home for some weeks, waiting for Aug. 25th. He has planned to assassinate the president of the country, and seemingly succeeds.
“This is the way it probably happened although in a more involved fashion; this is the way I imagined it happened.”
Again, I loved this last line which comes back to the theme of the difference between the meaning of an event and the objective description of it.
12. THE DISK. Pp. 113-116
Man in a Saxon area kills a man claiming to be a king. He never gets the golden disc the man had on his hand, it disappears with the man’s death.
13. THE BOOK OF SAND. Pp. 117-122.
A man living in Buenos Aires has a stranger come to his door selling Bibles. He’s from Scotland’s Orkneys Islands.
He sells Bibles, but offers a strange book that has infinite pages and images.
The local fellow buys the book but eventually fears it and sneaks it into the national library to hide it in the remote stacks.
Bob Corbett firstname.lastname@example.org