Usually in my reading I alternate between fiction and nonfiction, and it was almost time for some fiction. I had a few novels at hand that I had acquired but I hadn’t read, but I was in the mood for something special. Then it occurred to me that it had been a while since I had read Borges. I have read through his collected short stories a few times already, and I like some more than others but generally his short fiction thrills me through and through. He has a unique imagination and in an absorbing blend of reality and fantasy delves into preoccupations such as labyrinths, mazes, mirrors, mysteries, tigers, puzzles and anomalies. I found a like-new used copy of his complete works of fiction on Amazon, ordered it, and anxiously awaited its arrival.
But then, after it came and I dove into the stories, something strange happened. They didn’t thrill me like they used to.
What was wrong? I couldn’t figure it out. It was not the fault of Borges; Borges is still Borges, as enigmatic and brilliant as ever.
Therefore it came to me that the trouble had to do with either me or the translation.
It’s true that I have been going through some hard times recently, and have been preoccupied with survival. I have just weathered one of the worst winters of my life that decimated me both physically and mentally. I am exhausted, spent, and breathing a psychic sigh of relief that the weather has warmed somewhat, that spring has begun. It could be that the problem is with me, and that I was not prepared for the marvelous feast that is the fiction of Borges.
But in a way that doesn’t make sense. Usually good fiction lifts me up, inspires me, helps me straighten my back and muddle my way through.
Then I thought that perhaps the last time I read the book the translation had been different, so I found the library catalog of Anatolia College in Thessaloniki, Greece, where I had last borrowed the book. I fully expected that I had read a different translation. But no. It was the same.
So it is me. Hmm. I think my preoccupation with my ongoing struggle to pay the rent and put food on the table had something to do with my lack of concentration. Many stories shone through my daze and struck me, as always, as brilliant. The mysteries and fantasies are among the best anywhere, in any language. This time around I particularly appreciated the very short stories, what is currently referred to as flash fiction. But the numerous stories of the honor of knife fights in old Argentina I did get fed up with. I see only idiocy in facing another man with a knife for no other reason than a casual insult. It is a ridiculous reason either to die or to kill. I understand, however, that he is chronicling an era and a type of person and culture that used to inhabit Argentina and does not necessarily condone the practice of knife fighting.
This volume, “Collected Fictions”, compiles all the fiction from the several books of the short stories of Borges. Inevitably in such a collection, it is a mixed bag as far as quality is concerned. Much of the early work, and even much of the later, is more in the nature of experimental fragments than complete stories. However, the finest of his stories such as “The Aleph,” “The Library of Babel,” and others, are represented here too and are brilliant fantasy tales.
Borges was a very influential writer. His unique prose and idiosyncratic style influenced many writers who are more familiar to the modern reader. And despite the fact that my own intellectual lassitude, or perhaps just the fact that I had read the book too recently, prevented me from fully enjoying it this time, I heartily recommend the fiction of Jorge Luis Borges to the uninitiated. He is one of the modern masters of the short story genre, and some of his best short stories rank among the finest ever written.
* * *
I feel I need to add an addendum to clarify something here. I try to be honest in my book reviews. In that spirit of honesty, in the past I have told you when I didn’t like a book even though it was acclaimed by the literati. But at first, when it came to Borges, I baulked. I don’t really know why. I know that many writers I admire, admire Borges. Perhaps I was concerned that these people, if they read my review, might think less of me for ill-connecting with Borges this time. But then, when I pondered the matter after writing this essay, I thought, What the hell? Why should I care what anybody thinks about my opinions? Sure, Borges has accumulated an impressive following of readers, so what? I make it clear in the essay that I admire his work. And whether I do or not, why should what anyone else thinks influence my own opinion or how I express it? No, it’s too late in the game for that. To hold back the truth about what I think would be a compromise. In the spirit, therefore, of disclosure, I hereby, of my own free will, offer my opinions about a few other literary giants. I find the work of James Joyce, for the most part, incredibly boring. I like a few of his short stories, but that’s about it. “Ulysses” I could never get into, though I tried several times. The same with Charles Dickens. Too slow, too much detail. I pity the poor high school students for whom reading Dickens is obligatory. I also tried reading “Moby Dick” by Herman Melville several times and could never get into it. There’s too much exposition slowing down the story. Parts are interesting. What he should have done is pared out all the minutia about whaling and stuck to the story. “Moby Dick” should have been a novella about the length of “The Old Man and the Sea,” one of my all-time favorite works of fiction. Can you imagine how that work would have bogged down if Hemingway had included chapter-length essays on line, bait, and God knows what else? As it is, it is concise and to the point and deeply touching. Not so with “Moby Dick.” The story is buried in the midst of trivia. There, I’ve done it. I have become an iconoclast. I have shattered some sacred cows of literature. Hope it’s not too heart-rending for you and you get over it and continue to stay tuned.
I enjoy your thoughts here. It is rare that a reviewer even acknowledges that opinion is as much about the reader as about the read. The nice thing about writing, though, is that we can make pronouncements and settle scores. In my book, “God Bless the Dead,” I include an homage to Borges in the voice of a Mexican character that bemoans the lack of appreciation of the South American literary tradition in the US. The power of the pen.