Well, I keep doing it to myself. I keep reading universally beloved books and then having to give my useless opinions on them. Do you need me to tell you that Borges is great? Because he is great. Now you know.
There are a lot more short stories here than in Chiang’s Stories of Your Life and Others, so I won’t do a story-by-story breakdown of it. This is the third short story collection I’ve read this year (the other one being H. G. Wells’s Selected Short Stories) and I’m starting to build up a (small, incomplete) picture of the variety the form is capable of. H. G. Wells wrote short, breathless tales of futuristic technological advances and the mysteries stranded from the past in shadowy corners of our own world and time, perfecting a few structures and ideas over many stories. Ted Chiang wrote longer short stories that almost wanted to be novels, exploring knotty ideas and complete worlds. Borges is different again.
Borges sets out his method in the foreword to The Garden of Forking Paths (Fictions is comprised of the two collections, The Garden of Forking Paths and Artifices): “It is a laborious madness and an impoverishing one, the madness of composing vast books–setting out in five hundred pages an idea that can be perfectly related orally in five minutes. The better way to go about it is to pretend that those books already exist, and offer a summary, a commentary on them.”
That’s it. That’s the magic. Like a good trickster, he tells you upfront how he’s going to do his tricks.
At the risk of causing monocles to pop out, Wells used a similar technique in some of his stories. The Time Machine, for instance, uses the method of summarising an “existing” story told to him by someone else, as do a good few others in that collection.
Borges, however, takes this and compresses it into diamond-clarity. His stories are super short, and not a word is out of place or superfluous, but they don’t feel like they’re “bursting at the seams” either. They feel complete.
H. G. Wells uses the conceit of making things feel familiar, too, describing his characters as personal friends, setting stories in existing places with plenty of detail given, as though he’s directing the reader to go there and see for themselves. Borges goes to the extreme with this, too. His co-conspirators in his stories are his actual friends, names that an Argentine reader would recognise. Most of the footnotes in Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius are explaining who these people are. He drops in references to philosophies and philosophers, history, culture, events that may or may not be real, who knows, and I can only assume to that an equally well-read reader, they enhance the stories even further.
As I can read absolutely no Spanish, I had to rely on Hurley’s translation, and therefore can only say that I enjoyed it and found it crisp and readable with no frame of reference. I appreciated the footnotes on places and people that were intended to lift my understanding to roughly the level of a local, contemporary reader. I will say, though, that I find footnotes of short biography hard to take in and keep in. I probably should have taken notes.
And the stories themselves! Like I said, I don’t want to go through each one individually, and I don’t really want to give too much away at all – read them! I can’t summarise them any better than Borges already did (and Hurley translated)! So I’ll give a short, incomplete list of my favourites, and that shall have to be it for this time.
…OK, I just tried and ended up typing out the contents page. Let’s say that the entirety of The Garden of Forking Paths is my favourite. From Artifices, the ones that stood out particularly are The Theme of the Traitor and the Hero and The Secret Miracle. Honestly, though, every story bewitched me completely.
Reading Borges was like finally reading the literature that’s been influencing my own work* all these years. A strange, backwards-but-satisfyingly-complete experience almost like a Borgesian story in itself.
*I know, everyone is inspired by Borges and no one is very good at it. Also I’m an unpublished hack, thus ensuring that you now have a very definite and unflattering image of me. There’s not really anything I can do about it, I just wanted to let you know that I know, and oh well, sometimes these things happen! ¯\_(ツ)_/¯