Book Review: “Ficciones” by Jorge Luis Borges

March 5, 2010

It took me nearly a year to complete Borge’s collection of short stories called Ficciones. This compilation, cited often as the best introduction to the Argentinian writer’s oeuvre, has about 20 stories, written in the mid-20th century, that range between fantasy and satire, psychological thriller and eerie psychosis.

The provenance of this volume (can you call a paperback book a volume? I’d like to) was my aunt Catherine, on one of her remarkably frequent visits (she travels between Ireland and the west coast of the US more frequently than I make it to Seattle). She wanted me specifically to read The Library of Babel, which describes a universe comprised of an infinite library, hexagonal chamber after hexagonal chamber of books.

These are the literary equivalents of M.C. Escher drawings. There is an emphasis on impossible figures, impossible logic, impossible sequence. Cause and effect are reversed, dream and reality switched. There are time loops and secret societies.

Much of the content was composed in the 1940s, and aches with the barbarities of the Second World War. Borges’ Europe is one of pogroms, his Argentina a surreal magic kingdom (not always benign) full of tall, dark strangers and wizards.

When you understand the twists of Borges’ stories, it makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up in a thrill reminiscent of “I see dead people.” “Death and the Compass”, “The End”, “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” are creepy and fun.

If I understood Borges’ ideas consistently, I would love the entire collection. But sometimes I just feel stupid.

Some of the stories are so deeply erudite as to be in effect hermetically sealed against casual readers. “Three Versions of Judas”, though only a few pages long, is a tortuous marathon of theology, rambling footnotes in French (untranslated), and Scandinavian/Protestant 20th century political-religious satire. The majority of the stories require careful attention and an eye for the subtleties of Borges’ humor. As his reader, you are assumed to be well-read, to the point of making you feel distinctly under-read.

Borges thrives in describing off-kilter dream states. He explores sacred geometries—labyrinths, rhombuses—through which his characters move toward heroic or anti-heroic transformation. Weird stuff. Captivating, strange, difficult.

4.0 stars
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