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Masks and mirrors
on June 26, 2008
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.