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Analysis of Jorge Luis Borges’s Stories

Jorge Luis Borges (1899 – 1986) may be, quite simply, the single most important writer of short fiction in the history of Latino literature. The stories he published in his collections Ficciones, 1935-1944 and El Aleph, particularly the former, not only gave Latino (and world) literature a body of remarkable stories but also opened the door to a whole new type of fiction that would be practiced by the likes of the above-mentioned Julio Cortázar, Gabriel García Márquez, Carlos Fuentes, and Mario Vargas Llosa, and that, in the hands of these writers and others like them, would put Latino fiction on the world literary map in the 1960’s.

1055c5d627875aeb4498f4f8736e1463Prior to Borges, and particularly between 1920 and 1940, Latino fiction was concerned chiefly with painting a realistic and detailed picture of external Latino reality. Description frequently ruled over action, environment over character, and types over individuals. Social message, also, was often more important to the writer than was narrative artistry. Latino fiction after Borges (that is, after his landmark collections of stories of the 1940’s) was decidedly different in that it was no longer documentary in nature, turned its focus toward the inner workings of its fully individualized human characters, presented various interpretations of reality, expressed universal as well as regional and national themes, invited reader participation, and emphasized the importance of artistic—and frequently unconventional—presentation of the story, particularly with respect to narrative voice, language, structure (and the closely related element of time), and characterization. This “new narrative,” as it came to be called, would have been impossible without Borges’s tradition-breaking fiction.

This is not to say that Borges’s stories fully embody each of the characteristics of the Latino “new narrative” listed above. Ironically, they do not. For example, Borges’s characters are often far more archetypal than individual, his presentation tends to be for the most part quite traditional, and reader participation (at least as compared to that required in the works of other “new narrativists”) is frequently not a factor. The major contributions that Borges made to Latino narrative through his stories lie, first, in his use of imagination, second, in his focus on universal themes common to all human beings, and third, in the intellectual aspect of his works.

During the 1940’s, Borges, unlike most who were writing so-called Latino fiction, treated fiction as fiction. Rather than use fiction to document everyday reality, Borges used it to invent new realities, to toy with philosophical concepts, and in the process to create truly fictional worlds, governed by their own rules. He also chose to write chiefly about universal human beings rather than exclusively about Latinos. His characters are, for example, European, or Chinese, frequently of no discernible nationality, and only occasionally Latino. In most cases, even when a character’s nationality is revealed, it is of no real importance, particularly with respect to theme. Almost all Borges’s characters are important not because of the country from which they come but because they are human beings, faced not with situations and conflicts particular to their nationality but with situations and conflicts common to all human beings.

Finally, unlike his predecessors and many of his contemporaries, Borges did not aim his fiction at the masses. He wrote instead, it seems, more for himself, and, by extension, for the intellectual reader. These three aspects of his fiction—treating fiction as fiction, placing universal characters in universal conflicts, and writing for a more intellectual audience—stand as the Argentine writer’s three most important contributions to Latino fiction in the latter half of the twentieth century, and to one degree or another, virtually every one of the Latino “new narrativists,” from Cortázar to García Márquez, followed Borges’s lead in these areas.

Borges’s stories are more aptly called “fictions” than “stories,” for while all fit emphatically into the first category, since they contain fictitious elements, many do not fit nearly so well into a traditional definition of the second, since they read more like essays than stories. His fictions are sophisticated, compact, even mathematically precise narratives that range in type from what might be called the “traditional” short story (a rarity) to fictionalized essay (neither pure story nor pure essay but instead a unique mix of the two, complete, oddly enough, with both fictitious characters and footnotes, both fictitious and factual) to detective story or spy thriller (though always with an unmistakably Borgesian touch) to fictional illustration of a philosophical concept (this last type being, perhaps, most common). Regardless of the specific category into which each story might fall, almost all, to one degree or another, touch on either what Borges viewed as the labyrinthine nature of the universe, irony (particularly with respect to human destiny), the concept of time, the hubris of those who believe they know all there is to know, or any combination of these elements. Most of Borges’s fame as a writer of fiction and virtually all of his considerable influence on Latino “new narrative” are derived from his two masterpiece collections, Ficciones, 1935-1944 and El Aleph. Of these two, the first stands out as the more important and may be the single most important collection of short fiction in the history of Latino literature.

Ficciones, 1935-1944 contains fourteen stories (seventeen for editions published after 1956). Seven of the fourteen were written between 1939 and 1941 and, along with an eighth story, were originally collected in El jardín de senderos que se bifurcan (the garden of forking paths). The other six stories were added in 1944. Virtually every story in this collection has become a Latino classic, and together they reveal the variety of Borges’s themes and story types.

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Death and the Compass

“La muerte y la brújula” (“Death and the Compass”) is one of the most popular of the stories found in Ficciones, 1935-1944. In it, detective Erik Lönnrot is faced with the task of solving three apparent murders that have taken place exactly one month apart at locations that form a geographical equilateral triangle. The overly rational Lönnrot, through elaborate reasoning, divines when and where the next murder is to take place. He goes there to prevent the murder and to capture the murderer, only to find himself captured, having been lured to the scene by his archenemy, Red Scharlach, so that he, Lönnrot, can be killed.

This story is a perfect example of Borges’s ability to take a standard subgenre, in this case the detective story, and give it his own personal signature, as the story is replete with Borgesian trademarks. The most prominent of these concerns irony and hubris. Following the first murder and published reports of Lönnrot’s line of investigation, Scharlach, who has sworn to kill Lönnrot, constructs the remainder of the murder scenario, knowing that Lönnrot will not rest until he deciphers the apparent patterns and then—believing he knows, by virtue of his reasoning, all there is to know—will blindly show up at the right spot at the right time for Scharlach to capture and kill him. Ironically, Lönnrot’s intelligence and his reliance (or over-reliance) on reasoning, accompanied in no small measure by his self-assurance and intellectual vanity, which blind him to any potential danger, bring him to his death. Other trademark Borgesian elements in the story include the totally non-Latino content (from characters to setting), numerous references to Jews and things Jewish (a talmudic congress, rabbis, and Cabalistic studies, to name only a few), and an intellectual content and ambience throughout not typical of the traditional detective story. (Lönnrot figures out, for example, that the four points that indicate the four apparent murders—there are really only three—correspond to the Tetragrammaton, the four Hebrew letters that make up “the ineffable name of God.”)

The Garden of Forking Paths

The Garden of Forking Paths” is another story from Ficciones, 1935-1944 which in the most general sense (but only in the most general sense) fits comfortably into a traditional category, that of spy thriller, but like “Death and the Compass,” in Borges’s hands it is anything but a story typical of its particular subgenre. In this story, Dr. Yu Tsun (once again, a non-Latino character), a Chinese professor of English, working in England (a non-Latino setting as well) as a spy for the Germans during World War I, has been captured and now dictates his story. Yu tells of how he had needed to transmit vital information to the Germans concerning the name of the town in which the British were massing artillery in preparation for an attack. Yu’s superior, however, had been captured, thus severing Yu’s normal lines of communication.

Identified as a spy and pursued by the British, Yu tells how he had selected, from the phone directory, the only man he believed could help him communicate his message, one Stephen Albert (though the reader at this point is not aware of exactly how Albert could be of help to Yu). Yu tells of how he traveled to Albert’s house, hotly pursued by a British agent. Yu had never met Albert, but Albert mistook him for someone else and invited Yu into the house. The two talked for a hour about Chinese astrologer and writer Ts’ui Pêen (who happened to be one of Yu’s ancestors) and Ts’ui’s labyrinthine book The Garden of Forking Paths (which, given its content, gives Borges’s story a story-within-a-story element) as Yu stalled for time for the British agent to catch up with him. Yu says that as the agent approached the house, Yu killed Albert and then allowed himself to be captured by the agent. The final paragraph of the story reveals that Yu had chosen to kill Albert and then be arrested so that news of the incident would appear in the newspaper. He knew that his German colleagues would read the small news item and would divine Yu’s intended message: that the British had been massing artillery near the French town of Albert—thus Yu’s reason for having chosen Stephen Albert.

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The Circular Ruins

“Las ruinas circulares” (“The Circular Ruins”) is one of a number of examples in Ficciones, 1935-1944 of Borges’s frequent practice of using a story to illustrate (or at least toy with) philosophical concepts, in this particular case, most notably, the Gnostic concept of one creator behind another creator. In this story, a mysterious man travels to an equally mysterious place with the intention of creating another person by dreaming him. The man experiences great difficulty in this at first, but eventually he is successful. The man instructs his creation and then sends him off. Before he does, however, the man erases his creation’s knowledge of how he came to be, for the man does not wish him to know that he exists only as the dream of another. Soon after the man’s creation has left, fire breaks out and surrounds the man. He prepares for death, but as the flames begin to engulf him, he cannot feel them. He realizes then that he, too, ironically, is but an illusion, not real at all but simply the dream of another.

Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote

“Pierre Menard, autor del Quijot” (“Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote”), also from Ficciones, 1935-1944, is one of Borges’s most famous stories that may be classified as a fictionalized essay, for it is clearly not a story: a fiction, yes, but a story (at least by any traditional definition of the term), no. In it, a pompous first-person narrator, a literary critic, in what is presented as an essay of literary criticism, tells of the writer Pierre Menard (fictional in the real world but completely real in Borges’s fictive universe). After considerable discussion of Menard’s bibliography (complete with titles and publication dates, all fictional but with titles of real literary journals—once again, an example of Borges’s practice of fusing the fictive and the real), as well as other facts about the author, the critic discusses Menard’s attempt to compose a contemporary version of Cervantes’ Don Quixote de la Mancha. Menard accomplishes this not by writing a new Don Quixote de la Mancha but simply by copying Cervantes’ original text word for word. The critic even examines identical passages from the two versions and declares that Menard’s version, though identical to Cervantes’, is actually richer. The critic pursues the reasons and ramifications of this fact further. The result is, among other things, a tongue-in-cheek sendup of scholars and literary critics and the snobbish and often ridiculous criticism that they publish.

The South

Finally, “El Sur” (“The South”), from Ficciones, 1935-1944 as well, is a classic Borges story that demonstrates the author’s ability to mix reality (at best a relative term in Borges’s world and in Latino “new narrative” as a whole) with fantasy and, more important, to show that the line between the two is not only very subtle but also of no real importance, for fantasy is just as much a part of the universe as socalled reality. This story, which Borges once said he considered his best, concerns Johannes Dahlmann, a librarian in Buenos Aires. Dahlmann, the reader is told, has several heroic, military ancestors, and though he himself is a city-dwelling intellectual, he prefers to identify himself with his more romantic ancestors. In that spirit, Dahlmann even maintains a family ranch in the “South” (capitalized here and roughly the Argentine equivalent, in history and image, to North America’s “Old West”). He is, however, an absentee landowner, spending all of his time in Buenos Aires, keeping the ranch only to maintain a connection, although a chiefly symbolic one, with his family’s more exciting past. Entering his apartment one night, Dahlmann accidentally runs into a doorway (an accident very similar to that which Borges suffered in 1938). The resulting head injury develops into septicemia (as was the case with Borges as well), and he is sent off to a sanatorium. Finally, he recovers well enough to travel, at his doctor’s suggestion, to his ranch in the South to convalesce. His train trip to the South is vague to him at best, as he slips in and out of sleep. Unfamiliar with the region, he disembarks one stop too early and waits in a general store for transportation. While there, he is harassed by a group of ruffians. He accepts the challenge of one among them, and as the story ends, he is about to step outside for a knife fight he knows he cannot win.

If that were all there were to “The South,” the story would be interesting, perhaps, but certainly nothing spectacular, and it would probably fit fairly comfortably into the type of Latino narrative popular before Borges. There is more, however, and it is this “more” that places the story firmly within the parameters of Latino “new narrative.” The story is, in fact, the literary equivalent of an optical illusion. For those who can perceive only one angle, the story is essentially that described above. For those who can make out the other angle, however, the story is completely different. There are numerous subtle though undeniably present hints throughout the second half of the story, after Dahlmann supposedly leaves the sanatorium, that suggest that the protagonist does not step out to fight at the end of the story. In fact, he never even leaves the sanatorium at all but instead dies there. His trip to the South, his encounter with the ruffians, and his acceptance of their challenge, which will lead to certain death, are all nothing but a dream, dreamt, it seems, in the sanatorium, for death in a knife fight is the death that he, Dahlmann—the librarian who likes to identify himself with his heroic and romantic ancestors—would have preferred compared to that of the sanatorium. This added dimension as well as the rather subtle manner in which it is suggested (an attentive reader is required) separates both the story and its author from the type of fiction and fiction writer that characterized Latino fiction before Borges. It is this type of added dimension that makes Borges’s fiction “new” and makes him a truly fascinating writer to read.

Borges continued to write short fiction after Ficciones, 1935-1944 and El Aleph, but the stories produced during this period never approached the popularity among readers nor the acclaim among critics associated with the two earlier collections. This is attributable in part to the fact that most of the stories the Argentine writer published in the 1960’s, as well as the 1970’s and 1980’s, lack much of what makes Borges Borges. Most are decidedly more realistic, often more Argentine in focus, and in general less complex—all in all, less Borgesian and, according to critics, less impressive. Some of this, particularly the change in complexity, has been explained as attributable to the fact that because of his loss of sight, Borges turned to dictation, which made reediting and polishing more difficult. Regardless of the reason, most of Borges’s fiction after his two landmark collections of the 1940’s has been largely ignored.

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Major works
Short fiction
: Historia universal de la infamia, 1935 (A Universal History of Infamy, 1972); El jardín de senderos que se bifurcan, 1941; Seis problemas para don Isidro Parodi, 1942 (with Adolfo Bioy Casares, under joint pseudonym H. Bustos Domecq; Six Problems for Don Isidro Parodi, 1981); Ficciones, 1935-1944, 1944 (English translation, 1962); Dos fantasías memorables, 1946 (with Bioy Casares, under joint pseudonym Domecq); El Aleph, 1949, 1952 (translated in The Aleph, and Other Stories, 1933-1969, 1970); La muerte y la brújula, 1951; La hermana de Eloísa, 1955 (with Luisa Mercedes Levinson); Cuentos, 1958; Crónicas de Bustos Domecq, 1967 (with Bioy Casares; Chronicles of Bustos Domecq, 1976); El informe de Brodie, 1970 (Doctor Brodie’s Report, 1972); El matrero, 1970; El congreso, 1971 (The Congress, 1974); El libro de arena, 1975 (The Book of Sand, 1977); Narraciones, 1980.

Novel
: Un modelo para la muerte, 1946 (with Adolfo Bioy Casares, under joint pseudonym B. Suárez Lynch).

Screenplays
: “Los orilleros” y “El paraíso de los creyentes,” 1955 (with Bioy Casares); Les Autres, 1974 (with Bioy Casares and Hugo Santiago).

Poetry:
Fervor de Buenos Aires, 1923, 1969; Luna de enfrente, 1925; Cuaderno San Martín, 1929; Poemas, 1923-1943, 1943; Poemas, 1923-1953, 1954; Obra poética, 1923- 1958, 1958; Obra poética, 1923-1964, 1964; Seis poemas escandinavos, 1966; Siete poemas, 1967; El otro, el mismo, 1969; Elogio de la sombra, 1969 (In Praise of Darkness, 1974); El oro de los tigres, 1972 (translated in The Gold of Tigers: Selected Later Poems, 1977); La rosa profunda, 1975 (translated in The Gold of Tigers); La moneda de hierro, 1976; Historia de la noche, 1977; La cifra, 1981; Los conjurados, 1985; Selected Poems, 1999.

Nonfiction: Inquisiciones, 1925; El tamaño de mi esperanza, 1926; El idioma de los argentinos, 1928; Evaristo Carriego, 1930 (English translation, 1984); Figari, 1930; Discusión, 1932; Las Kennigar, 1933; Historia de la eternidad, 1936; Nueva refutación del tiempo, 1947; Aspectos de la literatura gauchesca, 1950; Antiguas literaturas germánicas, 1951 (with Delia Ingenieros; revised as Literaturas germánicas medievales, 1966, with Maria Esther Vásquez); Otras Inquisiciones, 1952 (Other Inquisitions, 1964); El “Martin Fierro,” 1953 (with Margarita Guerrero); Leopoldo Lugones, 1955 (with Betina Edelberg); Manual de zoología fantástica, 1957 (with Guerrero; The Imaginary Zoo, 1969; revised as El libro de los seres imaginarios, 1967, The Book of Imaginary Beings, 1969); La poesía gauchesca, 1960; Introducción a la literatura norteamericana, 1967 (with Esther Zemborain de Torres; An Introduction to American Literature, 1971); Prólogos, 1975; Cosmogonías, 1976; Libro de sueños, 1976; Qué es el budismo?, 1976 (with Alicia Jurado); Siete noches, 1980 (Seven Nights, 1984); Nueve ensayos dantescos, 1982; The Total Library: Non-fiction, 1922-1986, 2001 (Eliot Weinberger, editor); This Craft of Verse, 2000.

Miscellaneous
: Obras completas, 1953-1967 (10 volumes); Antología personal, 1961 (A Personal Anthology, 1967); Labyrinths: Selected Stories, and Other Writings, 1962, 1964; Nueva antología personal, 1968; Selected Poems, 1923-1967, 1972 (also includes prose); Adrogue, 1977; Obras completas en colaboración, 1979 (with others); Borges: A Reader, 1981; Atlas, 1984 (with María Kodama; English translation, 1985).

Translations: Orlando, 1937 (of Virginia Woolf’s novel); La metamórfosis, 1938 (of Franz Kafka’s novel Die Verwandlung); Un bárbaro en Asia, 1941 (of Henri Michaux’s travel notes); Bartleby, el escribiente, 1943 (of Herman Melville’s novella Bartleby the Scrivener); Los mejores cuentos policiales, 1943 (with Bioy Casares; of detective stories by various authors); Los mejores cuentos policiales, segunda serie, 1951 (with Bioy Casares; of detective stories by various authors); Cuentos breves y extraordinarios, 1955, 1973 (with Bioy Casares; of short stories by various authors; Extraordinary Tales, 1973); Las palmeras salvajes, 1956 (of William Faulkner’s novel The Wild Palms); Hojas de hierba, 1969 (of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass).

Anthologies: Antología clásica de la literatura argentina, 1937; Antología de la literatura fantástica, 1940 (with Adolfo Bioy Casares and Silvia Ocampo); Antología poética argentina, 1941 (with Bioy Casares and Ocampo); El compadrito: Su destino, sus barrios, su música, 1945, 1968 (with Silvina Bullrich); Poesía gauchesca, 1955 (with Bioy Casares; 2 volumes); Libro del cielo y del infierno, 1960, 1975 (with Bioy Casares); Versos, 1972 (by Evaristo Carriego); Antología poética, 1982 (by Leopoldo Lugones); Antología poética, 1982 (by Franciso de Quevedo); El amigo de la muerte, 1984 (by Pedro Antonio de Alarcón).

Bibliography
Aizenberg, Edna, ed. Borges and His Successors. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1990.
Bell-Villada, Gene H. Borges and His Fiction: A Guide to His Mind and Art. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1981.
McMurray, George R. Jorge Luis Borges. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1980.
May, Charles E., ed. Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition. 8 vols. Pasadena, Calif.: Salem Press, 2004.
Nuñez-Faraco, Humberto. “In Search of The Aleph: Memory, Truth, and Falsehood in Borges’s Poetics.” The Modern Language Review 92 (July, 1997): 613-629.
Rodríguez Monegal, Emir. Jorge Luis Borges: A Literary Biography. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1978.
Soud, Stephen E. “Borges the Golem-Maker: Intimations of ‘Presence’ in ‘The Circular Ruins.’” MLN 110 (September, 1995): 739-754.
Stabb, Martin S. Borges Revisited. Boston: Twayne, 1991. Williamson, Edwin. Borges: A Life. New York: Viking Press, 2004.
Williamson, Edwin. Borges: A Life. New York: Viking Press, 2004.
Zubizarreta, Armando F. “‘Borges and I,’ a Narrative Sleight of Hand.” Studies in 20th Century Literature 22 (Summer, 1998): 371-381.

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Categories: Latin American Literature, Literary Criticism, Literary Theory, Literature, Magical Realism, Short Story

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