on October 21, 1999
To be finally faced with this monumental work cannot be anything but a joy and privledge to anyone who reveres the work of Jorge Luis Borges. To one whose English contact with his work has been represented by others than Andrew Hurley however, his work can be abruptly disconcerting. Consider and compare one spare example: Read side by side from "The Book Of Sand", the two versions of "The Other", both by Andrew Hurley and that of Norman Thomas Di Giovanni, and you may recall the fable of the blind men describing an elephant; each by feeling a different part of the anatomy. They tell the identical tale, but the resultant effect is completely dipolar. Di Giovanni recreates for us in English, the essential magical realism with which Borges spoke, while retaining the essence and cadence that fill this short tale with it's dreamlike structure. It is carefully and lovingly crafted, with respect and methodic attention to the original Spanish cadre. The hypnotic illusion it creates puts the reader in it's spell fully, from the first sentence. Hurley's version, relies soley upon his perception of how best to explain to the reader, what it is he thinks the author had in mind.. It is as if though he sought to put the lines onto paper as quickly as possible, while recreating a contemporary English version of Borges plan. For the reader new to Borges' majestic presence, there is an unwarranted intrusion into the translation concept, as if the project was rushed to completion. How long and hard Hurley has worked on this enormous procect deserves utmost admiration. How new readers of Borges will interpret what they read is troubling, in comparison to those who have come before him.
on June 11, 2004
I regrettably have to concur with the readers from Portland and Panama - as they indicate this collection is a tragedy, as well as a travesty. Here are a couple of examples from my desert island short story, Tlon Uqbar, Orbius Tertius:
- Andrew Hurley has: "The mirror troubled the far end of a hallway in a large country house..."
- James E. Irby (in the Penguin Modern Classic edition of Labyrinths) has: "The mirror troubled the depths of a corridor in a country house..."
AH: "... A literal (though also laggardly) reprint..."
JEI: "... a literal but delinquent reprint..."
He doesn't seem to have any respect for Borges' style of writing. Really disappointing. And Carlos Fuentes, a notable admirer of Borges, shared this view on reviewing the Hurley edition.
on February 5, 2000
These stories read like they are translated verbatim without any consideration of how enjoyable the end product will be. Hurley's sentences are frigid and mechanical, lacking much of the simplicity and brevity that makes Borges great. Only some of Borges's stories are supposed to read like encyclopedia entries.
Di Giovanni's translations are far more readable. After all, Di Giovanni worked closely with Borges during translation, and Borges himself had a pretty good understanding of the English language.
Having said that, I'm grateful that these stories are finally available in a single volume. But I feel the book would have been much better had Hurley only translated the stories for which a good translation does not already exist.
on September 13, 2000
True, the translation could be better. I found myself re-writing in my head alternative sentences. But that is exactly what Borges would have wanted his readers to do. A dream master, JLB guides us into worlds that guess at other worlds and leads us to our own discoveries. I can't count the times I had to put the book down to allow myself to ponder on what I was reading. Some of his stories border the essay, and that uncertainty makes the plot more believable and profound. Like with any book, recreate it in your mind, and be part of a Borges dream.
To have all of Borges' prose fiction in one volume is such a treat. I was lead to Borges by Umberto Eco and I have enjoyed every moment I have spent enthralled in Borges' short stories. One can certainly see how he has been influenced by Chesterton and Poe and how, in turn, he has influenced Eco and so many other modern day writers who now mix the natural and supernatural in their tales. These fantastic tales of labyrinths, mirrors, parallel dimensions, non-linear time, dreams, imaginary documents and fictional authors, as well as his folk tales of a past Argentina, will simultaneously mesmerize and frustrate readers: mesmerize because the reader will be carried away into the bizarre worlds of Borges' imagination; frustrate because it will leave the reader wishing for more and longer works (it is especially sad for me that Borges never wrote a novel...thankfully Eco translates some of the main ideas within Borges' short stories into his novels).
Some reviewers bemoan Hurley's translation as being less literary than other previous translations, and the language can tend to be somewhat plain. Personally, whatever you may think about any given translation or which style you may prefer, what we do know about Borges is that he would have approved of multiple translations - the more the merrier - and he would have relished the places where his stories differed between translations and laughed at the arguments the differences have caused. After all, could anything be more Borgesian? He translated several great works into Spanish and was noted for the subtle changes he sometimes consciously introduced.
While all of Borges is definitely not for everyone, everyone should at least read a few of his stories. Some good starters would be "The Garden of Forking Paths", "Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius", "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote", "The Circular Ruins", The Library of Babel" and "The Duel". These tales will give you a great cross section of his works and they will blow your mind at the same time.
Trying to full describe the writings of Jorge Luis Borges is like trying to explain exactly why Leonardo da Vinci's art still captivates. The man wrote works of art.
And this classic writer's brilliant, surreally exquisite works are on best display in "Borges: Collected Fictions," whose plain name belies the subtle power and exquisite beauty of Jorges' short stories. His intricate and atmospheric narratives are magical, rich in language, and lets us glimpse the minds of anything and anyone he can conjure up.
Interestingly, the first of these "Fictions" is a series of fictionalized stories about real people -- veiled prophets, Chinese pirates, silver-tongued outlaws, Swedenborg, a Japanese courtier and a legendary American outlaw. Only Borges' vivid writing gives these stories a larger-than-life quality, as if he had spun them out of his imagination.
But the completely fictional stories he created don't take long to appear. Among them are more gritty narratives -- a pair of brothers torn by their mutual love for a woman, a girl coldly calculating her revenge, a labyrinthine story of espionage during World War II, and a woman whose obsession with her dead, dashing husband leads her down into madness.
But these are far outweighed by Borges' magical realism, which soaks the book from start to finish -- encounters with past and future selves, brilliant books and authors that never existed, the mystical Aleph and Zahir which show everything and nothing, a hunt for blue tigers that leads to strangely fascinating stones, an alchemist's rose, a poet telling a king of pure beauty and wonder, and receiving the hazy memories of Shakespeare.
And then some of his stories cross the border into pure wonder and fantasy. Borges explores the concept of the Eternal Library that catalogues reality, masks, Minotaurs, a man who tries to dream a new being into existence, a search for a city of ancient immortals, and the exploration of ancient heresies, cities, endless books and cults that never existed at all, except in the confines of Borges' mind.
If this collection has any flaw at all, it's that Borges isn't at his best when he tells gritty realistic stories, about knifings, mobs and barroom murders. While these stories are powerful, they feel vaguely restrained, as if he's holding back his writing skill from its fullest.
The rest of the time, Borges' writing is exquisitely detailed and atmospheric, and densely packed with philosophical pockets. And these stories are magical realism in the purest sense, with a slight, almost mystical twist to the everyday events that we take for granted. Being mistaken for someone else, being sold a book, and visiting a relative all take on deep significance.
And Borges wraps these stories in lush, digified prose that takes a little while to wade through, but the richness of the words he uses is worth it ("A landscape dazzlingly underlain with gold and silver, a windblown, dizzying landscape of monumental mesas and delicate colouration..."). He's even able to alter his style drastically -- one story has the flavor of an Irish legend, while another is a Lovecraftian sci-fi horror story about aliens in a farmhouse. And his writing takes on many different people's selves -- he even makes readers squirm by taking us into the mind of a loyal Nazi.
It's almost like another world, Borgeworld, which is almost like ours, but where magical items are hidden in the cellars, houses are built by angels, the Minotaur plays in his maze, and God dreams of mortal lives. The most entrancing foray into Borgeworld is "The Immortal," about a Roman soldier who goes searching for a city of immortals, and finds an ancient poet who seems very familiar.
"Borges: Collected Fictions" is a very dull name for the collected works of a literary genius, full of shadows, mirrors, masks and the expanses of the human mind. Definitely a must-have.
on March 18, 2003
Let us drink to another world!
Borges is often considered to be merely a writer. He is a writer, of course, but... he is at least as much of a philosopher - he plays with abstract ideas and concepts, creates possible, if not probable alternative realities and uses two unrelated ideas to create a third. And that is where he comes in as a writer - he doesn't leave the ideas to exist as abstract concepts, he brings them to reality (or, more accurately, he brings reality to them). Borges creates surreal worlds we cannot avoid living in; he breaks down all the barriers between the real and the unreal.
Being a postmodernist, he widely uses allusions, but mostly twists or turns around the original idea. His truly brilliant mysticism can be explained by his outstanding knowledge of religious and historical texts (many of which he has made up himself, of course; but does that make them less legitimate, really?). If one were to try to write a complete analysis of a story of his (which is, naturally, impossible; who would dare try to rewrite the history of Man?), it would mean going back to symbols and allegories Borges himself didn't know he was writing about, because an infinite amount of interpretations exist, and archetypes cannot be analysed at all...
Borges invented his own glass bead game, one that has no rules except to try and merge every kind of consciousness and subconsciousness one has - or more. If possible.
on October 16, 2001
What a treasure this book is! The Argentinian Jorge Luis Borges's fictional works are the ultimate celebration of the power of the imagination, each story a unique, glittering gem worthy of careful and repeated inspection. Combining abstract concepts with familiar elements of the real world, Borges works in a genre that could be called philosophical fantasy -- an exploration of the myriad ways of interpreting and portraying reality and unreality.
I have encountered no writer more eclectic than Borges; there is no place on earth and no time in history in which he is uninterested or unwilling to take inspiration. He writes about sorcerors, pirates, impostors, hoodlums, samurai, detectives, troglodytes, gauchos, kings, primitive tribes, artifacts, fantastic libraries, imaginary worlds, imaginary books, lost civilizations, and alternate realities with astonishingly equal aplomb. Much of the writing is immersed in cultural mysticism (the Kabbalah), traditional religions (the Koran, the Talmud, the Bible), mythology (Greek, Arabian, Oriental), philosophy (particularly Schopenhauer), world history, and lore of Borges's own invention. Motifs of knives, mirrors, and especially labyrinths -- both physical and metaphysical -- recur throughout many of the stories.
The titles alone invoke immediate intrigue: "The Garden of Forking Paths," "The Library of Babel," "The Cult of the Phoenix," "The Immortal," "The Sect of the Thirty," "The Mirror and the Mask," "Toenails," et cetera. Borges takes the typical detective story and elevates it to lofty levels of erudition -- one can see how he influenced Umberto Eco. "Death and the Compass" is a mystery with a geometrical solution, "Ibn-Hakam al-Bokhari, Murdered in His Labyrinth" embellishes its clever plot by merging two disparate cultures, while the eerie "There Are More Things" takes its inspiration from H.P. Lovecraft. Some stories, like "The House of Asterion" and "Everything and Nothing," are like riddles, while others are rich romantic tales of the tough barrios of Buenos Aires.
This collection is a marvel -- perfect for engaging your intellect and purging yourself of the mundane.
on October 10, 2001
I was grateful when a friend gave me this book, which contains the collected short stories of Borges. No longer did I have to sort through my various paperbacks to find a story I wished to reread. The convenience of having this material in one volume is a compelling reason to own this text.
Borges familiar themes of life, death, labyrinths, religion and mythology, mirrors, knife fights, South American revolutionary events and characters, libraries and art, epiphanies versus ignorance wind their way throughout these stories. Often you will begin in media res, which is well enough, but Borges will just as often end a story without resolving matters. His tribute to H.P. Lovecraft, "There Are Many Things," leaves you wondering, for example.
Borges uses detail precisely, not excessively, and if, to borrow from Ezra Pound's comment on what makes for good poetry, the pace of these works is sometimes slow their density is undisputed. (If you want details, lots of details, then try Cormac McCarthy's novels. At times, they are exhausting to read-like running through knee-deep water.)
I find that reading two or three stories at a time (excepting, of course, the extremely brief sketches) suffices, for you need time to linger, to ponder, and, if time allows, to reread passages, if not entire stories.
The excellent footnotes Andrew Hurley provides are, to me, another reason to own this work. This body of contextual, historical, and biographical information was elucidating, even fun, to read. (I used two bookmarks, one for the stories, one for the footnotes.)
Many reviewers quibble with the translation, and I leave that debate to those with much more knowledge about the merits of original Spanish version of these stories than I possess. I do, however, still wonder how the Nobel committees that snubbed Borges were able to rationalize their oversight.
on June 14, 2001
ÒEvery author creates his own pedigreeÓ says Borges, and it would not be entirely unfair to say that Borges had spent the better part of his life in establishing this pedigree. I think, I have read every single line Borges ever had put to print. Some time in my mid-twenties I got hooked when I read for the first time a tale entitled ÒThe ZahirÓ and I didnÕt let go ever after. To my mind especially this story gives the whole Borges in a nutshell. It defies a straightforward explanation and suggests a facetted reflection of different perspectives, but packaged in a deceptively lucid and straightforward narrative. What are those objects which dispense such mysterious power to possess our imagination from the moment we catch sight of them? IsnÕt it actually just one object that reincarnates through the centuries in all kinds of shapes? Or could it be just a figment of paranoia in a mentally troubled mind with no actual referent in the real world? Nabokov in one of his (ma!ny) grumpier moments complained about Borges art as being Òall porch and no house behind.Ó Nabokov has a point. But letÕs be honest. Instead of churning out a so-so novel and make the reader waste days and weeks over it, it is so much snappier and more interesting to write a mouth-watering review on ÒThe Approach to Al-MuÕtasim.Ó Yes, I confess. I fell for it, and searched the central catalogue of the British Library for this book, and of course I didnÕt find it. BorgesÕs fictional review was a hoax, but it spurned a new direction in his own production. In a sense all of Borges short stories are sketches for much larger novels, and yet manage to say it all in fewer words. The trick is to leave a characterÕs psychology utterly to the readerÕs intuition and be strictly matter of fact and without frills. Only recently, when I looked into the old Icelandic sagas it occurred to me how much BorgesÕ craft actually owes to the Norse storytellers, a fact Borges himself had never hidden!, but one has to see it with oneÕs own eyes to appreciate the similarities. The Norse sagas appear to be all surface. As an advance on his inheritance, a son steals a few implements from his fatherÕs cottage, moves away and starts an enterprise of his own, he succeeds beyond expectation, branches out, takes in an apprentice, promotes him as his steward, but disappoints the fellow, because he doesnÕt offer him a full partnership. Tension develops, the steward decides ... we get the picture. Borges initially looked to Kafka as his most important influence, but then he discovered for himself the potential of the saga style and found ways to load the text with a world of allusions and suggestions underneath of a deceptively straightforward surface. I guess Borges is the opposite extreme to Marcel Proust, and the difference between the two represents a fundamental polarity in the narrative universe. A polarity which had always been there, we can follow it back to the Norse sagas !and their Japanese counterpart, MurasakiÕs ÒPrince Genji,Ó or to ApuleiusÕ ribald tale and the sometimes tantalizing glimpses on the rich and minute structure of omniscient realism suggested by the extant fragments of PetronÕs ÒSatyricon.Ó It is not so much a difference in subtlety, but more of the narratorÕs temperament. You either seek completeness and offer life to be swallowed whole, or you prefer to be selective with your effects and to create a mirror cabinet of perspectives as the actual object of your narrative. Both is a legitimate way of storytelling, the difference lays in the narratorÕs concept of truth, whether the accent is put on omniscient totality, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, and to the full extent of the artistÕs capacity to cope and let things permeate his temperament, or whether a more opaque, a more sceptical mentality is making choices and opens room to consider plausible alternatives and surprising spectres in a slimmer but more suggesti!ve texture. The former appeals more to the readers whole spectrum of sensuality, the latter highlights sensual events for the intellect. It is a bit like lovemaking - some people are quite happy just to rub the partnerÕs skin and take it all in, hair smell and smile; others need to get their fantasy going, for them, sex is primarily an event in their imagination, even during the act. In this sense, James Joyce could never make up his mind which way he wanted to go, but apparently you canÕt have it both ways. And since it affects the artistÕs entire personality this is more than a matter of capriciously deciding how to tell my next tale. It is one of the crossroads in life one has to take, and no possibility to retract your steps. Borges of course had not much of a choice. No matter how much talent one has, impaired eyesight and eventual blindness dictate the direction. Degas in his old age turned to sculpture - what else could he do? In Borges case, the handicap has as much !to do with his artistic choices, as has his private discovery of the Icelandic Sagas. Every sensual moment becomes precious and treasured in ways that could never occur to a Tolstoy or Proust. As a reader I am not sure whether I want to choose between these people. I like them all. At least thatÕs what I tell myself. But my clock knows better. I simply spend more time with the likes of Borges, who demand so little of my time, than the much more expansive ladies and gentlemen with their 3 decker tomes. Tolstoy feeds to my appetites but over Borges I can dream.