The BOOKPRESS April 1999

The Writer In His Labyrinth

Andrew Weiner

Collected Fictions.
Jorge Luis Borges.
Translated by Andrew Hurley.
Viking, 1998.
565 pages, $40.00 cloth.

The history of Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges in English is shorter than one might think, given the amount of attention he commands in current academic discourse. His first story in translation appeared in 1948 in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. Other stories appeared in journals and reviews throughout the next decade, but it was not until the 1960s that he began to enjoy widespread attention in America. 1961 saw him share the International Publishers’ Prize with Samuel Beckett; in that year he also accepted a teaching post at the University of Texas. In 1962 the first major English translations appeared under the titles Labyrinths and Ficciones. Borges’s work was rapidly and enthusiastically received in American literary circles, as John Updike, John Ashbery and John Barth all contributed favorable reviews in the next five years.

Anyone who doubts Borges’s impact on modern fiction need do no more than compare Nabokov’s Pale Fire with "The Approach to Al-Mu’tasim" or Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum with "Death and the Compass." Neither do the meta-fictional experiments of Barth, Italo Calvino, or Julio Cortázar manage to escape this influence. And the explosion of literary-minded science fiction in the 1960s—Samuel R. Delany, Philip K. Dick, Stanislaw Lem—can at least in part be traced to Borges’s distinctive fusion of genres.

But the appeal of the ficciones was not confined solely to high culture. Devotees of detective novels and fantasy were equally quick to pick up on this new talent. Judith Merril, editor of the series The Year’s Best S-F, included "The Circular Ruins" in the 1966 edition. She commends his work to s-f fans and wonders how different the field would be had Borges been translated earlier. This two-fold reception is fitting, for it reflects the broad appeal of his writing and the scope of his interests. A review of Borges’s early career is similary telling: he devoted himself to the literary journals Prisma and Sur, but also reviewed detective stories and co-edited Antología de la Literatura Fantástica.

A Universal History of Iniquity, Borges’s first foray into what he called "narrative prose," feeds off this interest in the overlap between the criminal and the intellectual, often exploiting the tension to hilarious effect. The History, which Viking reprints in its entirety, introduces the reader to various evil-doers: "The Widow Ching—Pirate" and "Hakim, the Masked Dyer of Merv." Perhaps the most memorable is "The Improbable Impostor Tom Castro," who earns his fame with the following tactic:

[He] knew that a perfect facsimile of the beloved Roger Charles Tichborne was impossible to find; he knew as well that any similarities he might achieve would only underscore certain inevitable differences. He therefore gave up the notion of likeness altogether. He sensed that the vast ineptitude of his pretense would be a convincing proof that this was no fraud...

Castro’s unlikely ploy succeeds until circumstance intervenes. Exposed, convicted, but relentlessly eager to please, he travels the countryside giving lectures on his guilt—or innocence, depending on the desire of the audience. Much of the later Borges crops up in this short tale: the double, a distorted reproduction, the play between history and contingency, and the suggestion that what passes as truth is more often a response to cognitive dissonance. Similarly characteristic is the interweaving of history, legend, and outright invention—the endnote contains a purposeful misattribution, and Borges embellished or altered certain facts to suit his purposes.

The subsequent volumes Ficciones and El Aleph would further develop the heady mixture of philosophy, philology and fantasy to which the adjective "Borgesian" is now applied. Certain motifs have become so common that the innovation behind them is not always apparent: the mirror, the cursed book, the obsessive scholar of arcane or phony manuscripts, and, of course, the ubiquitous labyrinth.

Borges did not necessarily invent these tropes; in interviews he freely admits a link to the literature of the fantastic as practiced by Chesterton, Stevenson, Poe and Wells. But what he borrowed he re-invented, overhauling obvious plots and tired metaphors with a bold infusion of intellectual content, all without sacrificing the primary goals of the genre. The philosophers of the planet Tlön speak to this theme:

The metaphysicians of Tlön seek not truth, or even plausibility—they seek to amaze, astound. In their view, metaphysics is a branch of the literature of fantasy.

"Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" is as good a place as any to view the explosive proliferation to which Borges’ imagination gives rise. The narrator, as is often the case, speaks as Borges. He recounts how his friend Adolfo Bioy Casares—a real-life colleague—suddenly recalled the words of an Uqbari heresiarch when he and Borges came across a "monstrous" mirror late one night. The source of the saying: The Anglo-American Cyclopedia, a dubious reproduction of the Encyclopedia Britannica.

Yet no Cyclopedia contains the Uqbar article save Bioy’s, which has four extra pages. Determined to have the truth, they are led to Silas Haslam, expert in the history of Uqbar and labyrinths, and German Gnostic theologian Johannes Valentinus Andreä, authority on the secret society of the Rosy Cross. Uqbari literature, they are to learn, refers never to reality but to the imaginary realms of Mle’khnas and Tlön.

A chain of unlikely contingencies brings the narrator a single volume of the encyclopedia of Tlön—"a vast and systematic fragment of the entire history of an unknown planet." Its mismatched contents are listed offhandedly: "its architectures and its playing cards... its emperors and its seas... its algebra and its fire." Tlön, as it turns out, is an unusual destination. Its language and metaphysics are founded on an unswerving idealism; an object can not be conceived, nor can space. There are no nouns, and Borges archly explains how this leads Tlönians to say things like "Upward, behind the onstreaming it mooned." That’s South Tlön. In the northern hemisphere terms are formed from monosyllabic adjectives in a potentially infinite series; poems are often a single massive word.

Suffice it to say that the intrepid reader hears plenty more about Tlön: its peculiar geometry and metaphysics, the heresy of materialism, the practice of inventing authors, and the strange property of objects by which they spontaneously duplicate themselves and become more realistic. Tangents extend to thinkers as diverse as Berkeley, Hume, Spinoza and Russell, and surely the specter of Wittgenstein lurks over any attempt to invent a language. The postscript deflects the narrative yet again, this time towards the doings of the shadowy brotherhood known as Orbis Tertius.

Here, as elsewhere, Borges patterns his work on a convention equally familiar to philosophy and science fiction: the thought-experiment. Subject a hypothetical premise, no matter how farfetched, to logical analysis and record the results. Never is the product so bizarre that it bears no resemblance to the everyday world. Often, Borges’ worlds are tangent except for one telling detail: the men who can’t remember if they committed suicide, or the boy who replaces the numbers 7013 and 365 with the phrases "Máximo Pérez" and "a ponchoful of meat."

* * *

Collected Fictions is the first of a projected four volumes to be released by Viking and to be authorized by the estate of Borges. The occasion: the centennial of his birth. The objective: to produce an English corollary to the Obras Completas (1989). A volume of poetry will follow, succeeded by a collection of essays and a new biography.

No one would dispute that the project comes at the right time: past readers of Borges have been frustrated by the varying contents and quality of available translations. Moreover, as millenial cravings for order spawn increasing numbers of "Century’s Best" lists, there is hope that a more centralized and accessible Borges will both foster new interest and help to cement his place in the literary history of this century.

Necessary though the project may be, its ambition might perhaps be deemed inappropriate to its subject. In his essay "Versions of Homer" (1932), Borges bristles at the idea of a single, authoritative translation: "The concept of ‘definitive text’ is appealed to only by religion, or by weariness." Literature is made possible by the polysemous nature of language; it is this same quality that actively undermines the "definitive text" or the perfect translation. All that any one "version" of a text can hope to be is an accurate representation of the translator’s feel for the original. The only way in which we can conceive an ultimate meaning of this original is by hypothesizing the sum of an infinite number of translations.

Borges actively encouraged this approach to his work by granting permission to many translators — some seventeen by Andrew Hurley’s count. But this of course begs the question of whether the Viking project is in fact overstepping its bounds with its implicit claim to be the authoritative English Borges. Just because an infinite number of translations is impossible, that doesn’t justify the opposite extreme. Wouldn’t a collection of various translators’ efforts do more justice to the multivocal character of Borges’s ficciones?

A second objection is occasioned by the five-year collaboration between Borges and Norman Thomas di Giovanni. Together the two produced ten English translations, including A Universal History of Iniquity and The Book of Sand, and worked so closely that di Giovanni at times persuaded Borges to alter the Spanish original. But a falling-out pre-empted any further cooperation, and unfortunately served to estrange di Giovanni from the centenary project. It is odd, troubling even, that no contributions were sought from a source with a first-hand knowledge of Borges’s views on translation and revision.

Though these and other questions cast doubt upon the Viking enterprise, they should not detract from the merits of Hurley’s accomplishment. It is often said of translations, usually as faint praise, that they are "capable;" here, given the exceptional difficulty of the task, the term rightly assumes a more honorable quality. Hurley uses his brief note at the end of the volume to assess the pitfalls peculiar to rendering Borges, including the issue of what he calls "back-translation:" whether to re-translate excerpts from English sources from the Spanish or to present them in original form.

Another challenge is to capture the allusive quality of Borges’s language as it deftly ranges between deadpan humor, abstract musing, philological trivia and unexpected poeticism. Hurley cites as an example the opening line from "The Circular Ruins:" Nadie lo vio desembarcar en la unánime noche. He offers: "No one saw him slip from the boat in the unanimous night." Hurley, unlike certain of his predecessors, does not shy from the startling "unanimous," which as he notes is "just as odd in Spanish." But why replace "disembark" with the cumbersome "slip from the boat?"

A similar interpolation occurs in "The Book of Sands," where the phrase no sin pedantería—literally "not without pedantry"—unnecessarily swells to "not without a somewhat stiff, pedantic note." Perhaps the most unfortunate decision is in the story "Funes el memorioso." Hurley devotes a lengthy explanation to a defense of his choosing "Funes, His Memory" over "Funes, The Memorious." His complaints that memorious is a neologism and "vaguely Lewis Carroll-esque" are misplaced in a volume of stories that tinker with language and celebrate the fantastic.

Such discrepancies indicate a larger trend in Hurley’s translation: the tendency to be prolix. This is both a boon and a nuisance for the reader. Borges frequently indulges a taste for the baroque—a style that, he wrote, "deliberately exhausts its own possibilities and that borders on self-caricature." In that mode, Hurley’s elliptical phrasings are accurate and indeed evocative: an inept con-artist’s "muddle-headed joviality" and "infinite docility,"or a detective-turned-kabbalist who displays a "reckless perspicacity."

But the strength of Borges’s prose style lies equally in the ability to rapidly shift from comical exaggeration to sparse precision, and it is in capturing such transitions that Hurley falters, if only slightly. When the Spanish vil translates as "despicable," a certain necessary economy has been lost. Why not "mean" or "base" or "vile"? If such instances are particularly jarring, however, it is only because the bulk of the translation successfully reproduces the playful, often vertiginous sweep of the ficciones.

Were rigor and humor the only saving qualities of the ficciones though, they would stand little chance of overcoming their own cleverness. Instead, they burrow and lodge themselves deep within the reader’s imagination like fables or nightmares. This is partly due to the sheer strangeness of Borges’ inventions. The abundance of arcane philological and historical detail lends a patina of mystique to the stories, as if they had subtly become the hidden manuscripts or secret encyclopedias they describe.

Yet if these qualities begin to explain the allure of Borges, they do not quite account for his unique staying power. What is it about his writing that keeps the reader coming back? Perhaps it is his re-imagination of the literary artifact as a labyrinth. Throughout the ficciones the themes of infinity, memory, and time are worked and reworked in such a way as to suggest that the only proper response to paradox is obsession.

Borges once said of himself: "If I am rich in anything, it is in perplexities rather than certainties." The same can be said of his work, only without qualification. He was the closest anyone has come to a twentieth-century heresiarch: at once maddening and lucid, unsurpassed in his ability to bewilder and to compel.

Andrew Weiner is a writer and former bike messenger living in Cambridge, MA.

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