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Collected Fictions Paperback – Deckle Edge, September 1, 1999
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A New York Times Notable Book
“A marvelous new collection of stories by one of the most remarkable writers of our century.” —The New York Times
“The major work of probably the most influential Latin American writer of the century.” —The Washington Post Book World
“An unparalleled treasury of marvels . . . Along with a tiny cohort of peers, and seers (Kafka and Joyce come to mind), Borges is more than a stunning storyteller and a brilliant stylist; he’s a mirror who reflects the spirit of his time.” —Chicago Tribune
“An event worth of celebration . . . Hurley deserves our enthusiastic praise for this monumental piece of work.” —San Francisco Chronicle
“Borges is the most important Spanish-language writer since Cervantes. . . . To have denied him the Nobel Prize is as bad as the case of Joyce, Proust, and Kafka.” —Mario Vargas Llosa
“When I read a good book, I sometimes like to think I might be capable of writing something similar, but never, in my wildest dreams, could I write anything that approaches the level of cleverness and intellect and madness of Borges. I don’t think anyone could.” —Daniel Radcliffe
About the Author
Jorge Luis Borges was born in Buenos Aires in 1989 and was educated in Europe. One of the most widely acclaimed writers of our time, he published many collections of poems, essays, and short stories before his death in Geneva in June 1986. In 1961 Borges shared the International Publisher’s prize with Samuel Beckett. The Ingram Merrill Foundation granted him its Annual Literary Award in 1966 for his “outstanding contribution to literature.” In 1971 Columbia University awarded him the first of many degrees of Doctor of Letters, honoris causa (eventually the list included both Oxford and Cambridge), that he was to receive from the English-speaking world. In 1971 he also received the fifth biennial Jerusalem Prize and in 1973 was given one of Mexico’s most prestigious cultural awards, the Alfonso Reyes Prize. In 1980 he shared with Gerardo Diego the Cervantes Prize, the Spanish world’s highest literary accolade. Borges was Director of the Argentine National Library from 1955 until 1973.
Andrew Hurley (editor/translator) is a translator of numerous works of literature, criticism, history, and memoir. He is professor emeritus at the University of Puerto Rico.
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Borges is one of those writers that I've always looked forward to reading but sort of mentally approached with caution, not sure if I'd be fully able to appreciate all the philosophical and historical references that he threw into his stories without either having a degree in literature or at least a better background in Latin American history that I currently possess. Couple that with a tendency on Borges' part to lean toward a sort of proto-magical realism and you've got a recipe for me scratching my head for five hundred pages almost positive that I'm reading very close to a genius level of writing and story construction but its like asking me to describe in great detail how the harmonious elements of a Michelangelo sculpture all intersect when viewed as a whole. My response, in both cases, I expected to be, I haven't the faintest clue, it just looks nice.
Fortunately there isn't much to worry about. Borges is, if nothing else, a playful writer and while I can't be sure I got even ten percent of what he was attempting to convey to me in a psuedo-magically realistic form, he's more than capable of giving you story after story that exists almost as a fable, telling a story but also illustrating whatever philosophical point he's attempting to make. Read purely for surface pleasures, the stories stand just fine . . . start delving into the meat of what he's really trying to say and they begin to unfold with fascinating depth.
This collection contains all his short stories (other books tackle his poems and non-fiction essays for those so inclined), organized by the original collections and one of the nice things about the semi-chronological approach is that not only do you get to see his style evolve but also his focus over time as he toys with different types of tales and genres, even dipping into fantasy more than once. He's an easy writer to read, with a dense style that's almost conversational in how its presented. more often than not coming across as a tale being told to you by the writer instead of as a story you're reading. He's a big fan of unconventional words but not so much that I had to keep running to a dictionary every other page. What I probably would suggest to anyone wanting to do a deep dive into Borges is brush up on Argentinian history to a basic extent . . . I didn't and the numerous references to battles and historical events may cause you to stop dead or at least miss the context of what the story is trying to do. If nothing else, it may behoove you to get a passing familiarity with epic 19th century poem "Martin Fierro", which gets referenced so often you'd think Borges had it tattooed on his body somewhere (all kidding aside, its super famous in Argentina and probably one of those things that all schoolkids have to memorize . . . needless to say, it influenced an entire generation of writers).
But with all the requisite background research out of the way, the best way to appreciate Borges is to read the stories themselves, which are maddeningly consistent in quality and strikingly different even when he seems to be going for the same idea at several different angles. I found the first collection ("A Universal History of Iniquity") to be embryonic with its details of historical figures with certain details changed. Its a good example of what you're in for . . . he's going to give you enough details so that you'll recognize it as true but the changes are where the key lies and figuring out why he changed it could open up a whole new interpretation of the person in question.
Still, as fun as those are for the people among us who enjoy literary games for me the real Borges didn't start until the "Fictions" collection. Here the real fascinations start and before long you've delving into worlds where labyrinths are commonplace, gauchos are so numerous you might trip over one if you don't look where you've going and perceptions of time and space are either not what they seem or can be altered by someone who tries really, really hard. Fantasy fans may find themselves on more solid ground here, between tales like "Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" (also known as "The Encyclopedia That Took Over the World" and so dense that it seems like analysis of the story is longer than the story itself) and the famous "Garden of Forking Paths" (entertaining on first read but probably requires both rereading and more background to really sink into the ideas the story is pondering) but already he has this gift of taking strange concepts and rendering them in a tone both calm and uneasy, conveying them in such a matter of fact way that some almost come across as scholarly essays about being trapped in hypothetical libraries based on mathematical philosophies.
Yet none of these come off as dry. Throughout the book his tendencies to mix fact and fiction, fable and reality, drama and philosophy allow for an experience both thoughtful and entertaining. Basically, you come for the story about standing in a spot in some random basement allows you to see all of existence at once but stay for the philosophical implications the tale uncovers ("The Aleph", another of the more famous tales). One aspect that struck me on reading them was how concise he was being despite having to often pack a wealth of information into a very limited space. A collection from 1960 called "Makers" is extraordinary in how he manages to conjure entire worlds in a series of stories that are only a page or two each, sometimes acting more as prose poems than traditional stories.
He makes it work and he did for it seems his entire career. Later stories like "The Book of Sand" almost seem like Lovecraft stories if good ol HP was interested more in intellectual musings than tentacles, as in this case where an infinite book from nowhere apparently seeks to drive men mad. In fact, for a friendly Latin American fellow he seems to enjoy stories where irrational objects do irrational things and nearly drive someone nuts in the process, with "The Disk", "Blue Tigers" and "Shakespeare's Memory" all having the same premise of an impossible thing not working out well for anyone involved.
It all adds up to one heck of a career. Considering how many stories there are in the book (most not long at all although they certainly aren't light reads) its amazing to see how few even "average" stories he has in here . . . in every tale there's an interesting scenario to ponder, a fascinating angle on an idea put forth, a number of interesting turns of phrase. There's wonder and a little bit of horror and a lot of musing on memory and the nature of stories. I can't say its for everyone but as far as esoteric things go, its got a broader potential audience than almost everything else I've read. For people who like fables, who like fantasies, who like stories that don't go on for fifty pages, who like philosophy in a palatable form, who like authors that like to be both serious and have fun. There are probably smaller collections of Borges out there, so maybe a person on the fence might not want to dive into the whole kaboodle but the thing is you could have ten people assemble a "Best Of" and beyond a few key stories probably get ten different lineups . . . he's that varied and that consistent so there's really no reason if you're interested in this kind of thing to not go whole hog and worst case pick and choose instead of plowing through like I did (probably the smarter idea, as if it gives you more time to let the stories sink in . . . but I have a large backlog so there's no time for dallying). The best of these stories stick with you immediately while the remainder linger in the subconscious, emerging as slightly new ways of seeing, not so much like getting new glasses as realizing you had the right lenses the whole time, it was only the world that needed to be adjusted.
His weird worlds often have, inadvertently, a science fiction flavor, and it is several of his stories that have appeared in science fiction story anthologies that I first learned about this most unusual writer. I was disappointed to see just how scattershot his work was, however, until the publication of this latest and complete translation. They are all here--the stories that introduced me to his work..."The Library of Babel" "Tlon, Uqbar, Orbius Teritus" and others. And many stories I had never heard of...or ever seen more than a mention of. It's a hefty volume, but if you like writers like Umberto Eco, or simply want doses of something other than our mundane banal reality, Borges' work, sadly and idiotically ignored for a Nobel prize, is worth a try. And this volume, the complete and definitive collection of his stories, is the one and only book you need purchase.