I recently gave a copy of Collected Fictions by Jorge Luis Borges to a young writer as a Christmas present. This is not the same as presenting someone with a more or less standard or normal science fiction or fantasy novel. The short stories of Borges are much more challenging than the works of most other writers. You can’t approach him lightly or flippantly or you’re going to be blown away by the intricacy and intelligence. After he had read several of the stories, this writer and I had a long phone conversation about Borges, his significance, how to approach him, and what other writers can learn from his work.
In selecting this volume to give to this other writer, I perused my copy of it first, going over the table of contents, reading random paragraphs, remembering my reactions to the stories when I had read it in the past. I have read the book cover to cover twice, and have read some of my favorite stories many more times than that. Inevitably I got sucked in again. I had just finished my previous reading project and was waiting for another book to arrive, so I started to reread Borges. I couldn’t help it. By this time I had already ordered a copy to be sent to this other writer, and as I started at the beginning of my copy and read through, I realized the difficulties of encountering Borges, especially through this book, for the first time.
For one thing, the book is a compilation of all of Borges’s fiction, and the various books of stories that he wrote throughout his career are presented in chronological order. The problem with this is that there is a clear development from his early fictional experiments to the much more sophisticated works that he wrote later. This became starkly evident to me as I read the first two sections of Collected Fictions. It would be far easier for readers who have never before encountered Borges to begin with a Best of collection in which his best and easiest to understand stories are highlighted.
The first section of Collected Fictions is A Universal History of Iniquity, which was published in 1935. This is a collection of stories of infamous villains from all over the world, including the outlaw Billie the Kid from America, a female pirate from China, a courtier from Japan, a pseudo-prophet from Turkey, and a gangster from Argentina. Borges lists a variety of sources for the background of these stories, but it is evident that he has taken great artistic license in the telling of them, so that it is impossible to discern which parts are facts and which are Borges’s embellishments. These stories are characterized by the author’s attention to detail, or maybe it would be more correct to say pseudo-detail. They read like historical accounts but ultimately have to be classified as fabrications.
Part Two of Collected Fictions is The Garden of Forking Paths, originally published in 1941, which is Borges’s first real short story collection. Here we can see the progression of Borges’s art and storytelling skill, and the beginning of the evolution of themes that he would continue to refine in future works, including elaborate thought experiments, mirrors, labyrinths, libraries, and descriptions of made-up books and authors. Some of the stories take the form of pseudo-reviews of imaginary books. Some, such as “The Circular Ruins,” “The Lottery of Babylon,” and “The Library of Babel,” are thought experiments in which the elaborate ideas are the real protagonists and the human narrators do little more than introduce and describe them. The writer I gave the book to and I agreed that these idea-focused stories remind us of some of the stories of Ted Chiang, another extremely cerebral writer.
The last story in this section is the titular one, “The Garden of Forking Paths,” and in this story, for the first time, it is possible to see how the evolution of Borges’s various paths of thought and technique have come together into a rich, dense, fully-formed short story. “The Garden of Forking Paths” is intricate, has a brilliant idea meticulously formulated, but also has fully-fleshed characters, historical background, and an elaborate plot that is a type of murder mystery. Here we see the fulfillment of Borges’s growth as a writer in a superlative, well-told, complete story. There will be many more to come.