Ficciones is a classic collection of seventeen short stories by acclaimed Argentine author Jorge Luis Borges, originally published in the 1940s in Spanish, and winner of the 1961 International Publishers Prize. These stories and mock essays are a challenging mixture of philosophy, magical realism, fantasy, ruminations on the nature of life, perception and more. There are layers of meaning and frequent allusions to historic figures, other literary works, and philosophical ideas, not readily discernable at first read. Reading Ficciones, and trying to grasp the concepts in it, was definitely the major mental workout of the year for me. My brain nearly overloaded several times, but reading some critical analyses of these works helped tremendously with my understanding and appreciation of these works … well, at least most of them.
The stories in Ficciones are divided into two parts: The first part, The Garden of Forking Paths (El Jardín de senderos que se bifurcan) was originally published in 1941. The first six stories in Part Two, Artifices, were added in 1944, and the collection was named Ficciones at that time. Borges added the final three stories to Ficciones in the 1956 edition.
Part One: The Garden of Forking Paths
“Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” ― The narrator tells how his search for information about Uqbar, mentioned to him by a friend and found in only one edition of an encyclopedia, leads him to Uqbar’s literature about the imaginary world of Tlön, with its fantastical culture steeped in psychological and philosophical concepts. A brief taste:
The nations of that planet [Tlön] are congenitally idealist. Their language, with its derivatives ― religion, literature, and metaphysics ― presupposes idealism. For them, the world is not a concurrence of objects in space, but a heterogeneous series of independent acts. It is serial and temporal, but not spatial. There are no nouns in the hypothetical Ursprache of Tlön, which is the source of the living language and the dialects; there are impersonal verbs qualified by monosyllabic suffixes or prefixes which have the force of adverbs.
Heady stuff! This twenty page story (the longest in the book) is so abstruse and heavily laden with philosophical ideas and allusions that I found it almost completely impenetrable. It reminded me of trying to read James Joyce’s Ulysses. I was so completely lost that I’ll confess I had to put this book down and retreat to a fluffy romance while I mentally regrouped for another attack on this book. Brain cell verdict: no response. They totally shorted out on this one.
“The Approach to Al-Mu’tasim” ― This allegorical story purports to be a review of the titular novel, about the years-long pilgrimage of a law student in India, who murders a man in a riot and falls among the lowest of society. When he perceives a note of tenderness and clarity in one of these vile men, he concludes that it is the reflection of a perfect man who exists somewhere. The student embarks on a lengthy search for this man, whom he calls Al-Mu’tasim. We have met the divine and it is us. My brain cells concluded that, although some of the allusions are obscure, this tale is far more readily grasped than the first one. There is hope!
“Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote” ― Another story set up as a mock review of one Pierre Menard’s attempt to recreate Don Quixote ― not copy it, but study Cervantes and his world so deeply that he can write Don Quixote exactly as it was originally written. The reviewer lauds Menard’s work, which uses the identical words as Cervantes, as far richer and more profound than the original. It’s satirical in tone, but otherwise I was at a loss as to the theme and meaning of this work. The brain cells were getting restive again.
“The Circular Ruins” ― A stranger makes his way into the circle of ruins of an ancient temple, lies down and begins to dream, with great purpose: he wants to dream a man, to create a son to whom he will be the father, by imagining him in great detail. It succeeded for me as a symbol of the creative process of authors, even though I’m still wading through tricky but entrancing sentences like this:
He understood that modeling the incoherent and vertiginous matter of which dreams are composed was the most difficult task that a man could undertake, even though he should penetrate all the enigmas of a superior and inferior order; much more difficult than weaving a rope out of sand or coining the faceless wind.
It’s still a challenge, but my brain cells are starting to feel a little more hopeful. So we moved on to …
“The Lottery in Babylon” ― In the city of Babylon, a lottery morphs into an game that takes over all aspects of life in Babylon. A lucky drawing might lead you to be elevated to the council of wizards or reunite you with a long-lost love; a losing ticket might land you in jail, or get your tongue burned, or lead to infamy or death. The ubiquitous lottery seems to be a symbol of the capriciousness of chance in life and the story in general seems to be taking an ironic view of the questionable role of deity in human life. My favorite part was the sly reference to Franz Kafka in the form of the “sacred privy called Qaphqa,” where informants can leave accusations for agents of the Company that runs the lottery. The brain cells were quite amused.
“An Examination of the Work of Herbert Quain” ― This is another satirical review piece, purporting to review four (non-existent) works written by a (fictional) author. Borges playfully explores the labyrinth concept in different ways in each of these works. This story, frankly, didn’t leave much of an impression on me.
“The Library of Babel” ― One of Borges’ most famous stories, “The Library of Babel” posits a universe in the form of a library made out of connected hexagonal rooms, each room filled with books and the barest necessities for life. Each book contains 410 pages, with 40 lines of 80 letters each. There are 25 letters and punctuation marks in the alphabet. The Library contains every possible combination of those letters. Most of the books are complete gibberish, of course, but like the Infinite Monkey Theorem says, if you have enough monkeys banging away on typewriters for long enough, eventually they’ll write Hamlet. But life for the people dwelling in this library is profoundly frustrating, even depressing, since only a vanishingly small percentage of the books make any sense at all. Borges explores the ways that people react to this, with several nods to religion and philosophy. Mathematicians have had a field day with this book’s concept, figuring out how many books such a library would contain. Per Wikipedia’s article on this story, there would be far more books in this library (1.956 x 101,834,097) than there are thought to be atoms in the observable universe (1080).
“The Garden of Forking Paths” ― Dr. Yu Tsun, a Chinese professor of English, is living in Great Britain during WWI. Dr. Yu is spying for Imperial Germany for a psychologically complicated reason: he wants to prove to his prejudiced German chief that a person of his race, a “yellow man,” can save the German armies. Yu discovers that an MI5 agent, Richard Madden (an Irishman who also has equivocal feelings about the nation he is serving, due to his nationality) has captured another German spy and is on the verge of finding him. Dr. Yu goes on the run. The plot is thickened by the fact that Dr. Yu has just found out the location of a new British artillery park. How can he pass that information to his German handler before he’s captured? This is the first story in this book that has a substantial plot to go along with the play of ideas; hence, I enjoyed reading it more than the previous tales. The concepts in it are not as mentally challenging, although the labyrinth imagery and philosophical conjectures resurface toward the end. Still, “The Garden of Forking Paths” was straightforward enough that my brain cells didn’t hurt too much trying to wrap themselves around the story.
Part Two: Artifices
“Funes the Memorious” ― Borges, as narrator, meets up with a young Uruguayan boy, Ireneo Funes, who has the ability to tell you exactly what time it is without looking at a clock. When Borges returns to this village three years later, Funes is now crippled from being thrown by a wild horse, but his mind is unimpaired. The narrator realizes that Funes also now has an infallible memory, with perfect recall. But the depth and detail of Funes’ memory makes it impossible for him to grasp general, abstract ideas.
To think is to forget a difference, to generalize, to abstract. In the overly replete world of Funes there were nothing but details, almost contiguous details.
This tale was, again, a little too opaque and short on plot for me to really enjoy. The brain cells were grumbling a little.
“The Form of the Sword” ― In this story, which deals with themes of identity and betrayal, the narrator is passing through a town and asks an “Englishman” whom he meets there (actually an Irishman) about the terrible, crescent-shaped scar across his face. The Irishman tells a story of his involvement in the battle for Irish independence, and his dealings with a disagreeable, cowardly man named John Vincent Moon. There’s a twist to this tale, echoing the Irishman’s portentous comment that “[w]hat one man does is something done, in some measure, by all men.”
“Theme of the Traitor and the Hero” ― A man named Ryan researches the death of his great-grandfather, an Irish nationalist hero named Fergus Kilpatrick, who was assassinated and is now viewed as a martyr to the cause of Irish independence. Something about the manner of Fergus Kilpatrick’s death strikes Ryan as enigmatic, a series of events that are like “circular labyrinths” (that image again!), oddly echoing elements from Macbeth and Julius Caesar, Shakespeare’s classic tragedies of betrayal. In “Theme of the Traitor and the Hero” the conceptual aspects of this tale don’t override the compelling plot, and this was one of the stories I really loved.
“Death and the Compass” ― Erik Lönnrot, a highly intellectual detective, works to solve a strange set of murders by figuring out the pattern underlying them and the clues left by the murderer, referencing the unspeakable Hebrew four-letter name for God. Lönnrot foresees a final murder, but can he prevent it? As Lönnrot explores the house where he has deduced the final murder is to occur, once again we have maze-like imagery:
On the second floor, on the top story, the house seemed to be infinite and growing. The house is not this large, he thought. It is only made larger by the penumbra, the symmetry, the mirrors, the years, my ignorance, the solitude.
This detective story had enough philosophy in it to make it intriguing and give it more depth than a typical mystery, but not overload my brain cells, which are feeling like they’re now on a roll.
“The Secret Miracle” ― A Jewish playwright is arrested by the Nazis and sentenced to die by firing squad. All he wants is the ability to finish up a play he has been working on, his masterpiece. A divine voice tells him that he will be granted the time to do this — even though he is set to die the next day. But God works in mysterious ways, and the playwright is able to weave “a lofty invisible labyrinth in time.”
“Three Versions of Judas” ― In yet another mock literary review, Borges reviews three imaginary works by Nils Runeberg about Judas, the betrayer of Christ. Borges-as-Runeberg recasts the character and nature of Judas in three different, heretical ways, including as a righteous man who knowingly accepted his role as the person who would force Jesus to declare his divinity, and even as another incarnation of God Himself. He challenges our comfortable religious views.
“The End” ― A shopkeeper, who has suffered a paralyzing stroke and is lying on a cot, sees and overhears a confrontation between a Negro man, who has been hanging around the shopkeeper’s store, playing his guitar and waiting, and a man who rides up to meet him. Their conversation makes it clear that the black man has been waiting seven years for this meeting. As mentioned in an editor’s footnote, this brief, bleak story is essentially a coda to a famous Argentine 19th century epic folk poem, “Martin Fierro,” about the life of a violent gaucho. In a famous scene in the poem, Fierro crudely provokes a black man and then kills him in the resulting knife fight. Several years later, in this story, Fierro is an aging man with some regrets for the life he has lived, and whose free and lawless gaucho way of life is passing. Once I really grasped the connection between the poem and this story, it became one of my favorites in this collection.
“The Sect of the Phoenix” ― There is a group of people in all societies and times, tied together by the Secret that they share, which Borges coyly never reveals. Is it sexual intercourse? Or perhaps more particularly, homosexual sex?
In the prologue to Artifices, Borges comments:
In the allegory of the Phoenix I imposed upon myself the problem of hinting at an ordinary fact ― the Secret ― in an irresolute and gradual manner, which, in the end, would prove to be unequivocal; I do not know how fortunate I have been. Of “The South,” which is perhaps my best story, let it suffice for me to suggest that it can be read as a direct narrative of novelistic events, and also in another way.
“The South” ― This is one of my favorite stories in this collection, as well as Borges’. The main character is Juan Dahlmann, a mixture of German and Spanish ancestry, whose life is mundane but who dreams vaguely of a more romantic life, inspired by the Flores side of his heritage and the Flores ranch in the South that he owns but has never visited. One day Dahlmann brushes his forehead against something in a dark stairway and realizes afterwards that he is bleeding. He develops a life-threatening infection and is taken to a sanitarium for treatment. After many excruciatingly painful and feverish days, he recovers, and decides that he will take a trip to his ranch to convalesce. He travels out of the city on a train, feeling as though he is traveling into the past, and has an unexpected confrontation as he nears his final destination. Or does he? You decide, but several clues in the text ― a mysterious cat, a spitball that brushes his face, a dagger tossed to him by an old gaucho ― have led me unequivocally to my own conclusion. The brain cells, by the way, were completely engaged by this tale, which was complex and layered enough to make me think, but didn’t lose me in a labyrinth of difficult-to-grasp ideas.
Repeated labyrinth imagery, scenes of deception, and challenges to our perceptions of what is real echo throughout the stories of Ficciones. These stories are often elusive, twisting out of your grasp or revealing unexpected depths just when you think you’ve got a handle on them. Even the lightest stories have several layers and hidden meanings to unpack. If you’re interested in philosophical ideas and are up for a literary challenge, I highly recommend Ficciones. The 1962 English translation by Anthony Kerrigan and other translators is excellent.
Before being labelled a Philistine for not understanding most of this book, let me just head that off by acknowledging it fully. I consider myself quite well-read in the SF & Fantasy genres, but abjectly ignorant of the vast majority of literary classics and classical philosophies. I never read Shopenhauer or Liebnitz, who are mentioned in several stories, and more fatally I have never read any major religious texts, including the Old and New Testaments, Talmud, or Koran. So really, these stories are largely wasted on me. Sure, it would be nice to rectify this and spend the next few decades becoming versed in the entire canon of 19th and 20th century literature and philosophy, but that just isn’t practical or appealing. Instead I devote my reading time to covering the SFF genre as widely as possible.
In fact, the only reason I decided to finally read Jorge Luis Borges is because of his pervasive influence on fabulists, magic realists, and basically a whole range of writers of the fantastic. His name comes up so frequently it is just hard to ignore. And since his stories in Ficciones are so short, I thought it was about time to at least try them and see how much I could get out of them. I was actually quite excited to notice that Borges likes to mention Gnostics and demi-urges, two ideas that obsessed Philip K Dick, particularly after his bizarre religion experience with a pink beam of pure information from space. I also caught a very direct Borges reference in Gene Wolfe’s BOOK OF THE NEW SUN, which I am revisiting in audiobook now, in the sinister and powerful mirrors of Father Inire of House Absolute, which feature labyrinth patterns and are used to summon beings from across space and time. Clearly Wolfe is a big Borges fan, and I bet he understands his work more than I do.
In the end, of all the stories in the two parts, The Garden of Forked Paths and Artifices, there were only four stories in the first part that I felt engaged me and didn’t leave me completely lost in a labyrinth of dense literary and philosophical references, complex multi-level structural games, and elaborate artifice. Borges is in love with literature and philosophical ideas, but without sufficient background and intellect, I’m afraid most of these stories will leave many readers lost and despairing in the labyrinth of his words.
The stories I did like were “The Circular Ruins,” “The Lottery of Babylon,” “The Garden of Forking Paths,” and “The Library of Babel.” The last story in particular I found so mind-blowing and incredible that it almost made up for the struggles I had with the rest of the collection. It essentially explores the concept of the infinite and the sum and total of human knowledge and how minuscule and futile it is to search for ultimate truth (that was my take on it at least). He uses the metaphor of an infinite series of interconnected hexagonal rooms, each with four bookshelves containing 410-page books with text comprising an infinite combination of 25 total characters. It’s a very sophisticated version of the infinite number of monkeys hammering at typewriters idea, with one monkey eventually likely to compose Shakespeare’s complete works. Borges takes the idea and deconstructs it with such intelligence, wit, and erudition that I was astounded. It is definitely a story that bears rereading. The same goes for the other three stories mentioned above.
However, I can’t say that repeated reads of the others would necessarily be worthwhile. After all, I still won’t be thoroughly versed in classical literature no matter how many times I read them. It’s probably as futile as me trying to hammer at a typewriter, hoping to eventually compose the complete works of Shakespeare in Ancient Greek. This is particularly true for the stories that are essentially parodies of the endlessly recursive and futile exercise of academic endeavor, in which Borges creates completely artificial books and schools of thought, and then delves deep into study of them. It’s a very self-indulgent form of erudition in my opinion, essentially showing off that he is so thoroughly knowledgeable about various schools of study and thought that he can create them from thin air just as an intellectual exercise. He actually spells this out in his introduction, which is perhaps the most accessible part of the book:
The composition of vast books is a laborious and impoverishing extravagance. To go on for five hundred pages developing an idea whose perfect oral exposition is possible in a few minutes! A better course of procedure is to pretend that these books already exist, and then to offer a resume, a commentary… More reasonable, more indolent, I have preferred to write notes upon imaginary book. Such are “Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” “An Examination of the Work of Herbert Quain”, “The Approach to Al-Mu’tasim”.
The bottom line is that Borges is an essential pioneer of magic realism and extremely intellectual stories about ideas and philosophy, but the hurdle of comprehension is extremely high, so you’ve been warned.